The Truth About Steamed Cheeseburgers

Steaming is a cooking method that has been around for centuries, and still used abundantly today in many countries and cuisines, according to Reluctant Gourmet. Ingredients are suspended over or near boiling water with tools like bamboo steamer baskets, which allow billowing clouds of hot steam to cook and tenderize the food. When you hear steam-cooked, your first thought might be vegetables, but steaming is used to prepare every kind of food including dumplings, fish, potatoes, bread, puddings, and meats. And yet, when many people first hear about a steamed cheeseburger, they simply cannot wrap their heads around the idea.

In one Reddit thread about steamed cheeseburgers there are a range of opinions, with one user saying they're "pretty delicious" and others calling the burgers overrated, flavorless, and "too soggy." Users point out that the phenomenon of steamed cheeseburgers is limited to a very small region of Connecticut. (There are also several jokes in the thread about hamburgers called "steamed hams" from upstate New York, but they're just references to a very funny Simpsons sketch, according to Forbes!

So what's the deal with steamed cheeseburgers, and most importantly, are they any good? Here's everything you need to know about this unique, regional treat.     

The history of steamed cheeseburgers

Steamed cheeseburgers are a Connecticut creation with a history going back over 100 years, according to Travel Channel. At the turn of the century street vendors in the town of Meriden would sell a portable sandwich of steam-melted cheese served on a bun (an early take on the beloved grilled cheese sandwich.) Eventually vendors began adding steam-cooked ground beef to make a more filling sandwich, and the first steamed cheeseburgers were born. Though it's remained a favorite in the Meriden and neighboring areas, it has strangely never caught on outside this region: A Reddit thread about steamed cheeseburgers reveals that Connecticut natives that grew up in other parts of the state have likely never tried one.

One of the most well-known steamed cheeseburger joints is Ted's Restaurant, a third-generation family-owned business in Meriden. In an interview with NBC Connecticut, the owner describes it as a true "hole-in-the-wall" restaurant that's been making steamed cheeseburgers the same way since they opened in 1959. Reporter Taylor Kinzler, who visited Ted's Restaurant and sampled the signature creation, says it's a "monster of a burger, but it is worth it." Here's how these unique cheeseburgers are created.   

How steamed cheeseburgers are made

The process of making steamed cheeseburgers looks a lot different than what you see at a regular burger spot. Many of the same elements are there: Ground beef, buns, toppings ... however, there's no sign of a griddle or grill top. Instead, there are curious metal boxes. When NBC Connecticut visited Ted's Restaurant in Meriden, Connecticut they got to see how steamed cheeseburgers are created. 

It begins with fresh, ground beef packed into small metal trays that are about the size of a deck of cards. The trays are then slid onto racks inside a box that the owner calls a "meat cabinet." At the bottom of the cabinet a pan of simmering water can be seen, and it sends clouds of steam up and around the dozen or so trays of meat inside. While the meat steams, the rest of the sandwich is prepared with lettuce, tomato, ketchup, bacon, and other burger favorites. When the meat is cooked, the tray is pulled from the cabinet, the grease poured off, and the little rectangular burger goes on the bun. A separate cabinet holds the same metal trays, but filled with cheese — blocks of cheddar cheese according to Atlas Obscura. After sitting in the steam box, the cheese becomes a gooey mass that's poured onto the steamed burger. A far cry from a burger's typical, single cheese slice, this thick, liquid cheddar flows over the tops and sides of the burger  

Where to find steamed cheeseburgers

If you find yourself in the central Connecticut area, you should really have a steamed cheeseburger right there in the region where it was born. Local Connecticut says that steamed burgers covered in gooey cheese can be found at Ted's Restaurant in Meriden, O'Rourke's Diner in neighboring Middletown, at American Steamed in nearby Wallingford, and at K. Lamay's in both Meriden and Wallingford.

There are other ways to try a steamed cheeseburger, although the experience will be different than having one hot out of the "meat cabinet." Did you know that the burgers at the fast food chain White Castle are also steam cooked? According to Thrillist, there's no meat cabinet, but instead the burgers are placed on a layer of diced onions spread on the grill. The burgers have holes in them to let steam from the onions cook them inside and out, and they cook up fast. Of course, the wafer-thin White Castle cheeseburgers look much different than the thick, steamed cheeseburgers of Connecticut. Another way to try steamed cheeseburgers is to make them at home! The website Steamed Cheeseburger Maker sells silicon trays similar in size and shape to those used at Ted's Restaurant. Pack them with ground beef and cheddar cheese, and set them on a rack in a simmering pan of water to cook in the steam.

So how do these cheeseburgers actually taste?

We love to dive into the unique stories of regional foods like steamed cheeseburgers, but what we really want to know is, how do they taste? The NBC Connecticut reporter who visited Ted's Restaurant in Meriden, Connecticut said they're definitely worth it. A diner interviewed by the news team said steamed cheeseburgers are "very juicy and very good," which, as the owner explains, is because the fats in the burger are replaced by moisture. Of course, not everyone is a fan. Redditors shared their thoughts on steamed cheeseburgers with several saying the burgers are overly wet and have no flavor. The biggest hurdle, according to New England Today, may be just convincing people to try one, since the idea of a steam-cooked burger with no browning or grill marks is so contrary to the burgers we've grown up eating. They note that one columnist described it as looking like a "wet gray woolen sock." One resident told New England Today that it "helps if you're drunk" when eating one for the first time! 

Mass Live wrote about steamed cheeseburgers for their "I Ate It So You Don't Have To" column — that alone would seem to condemn them, but the reporter ultimately deemed the burgers to be delicious. Another accolade is that Connecticut steamed cheeseburgers made the "Best Burger In Every State" list on Thrillist.  So they're at least worth a try, and who knows: Steamed cheeseburgers might become your new favorite!