Think you know how to make a grilled cheese? You may want to think again.
Far from its childhood palette of American pasteurized processed cheese products and white bread, the grilled cheese sandwich can become so much more—a perfect template for experimentation, and a versatile anytime meal that you can customize to your heart’s delight.
So allow me to evangelize about my favorite of all sandwiches, and teach you step by step how to make the perfect grilled cheese sandwich.
First: A Primer on Cheeses
American intellectual, author, editor, and radio and television personality Clifton Fadiman had this to say about cheese:
“A cheese may disappoint. It may be dull, it may be naive, it may be oversophisticated. Yet it remains cheese, milk’s leap toward immortality.”
Made by the action of thousands of microbes, aged and fermented milk (cheese) is one of the most complex and satisfying foods on the planet. And it’s been around for about 8,000 years, which has given us crafty humans plenty of time to refine and broaden its range of flavors and textures.
Those flavors and textures run an extremely wide gamut. From soft, runny, and mild to hard, sharp, and funky, cheese is a remarkably versatile ingredient.
For the purposes of a grilled cheese sandwich, we want to stick with cheeses that will melt into the gooey goodness we desire. This means staying away from hard cheeses like extra sharp cheddar and parmesan, and sticking with softer and creamier cheeses as a rule.
Since we don’t have the time to explore the wide world of cheeses here, I’d like to offer you my three favorite cheeses for a grilled cheese sandwich—then tease you with two books to deepen your dairy knowledge.
A mild to sharp cheddar is one of the first cheeses I reach for to make grilled sandwiches. Aged for 3 to 6 months, they take on just enough tang and texture to make for an interesting but approachable flavor. And they slice nicely too, making it easy to prepare picture perfect sandwiches.
If I’m looking for something sweet and saltier, I’ll often go for a young gruyere. Look for one without much of a hard outer rind; you’ll be removing this anyway. Gruyere provides an ideal palette for experimenting with different condiments and accents (more on that in a moment).
Last but certainly not least, brie cheese makes for the gooiest and most savory grilled cheese imaginable. Some cooks prefer to remove the rind and use only the inner runny cheese. I’m a huge fan of the flavor and texture difference you can get by including both the rind and inner cheese. Pairs beautifully with any fruit flavors, as well as pork products.
And if all this cheese talk has sparked your interest, I believe that Cheese Sex Death is the best possible introduction to the world of discovering new and fascinating cheeses. For a comprehensive overview of the cheesemaking world, consider the scholarly Oxford Companion to Cheese.
Second: Use Good Bread
Any grilled cheese will only be as delicious as the quality of the bread you use. So when you’re choosing the bread for your sandwich, go for the good stuff: Try to find a local bakery that makes a great quality loaf, and slice it yourself.
A “standard” bread loaf like ciabatta or a baguette works with just about every cheese. A heartier rye bread will stand out, so you’ll need to pair it with a more intensely flavored cheese to get the best out of it. And if you want a particularly soft and rich sandwich, almost dessert-like, go for a brioche.
Whatever you do, though, avoid using a store-bought, pre-sliced bread if you really want to make the perfect grilled cheese sandwich.
Third: Pick Your Accents Carefully
The mistake that I see people make most often when they start to customize their grilled cheese sandwiches is overloading them with condiments.
At its best, the grilled cheese is a pedestal upon which a rich and delicious cheese (or cheese blend) can show its best qualities. At its worst, the cheese is little more than a binding agent for bread and other stuff.
So how should you dress up your sandwich without losing the focus on your carefully selected cheese’s naturally wonderful flavors? Always play to the cheese’s strengths, and use about half as much of any accent flavor as you think you need.
For example: If you’re using a classic sharp cheddar cheese as your base, adding even more acidity and tang will throw it out of balance. Instead, try using a spoonful of something sweet—a little bit of orange marmalade or a mango chutney works wonders.
Conversely, if you’ve decided on a mild and creamy brie for your cheese, the sky’s the limit on what sort of flavors you can add. Puree it with a little bit of white wine and chives before spreading it on your bread. Pair it with fresh and tart green apple slices. Heck, I’ve even had good success mixing brie with pickled slices of hot peppers.
And if all this sounds like way too much, go back to the basics: Really good bread, really good cheese, and really good butter. It’s pretty much impossible to go wrong with that combo.
Fourth: Putting it All Together
So now you’ve done the hard work of selecting and combining the best of the highest quality ingredients you can find. Thankfully, the actual process of making a grilled cheese sandwich is pretty darned simple.
For best results, I strongly recommend using clarified butter to grill your sandwiches. Also known as ghee, clarified butter removes the milk proteins that can otherwise burn while in the pan (leaving nasty off flavors).
Butter the outsides of two pieces of bread with this clarified butter, and get a non-stick skillet going nice and hot (when a splash of water dropped into the pan sizzles, it’s ready to cook). Add your cheese and any additional condiments between your two slices of bread. Sear for 6 to 8 minutes on each side, then remove from the pan—and you’ll have made your finest grilled cheese yet.
That’s making the perfect grilled cheese sandwich in a nutshell. I hope I’ve inspired you to explore even more of the wonderful world of cheese, and to return time and time again to the grilled cheese sandwich as a comforting and versatile meal.