Cheeseburger Panini, Animal-Style

If you’ve spent any length of time in Southern California, you’ve probably heeded the call of the giant yellow arrow pointing to the sign that makes mouths water: “In-N-Out Burger.” Mention the name near lunchtime at the office and before you can say “Not it!” you’ll have five or sPanini Happy Classicsix co-workers jammed in your Jetta. Similar to Starbucks, part of the enjoyment of In-N-Out is in the ordering itself – particularly off of the not-so-secret menu. The first “secret” item I ever ordered was the Animal Style burger, featuring grilled onions and an extra amount of special sauce (similar to thousand island dressing). It’s drippy and messy and wonderful! Not exactly the delicate characteristics one usually thinks of when it comes to panini…but why not? The Animal Style burger at In-N-Out is one of my favorite sandwiches and so I decided to make a panini version as part of my continuing Panini Happy Classics series. Want to skip ahead? Click here for the final recipe.

Cheeseburger Patty Melt Panini – Attempt #1

  • Bread: Ciabatta rolls
  • Meat: Ground chuck
  • Cheese: Cheddar
  • Condiments: Thousand Island dressing
  • “Goodies”: Grilled onions, fresh tomatoes, green leaf lettuce

THE PREPARATION: I decided to start on the onions first – fired up the grill to medium-high heat (375 degrees). I went with white onions since I think their pungency tastes so good on burgers; I sliced one into thin rings (lit a candle to keep from crying!). Brushed a little olive oil on both sides and put ’em on the grill. I debated whether to season them with salt and pepper, but opted not to in an effort to cut down on salt – I’d live to regret this later, stay tuned. Grilled for 3 minutes until I got dark grill marks and the onions were nice and soft.

Next came the meat. I actually just caught an episode of “Good Eats” on the Food Network where Alton Brown lined a jelly roll pan with waxed paper and rolled out ground chuck with a rolling pin and divided the meat into squares. Seemed like that might be a good way to go for a more sandwich-like burger so I gave it a try. My ciabatta rolls were 4″x4″, so I made burger squares that were slightly larger to account for shrinkage during the grilling. I gave the burgers a little salt and pepper seasoning and popped them on the grill. I love to hear that great sizzle as soon as the meat makes contact with the grates. I was amazed at how quickly you can grill burgers on the panini grill – a lightning fast 3 minutes to a nice, juicy medium!

While the burgers were grilling, I sliced up some fresh tomatoes and removed the seeds, per Tip #4.


Once the burgers were done, I immediately (and carefully) scrubbed off the grill and started my sandwich assembly. On the bottom half of my ciabatta roll, I squeezed out about a tablespoon of Thousand Island dressing from the Kraft bottle and spread it around with a knife. Another little tip Alton mentioned on that same episode of “Good Eats” is that mayonnaise acts as a nice “seal” on bread, keeping it from getting soggy. Since Thousand Island is mayonnaise-like, I thought I’d give it a try. Then I added the onions, the burger, two tomato slices and a slice of cheddar cheese. I closed up the sandwich with the top half of the roll and loaded it onto the grill.

I checked after about 3 minutes, but the cheese wasn’t melted yet. Another 2 minutes later, all looked good. As a final step, I opened up the bottom of the sandwich and inserted a piece of green leaf lettuce.

THE RESULTS: Not so great. For starters, despite the Thousand Island “seal” I’d attempted to create, the bread still got really soggy from the burger juices (notice how I’m avoiding the “g” word!). The sandwich also wasn’t all that flavorful, no doubt due to my stingy seasoning on the onions and the burger. The lettuce didn’t do much to add to the taste either and was a little bit of a pain to insert amidst all the other toppings. What was I thinking? For Attempt #2, I was going to have to rethink the soggy phenomenon and up the seasoning factor.

Cheeseburger Patty Melt Panini – Attempt #2

I re-ordered the fillings this time around – instead of applying the Thousand Island dressing directly to the bottom half of the roll, I spread it directly onto the burger itself. In its place, I added a second slice of cheddar cheese so there was now cheese on both the top and bottom of the fillings. This way, I hoped to avoid soggy bread while still keeping the Thousand Island flavor within the sandwich. I added a little more salt to the burger, but not to the grilled onions. No lettuce this time.


Bland, bland, bland! This was getting kind of embarrassing. It’s a burger – how basic is that?!! It didn’t taste like anything and it was starting to annoy me. I asked my husband what he thought was missing – aside from the burger still being under-seasoned (he didn’t eat the onions), and he declared that he really didn’t like the ciabatta on this one. I had to agree with him. As much as I love ciabatta – and maybe it was just these particular rolls – it didn’t add any flavor and the texture was rather tough and chewy. I had to shut down the panini grill for the night, but I’d procure some new bread at the grocery store the next day and continue the pursuit.

Cheeseburger Patty Melt Panini – Attempt #3

Maybe patty melts are typically grilled on rye bread for a reason. Rye definitely has a distinct flavor. And if flavor is what I was lacking, well maybe I should go back to the tried-and-true. So Attempt #3 was made with rye, with a little olive oil brushed onto the outsides for extra flavor and crispness. I dialed up the seasoning on the meat several notches, adding a liberal amount of salt and pepper to both sides of the patty, as well as a little garlic powder. To try and cut down on the excessive juiciness, I lightly blotted the burger before adding it to the sandwich. Lastly, I grilled up some more onions, this time seasoning both sides with salt and pepper. Oh, this sandwich was gonna taste like something if I had anything to say about it!


At last – YUM! Man, that was probably more difficult than it had to have been. Lesson learned: season your food, plain and simple. Also, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Patty melts taste great on rye, panini-style or otherwise. The bread was crisp and flavorful, far less chewy than the ciabatta. In the end, this sandwich didn’t deviate too far from what we commonly know and love as a patty melt, but you know what – that’s fine by me!

Get the final recipe!

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KathyPanini Happy, online since 2008, is more than just a sandwich blog. Here, you'll find hundreds of my original panini recipes, my guide to choosing a panini press and a whole lot of other creative uses for the panini press.
~ Kathy Strahs
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  1. Karen wrote:

    What a fun blog! Great idea. I’ll be checking back.

    Posted 4.11.08 Reply
  2. Jocelyn wrote:

    Got a panini grill for Xmas. Went to Holy Foods and there was this guy (Jim Brown’s Original – demoing his locally homemade hamburger relish (delish!). Kismet, thought I and bought it. Then says I, let’s get some nice ground beef and do a Patty melt! Whole Foods doesn’t do rye bread, so I opt for a par baked Ciabatta loaf. I baked it in the oven for 10 minutes at 400, slit and then toasted the bread. Then I took the relish, mixed it with some Best Foods Mayo – absolutely incredible flavor. Grilled copious onions. I slightly over cooked the burgers, but followed your tip on rolling them out. I used pepper Jack because that’s what I had. The bread was very fresh, crispy and not at all greasy. Net result — fabulous. Next time, I’ll try it with Maytag Blue cheese. Might be interesting. Thanks for your insight.

    Posted 12.27.08 Reply