I was contacted by someone at Esquire.com back in April, looking to get my perspective on grilled cheese as a perfect food, per my “noted expertise in food science.” (BAHAHAH.) They ran a month of grilled cheese features and reviews for grilled cheese month, which was pretty glorious. At the time, I could have recommended five other bloggers more qualified for the task. But I’m not an idiot. So we emailed back and forth for a week or so, during which time I wrote the below, in response to her request for the “secrets” of the perfect grilled cheese sandwich. Well, grilled cheese month came and went and they never ran it, and it just seems like a shame to let all this wisdom go to waste. I figured that my 50th post was a good time to take a small deviation. So here it is. Certainly not “secrets,” but the guiding principles at my house.
Use great ingredients, if you can. No one will argue that Wonder Bread and Kraft aren’t a classic. Sure, you can make a pretty alright grilled cheese for 40 cents – that’s what’s so great about grilled cheese. This is just the beginning, though – a springboard for delicious possibilities. So, bread is important. It’s not just a delivery system for what’s inside. If you wouldn’t eat it with butter slathered on it straight out of the bag, you can do better. (Me, I happen to think my grocery store makes a pretty great Pane Di Altamura – so you don’t necessarily need to make a special trip, or spend a lot.) Cheese possibilities are endless, and can be intimidating. If you’re feeling paralyzed by choice, traditional rules will tell you that the “best” cheeses are the high fat varieties that melt well, (e.g., Gruyere, Fontina, Cheddar.) That said, I find these kinds of hard rules unnecessarily restrictive. Use more than one cheese, by all means, and use what tastes delicious to you.
Use a sandwich press. Not the countertop appliance, the pan. Getting a solid crunch and even browning on bread requires pressure. Invest in a decent press and griddle pan, preferably one with ridges. You can get decent one for around forty bucks, but if you’d rather spend that on artisanal cheeses, you can still accomplish the same thing with some ingenuity. (Cover a plate in tin foil and stack a few cans of soup or a book on it. 2 – 3 lbs is what you’re after.
Experiment. While it’s true that simple grilled cheese can be great, it’s also a blank canvas. There’s (almost) no such thing as a bad grilled cheese, I’ve found, and the most successful sandwich is often one you pulled out of your hat with what you found in your fridge. As a for instance, butter is not necessarily an absolute. Try grilling with mayonnaise, instead of butter. Dredge the buttered side of your bread in fresh grated (anything) before you grill it. Do you have bacon? Why isn’t that in there? Experiment with spreads inside the sandwich – aioli, tapenade, mustards. Just last week I accidentally blew my own mind with some red pepper hummus.
Finally, respect the cheese. Do not undermine its authority by crowding it out with too many other ingredients. Not sure? Here’s how you know you’ve done things right. Are your slices of bread firmly adhered to one another? When you cut your sandwich in half, does it hemorrhage, just a little bit? Yes? Then well done, my friend. Feast.