What's The Difference Between A Burger And A Patty Melt?

"What's a burger?" seems like an easy question. A burger is a freshly cooked patty (usually beef) between two buns, often with cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, onions, and condiments. Of course, you've got many ingredients you can add for creative burger hacks, and there are plenty of vegan or vegetarian options, but burgers are easy to recognize. But asking about a patty melt complicates things because it's so similar. It's not quite the same thing, though.

Similar to a burger, a patty melt is a hot sandwich with ground beef, cheese, and caramelized onions served on sliced bread. Most patty melt aficionados have a stricter definition and will tell you that a proper patty melt uses Swiss cheese and griddled rye bread, but it's still a patty melt if you substitute another bread like sourdough or another cheese like cheddar. However, unlike a cheeseburger, a patty melt has no hamburger buns, which is probably the easiest way to separate the two.

Burgers and melts

"Melt" can actually mean a lot of things when it comes to sandwiches, and patty melts are just one kind of melt. The name itself refers to its most important ingredient, the melted cheese. However, a sandwich with only melted cheese is a grilled cheese, and if you're calling your sandwich a melt, then you've likely added other ingredients. Often, melts include a protein of some kind, such as ground beef, turkey, or tuna. Tuna melts, in particular, are a common kind of melt. Melts tend to be American, but they're similar to other foods around the world, such as the French croque monsieur, which includes ham and béchamel sauce.

If the etymology is confusing, it's because there are still lots of arguments about the nature of cheeseburgers and melts and grilled cheeses. A burger always includes hamburger buns. So you can think of a patty melt as a middle ground between a cheeseburger and a grilled cheese.

When did patty melts get popular?

Patty melt historians usually point to restaurateur Tiny Naylor as the creator of the food. The patty melt first appeared on the menu of his Los Angeles diner (which was fittingly named Tiny Naylor's) in the 1950s, where it was often ordered with a milkshake. It's very possible that Naylor had invented the patty melt even earlier, as far back as the Great Depression, but by the 1950s, it became a greasy staple of his restaurant chains.

Even if there's a little ambiguity, it's still much more concise than the complicated history of burgers. Many different sources have claimed burgers as their own creation, and an ancient Roman collection of recipes lists a minced beef patty, which is strangely similar to modern burgers. The burger as we know it likely comes from Hamburg, Germany, in the 1700s. German immigrants in America eventually began placing the Hamburg patty in between two buns in the 1800s so they could eat it more efficiently during work breaks at factories. When exactly the hamburger was invented isn't known, although eventually, both the burger and melt became classic American staples.