A grilled cheese is a grilled cheese, right? I mean, it’s the first meal that most of us learn how to cook at home by ourselves. (Unless you’re Greek). It’s the perfect midnight snack or soup-dinner. It’s great for kids, but is never turned down by an adult. It’s salty, gooey, crisp, buttery, and comforting in all the right ways.
You know before you even bite into a grilled cheese whether it’s going to be transcendent or not. In a really good one, the cheese slowly oozes from the edges. The bread’s face is an even golden brown that’s suffused with butter. Pick it up and you can feel the butter in the bread (but doesn’t leave your fingers greasy – at least, not too greasy), while the crust is crisp yet flexes ever so slightly, revealing a layer of tender crumb underneath.
So, what are the secrets to the best grilled cheese?
A grilled cheese must...
- be a closed sandwich, griddled on both sides.
- have cheese as the primary ingredient. Other ingredients can complement the cheese, but none may overwhelm it.
- be made with sliced bread. Thus, a sandwich made with a whole, crust-on loaf, like a panino or a Cuban, does not qualify.
- be served hot all the way through, with the cheese thoroughly melted.
- be cooked on a flat, greased surface until golden brown. A grilled cheese may never be baked or deep-fried.
Aside from having to be sliced, the only other rule here is that your bread can’t be sliced too thick (or your cheese will not melt). White bread and American cheese are what many of us grew up on, but if you want to go fancier, feel free to use a nice hand-sliced Italian ciabatta, a good sourdough, or a French boule. Grilled cheese is also a great way to use up day-old bread, since the grilling process will resuscitate it a bit.
A grilled cheese doesn’t work with just any old cheese. You’ve got to have a cheese with just the right melting characteristics. Dry, crumbly, fresh cheeses, like goat cheese, won’t melt properly. Ditto for overly aged cheeses, like a Parmesan or hard pecorino. Some of my favorites include the classic American and young cheddar, Swiss-style cheeses like Gruyere. As long as it melts, it’s got a place in our sandwiches.
If you do like the flavor of a non-melter, it’s acceptable to treat it like another topping – that is, pair it with a cheese that does melt. A mozzarella and feta combo makes a fine sandwich, for instance.
The best method I have seen for making a perfect grilled cheese is to griddle the bread on both sides. That’s right. cook two slices of bread in butter, flip ’em over so that the browned sides are facing up, add your cheese, and close your sandwich so that the cheese is sandwiched between the browned surfaces. Not only will this get you better-tasting bread that’s infused with more butter, it’ll also give your cheese a head start on getting extra melty.
Some other tips to keep in mind:
- Use butter, and salt your skillet before adding the bread. I like to melt the butter, then sprinkle the skillet lightly with salt to season the outside of the sandwich. (skip this if you used salted butter)
- Low and slow is the way to go. Cook your sandwiches and medium-low heat. Try to speed up the process and you’ll end up with a sandwich that’s hot on the outside, but still cool and unmelted in the middle. It’ll also be harder to get it to brown properly.
- Keep things moving. I like to swirl my sandwiches around the skillet or griddle with a light pressure the entire time they’re cooking, to make sure that they get a perfectly even, deep-brown color.
- Serve ’em while they’re hot!
- Fresh vegetables – to each their own, but fresh juicy vegetables with a distinctive sweet or tart flavor? Cucumber in a grilled cheese? No thanks. Slices of fresh tomatoes? Yes please.
- Pickles – Pickles are the perfect complement to grilled cheese. The acidity and saltiness of a good pickle cut right through the rich cheese. Try dill or bread-and-butter chips; pickle relish; sliced pickled jalapeños;
- Deli meats: They’re easy to add, salty, meaty….basically just what you want in a grilled cheese.
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