The secret ingredient you should be adding to your Philly cheesesteak

On any list of America's most iconic sandwiches, as well as its best regional specialties, you better bet that the Philly cheesesteak would be right at the top. Thin-sliced beef, sauteed onions, and gooey melted cheese on a thick, hearty bread roll... what's not to love?

If you haven't been to Philadelphia, you may have had various ersatz cheesesteaks at fast-food restaurants like Subway or even Arby's, but these knockoffs are nothing like the real deal. For an authentic taste of Philly cheesesteak goodness, you're better off trying to recreate the classic recipe at home. In addition to rolls, cheese, onions, and steak, there is one secret ingredient that's sprinkled on both the meat and the bread that can really take the taste over the top: garlic. 

While garlic may not have been used in the very first cheesesteaks, it has long been used in Italian cooking, and the cheesesteak is definitely a product of Philly's Italian-American community. It owes its origins, after all, to three guys named Pat Olivieri, Joe Lorenza, and Joey Vento (via Fox News).

Using the secret ingredient in your homemade Philly cheesesteak

Chris Pinto of the Tiki Lounge Talk blog is a Philly native and a true cheesesteak connoisseur. According to his calculations, he's eaten over 1600 cheesesteaks in his life — and this is as of 2009, so no telling how many he's eaten since then. At any rate, he put his cheesesteak expertise to good use perfecting a DIY home version for those of us not blessed with easy access to real deal cheesesteaks from Geno's or Pat's.

Chris prefers to start off his cheesesteak by sauteing or grilling sweet onions with a little salt and pepper, then tossing in some chopped green pepper. For the bread base, he uses an Italian loaf, split, buttered and grilled or broiled till toasty brown. 

Sliced roast beef gets sprinkled with just a bit of garlic powder to add some extra flavor (go easy, though, as you don't want the garlic to overwhelm), then fried up in the pan with the onions before being covered with sliced provolone or mozzarella. Once that has melted, the whole marvelous mess of onions, peppers, meat, and cheese is scooped onto the bread and (one imagines) barely makes it onto a plate before quickly disappearing.

Garlic goes good on the cheesesteak rolls, too

Chris Pinto not only likes to season the beef he uses for his cheesesteaks with garlic powder, but he'll also use garlic powder or sometimes even fresh garlic to dress up the butter he uses on the sandwich bread. A Philly restaurant called Jake's Sandwich board upped the ante with a creation they called the "Garlic Bomb" — a cheesesteak served on a roll covered with garlic spread, topped with sauteed garlic, and then finished off with battered, deep-fried whole cloves of garlic. This was named as one of America's best new sandwiches for 2012 by the EndlessSimmer food blog.

Even celebrity chefs approve of the garlicky cheesesteak trend. Rachael Ray created a recipe for a Philly Cheesesteak-Stuffed Garlic Bread, while Bobby Flay's Mini Open Faced Steak Sandwiches on Garlic Bread with Aged Provolone and Parsley Oil are a fancy, appetizer-sized, garlicked-up version of Philly's favorite sandwich.

Philly-approved cheese steak variants and condiments

While there are some — ok, many — who claim that a "real" Philly cheesesteak needs Cheez Whiz, and even recipes (via Mr. Food) claiming it as the "secret" ingredient your cheesesteak needs (though what could possibly be secret about something so neon orange?), Cheez Whiz wasn't exactly an original part of the cheesesteak recipe. The Philadelphia Inquirer reports that the Whiz was introduced at Pat's in the mid-1950s. Other establishments soon followed suit and, well... many decades years later, there are many who love it and others who don't. Still, most cheesesteak establishments do offer it as one of their standard cheese choices, along with American and provolone.

While mushrooms aren't really a part of the classic Philly cheesesteak, both Pat's and Geno's offer both mushroom and mushroom/pepper cheesesteaks. Pat's also offers a tomato sauce-topped "pizza steak," while Geno's has a "Steak Milano" with fried tomatoes and oregano.

According to Original Philly Cheesesteak Co., ketchup is Philadelphia's condiment of choice, while the rest of the country prefers mayo. Lettuce and tomato are acceptable, hot cherry peppers are a good bet, but mustard's a big no-no: supposedly a Philly priest once chucked a guy out of the confessional for admitting he liked mustard on his cheesesteaks. Unless you want to spend eternity in a Very Bad Place, just say no to the yellow.