About 20 minutes west of Detroit lies Miller’s, a nondescript bar on a nondescript section of busy Michigan Avenue. Miller’s would certainly be considered a dive bar if it weren’t for the fact that people from far and wide drive to this 77-year-old establishment for the burgers, turning what would otherwise be a sleepy dive into a jam-packed burger mecca during mealtimes.
Miller’s has no menus, no plates or silverware (burgers are served on wax papers) and no bills – everything is on the honor system, and when your meal is over, you go up to the bar, tell the bartender what you ate and he tallies up the total for you. It’s got the kind of charm only hole-in-the-walls can have.
Growing up, my father and I used to drive 45 minutes for burgers. There were plenty of others who drove farther. The burgers were impossibly juicy, perfectly seasoned and cooked, and had the gooiest layer of molten cheese I had ever encountered.
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One day, while paying the bill, my dad asked the manager, “What makes your burgers so good?”
“Well, there are two things,” he replied. “First, we haven’t cleaned our grill since we opened in 1940s…second, Velveeta cheese.”
For some reason, even as a kid, not cleaning the grill for (at the time) 50-something years didn’t upset me; grills get hot enough to kill any bacteria, and the grill is scraped nightly. There’s something respectable about letting decades of flavor stick to the grill. But the thought that I was eating Velveeta – the neon yellow-orange ooze I squirted from a silver package onto that yellow box of mac and cheese – was disturbing, even then.
As the years have gone on, and I have focused more on the quality and source of my food – along with much of America – my ambivalence towards Velveeta has grown. But I will say, with no shadow of a doubt, that if you want the best burger, use Velveeta cheese, which, no, isn’t technically even real cheese. So to understand why it makes the best burger, let’s first take a look at what exactly it is.
Velveeta first came to be when Monroe Cheese Company was looking for a solution to the problem that many of the wheels of Swiss cheese it was making came out broken or misshapen. The solution, the company found, was in adding byproducts like whey back into the cheese. The happy accident resulted in a cheese-like food that, when melted, had a “velvety texture” – hence the name Velveeta.
Back then, Velveeta was made with real cheese scraps from discarded Swiss. But Kraft bought Velveeta in 1927 and tinkered with the recipe, not to mention recommended using it for dishes like peanut butter and pickle sandwiches as well as chocolate fudge. And before long, to avoid internal competition between its now-famous American cheese and Velveeta, the company began marketing Velveeta as more of a dip or sauce, which is probably why most people would never think to put it on their burgers.
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Back in the ‘50s, Kraft marketed Velveeta as a healthier alternative to cheese, thanks to the addition of whey, and the American Medical Association fell right in line, recommending it for “firm flesh.” (And if you weren’t already skeptical of the AMA, this should get you there).
Here’s the thing: at the time, Velveeta and other processed cheeses were pretty much competing against low-quality cheddar. We’ve thankfully reached a time where we’re not only importing old-world artisanal cheeses from Europe, but making some excellent cheeses right here stateside (cheddar included). “Processed” is now synonymous with “bad.” But for years this wasn’t the case; we were more concerned with convenience than we were with quality, and processed cheese is nothing if not convenient.
As far as the FDA is concerned, Velveeta is a “pasteurized prepared cheese product.” While most cheese is basically just milk, rennet and often salt, Velveeta is mostly made up of milk, water, whey and a bunch of chemicals and emulsifiers you’ve probably never heard of (sodium alginate or apocarotenal, anyone?)
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The emulsifiers are used in processed cheeses like Kraft and Velveeta in the name of convenience – they give the products a far longer shelf life than actual, you know, cheese. But they also do something else that’s far more important where we’re concerned: they help cheese melt. And in the case of Velveeta, that melt more closely resembles the lava from a cheese volcano than it does heated cheddar.
Go to a burger joint these days and the list of cheeses is astounding; cheddar, gruyere and blue are just the tip of the iceberg. Yes, they’re all better quality than Velveeta (or any other standard “American” cheese for that matter), and yes, they add more flavor as well. But the thing is that when it comes to burgers, flavor isn’t what you’re looking for from your cheese.
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Good quality, properly salted beef should have plenty of flavor on its own, and any additional toppings you might want to put on will add to that flavor (though I’d keep it simple – the more toppings you add, the less your burger will taste like a burger).
There’s a reason everyone from Umami Burger to Shake Shack puts American on their burgers. Even legendary New York steakhouse Peter Luger only offers one cheese on its beloved burger: American; and it ain’t to keep costs low. It’s because what you really want from cheese is not flavor, but texture, and no cheese melts better than American – except, that is, for the fakest of American cheeses: Velveeta.