How to Make a Perfectly Golden Grilled Cheese Sandwich
It’s time to master the ultimate pantry snack
There’s a scene in the 2014 film Chef, where the main character—Jon Favreau as a crabby fine dining chef turned Cubano sandwich peddler—makes his son a grilled cheese sandwich for breakfast. He liberally spreads butter onto the bread, drizzles a glug of olive oil onto the hotplate, then adds instantly sizzling bread, stacks each slice with 3 different cheeses, sandwiches them, and, flipping now and again, watches attentively for golden brown bread and oozing cheese.
The clip has almost a million views, which I think says a thing or two about the universal appeal of grilled cheese (the average comment is something to the effect of, “Going to make this now”)—or maybe just the sheer amount of people out there looking for clues on how to make this perfect cheesy snack.
The allure of a grilled cheese lies as much in its simplicity as in the coveted, Instagram-able "cheese pull". At a minimum, all it takes are three household ingredients—bread, cheese, and butter—and a little help of the Maillard reaction and voilà—a mid-morning pick-me-up or late-night snack. But if you’re here, you probably know it’s the simplest things that are often the hardest to master—maybe your bread burned before your cheese could even melt or maybe your pan was besieged by pools of acrid, blackened cheese.
Favreau eventually let slip the secret of Chef’s enviously good grilled cheese on Twitter: Gruyere, cheddar, Parmesan, sourdough, butter, patience. But, if you need a little more instruction here’s some advice, a lot of it inspired by that now iconic scene, from a someone who’s been there, someone who’s burned cheesy bridges but finally made it to the golden side—cheesy jokes intact.
The best types of cheese to use
It’s essential to use an all-purpose, good-for-melting cheese. Usually, that means something like cheddar, American or Jack cheese, Butterkäse (which literally translates to butter cheese), Gouda, Provolone, Edam, or Fontina. And that’s it—you could stop here by using a stack of thin slices or grated cheese as your filling—nothing more is needed for a good grilled cheese. But for something a little more gourmet you could layer on some more punchy cheeses for added depth—I like to add some shaved Parmesan and Gruyère to mine à la Chef, but Comté would not go astray either.
So, just how much cheese are we talking? Around ¼ – ½ in. (1 – 1½ cm) of cheese, very thinly sliced or pre-sliced, or about a handful of grated cheese. Whatever you do, avoid thick slices or chunks—they just won’t melt in time.
You can of course make grilled cheese with soft cheeses like Brie or Camembert, but it’s better not to mix them with firm cheeses given the different viscosities. Pair them instead with fruity chutneys or relishes.
How to choose the right bread
In general, white loaves that are crusty on the outside and fluffy on the inside work best and are the classic choice for grilled cheese. It’s also one of the few cases where using run-of-the-mill sandwich bread can work in your favor. But, like Chef I prefer sourdough: There’s just the right amount of tang, a crunchy crust, and a dense but air-pocketed interior. Wholegrain and rye breads will technically work but will make for a denser sandwich and the flavor of the bread can overpower milder cheeses.
A question of fats: butter or mayonnaise?
The key point here is to not just add fat to the pan, which will result in uneven browning—instead, you need to spread it onto your bread then add it spread-side down into a hot frying pan.
There are two key contenders for that essential, spreadable fat:
Butter: For easy spreading, make sure you butter is at room temperature so it’s easy to create a thin, even layer over the entire surface area of your slice. Butter can be a fickle friend in the frying pan—as its low smoke point can accelerate burning, so you’ll need to cook low and slow. If you want that buttery flavor, to help it along, drizzle a little olive oil into your hot pan, then place your bread slices, butter-side-down, and wipe them around the pan to mop up the oil.
Mayonnaise: Mayonnaise, in my mind, is the winner. If it sounds weird to slather the outside of your bread in the spread—let’s just take a second to think about it: Highly spreadable mayonnaise is made of oil and eggs (protein), two things that take very well to browning. Not only does it glide over the bread when you spread it on—unlike fridge fresh butter–it means you can cook your grilled cheese on medium heat, it’ll brown quicker, and you’ll have a nice contrast of crispy exterior and fluffy interior. If you’re worried about the flavor, don’t be, it’s not perceptible, but to be doubly sure, use European-style creamy egg mayonnaise rather than a sweetened, vinegary variant.
How to make a good thing even better: the extras
I may be a purist when it comes to adding extra fillings to a grilled cheese, but there is always room for condiments that can cut through the cheesiness and add extra oomph. Just remember to use them sparingly so it doesn’t overpower or mingle too much with your cheese.
Horseradish: A fine layer of jarred horseradish adds a certain je ne sais quoi to your sandwich with some subtly flavored heat.
Chutneys or relishes: Add a little sweetness and tanginess to the mix with red onion jam, chili jam, green tomato pickles, and so on.
Mustard: Go for a little wholegrain mustard, American mustard, sweet mustard, or Dijon.
Kimchi: The kimchi grilled cheese craze is wholly valid! Spicy and tangy kimchi cuts through the cheesiness, adding sour, umami, and spicy notes. Learn how to make your own here.
Cured meats: Tangy salami, spicy sopressata, meaty mortadella, or coppa all pair well with firm Italian cheese like Provolone and Parmesan. To head across the border to France, add ham and béchamel for a Croque monsieur.
Grilled vegetables: To add some juiciness to your sandwich, try grilled vegetables like zucchini or bell peppers.
Caramelized onions: Add a touch of sweetness with a layer of caramelized onions.
On the side
Pickle: Nothing cuts through a hefty cheese sandwich like a crisp, vinegary pickle—plus, it’ll easily trick you into thinking you’ve covered more than one food group in a meal.
Hot sauce: Rather than put it inside the sandwich, I like to dip the corners of my grilled cheese in fiery, tangy Sriracha.
How to build the perfect grilled cheese sandwich
Mastering the grilled cheese cooking technique
1. For the best results, take your nonstick frying pan and set over medium heat—if you’re up too high your bread will burn before the cheese has even started to melt. Add oil if you’ve buttered your bread, and then place both slices cheese-side up in the frying pan. You can also use a well-seasoned cast iron skillet, grill plate, or a sandwich press if you have one.
2. Slide your sliced bread around a little and once the cheese begins to melt, sandwich the bread and press down firmly using a spatula. Now it’s time for that ‘patience’ part. Use your spatula to peek under the bottom slice of bread to see how it’s browning, if it’s looking good, flip it over and let the other side cook a little more.
3. Repeat this process until you’ve achieved your desired level of browning on each side (I like mine ultra-browned for a prime crunch factor) and you’ve got liquid gold evidence. If your cheese doesn’t seem like it’s melting—place a lid on the frying pan for around 30 seconds or so to help it along.
If your grilled cheese looks at risk of burning, simply transfer it to a rack in the middle of the oven (make sure it’s an ovenproof pan first!) at everyone’s favorite, universal temperature 180°C/350°F until your cheese starts to ooze.
What are your favorite grilled cheese tricks or accouterments? Let us know in the comments!
Published on March 17, 2019