In central Connecticut, some cheeseburger lovers forgo the grill in favor of a steamer. The result is the cheeseburg, or steamed cheeseburger.
A typical burger is browned in a pan or on a grill, giving it a distinctive charred taste thanks to the Maillard reaction—a chemical process that creates complex flavors. The steamed cheeseburger lacks the burger’s quintessential grill taste, but it makes up for it with extreme juiciness.
The epicenter of the steamed cheeseburger is Meriden, Connecticut. The recipe has been traced back to the 19oos when it was simply steamed cheese on a roll served from a horse-drawn food cart. When a beef patty was added later, the steamed cheeseburger was born. It’s still a local specialty.
Steaming a burger requires a special process. Cooks pack ground beef into rectangular metal molds, which are suspended in custom stainless steel boxes that can cook dozens of burgers at a time. The bottom of the steamer contains water that heats up and cooks the meat in boiling vapor in about 10 minutes. It’s a delicate balance—burger patties steamed too long become rubbery and dry, especially since a lot of grease is lost in the cooking process.
Meanwhile, chunks of cheddar cheese steam in separate containers until they become molten. Once the burgers are done, cooks slide the soft, grayish patties onto rolls and pour the cheese into a gooey mass on top, along with a pile of lettuce, tomato, and condiments. The meat becomes infused with water from the steamer, leading to one juicy burger.
Divorcing the burger from the grill may seem profane. But the steamed cheeseburger is a legacy of a more fluid burger culture. A bit of burger history: According to the Library of Congress, the birth of the hamburger took place in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1895. Like many new inventions, burgers went through several permutations before arriving at the current grilled and bun-clad form. The steamed cheeseburg is one of several variations that survived from an era when the idea of a hamburger wasn’t fully standardized. Others include the vertically grilled burger on toast, the butter burger, and the deep-fried hamburger.
Still, steaming a burger today is contentious. Proponents say the lack of grease and carcinogenic char makes for a healthier patty. Detractors call steamed burgers watery and flavorless. Despite the critics, the cheeseburg draws adventurous eaters to Meriden. For a food as ubiquitous as the burger, many people find that experiencing a subtle variation is worth a trip.