Saturday, March 26, 2011

In search of the perfect grilled cheese

Despite what I said in the earlier post about adults who will order a grilled cheese in a restaurant, this is a sandwich that is very important to me. Mostly because it's so versatile, filling, and a tasty staple snack for any time of year. I think the assumption is that once you're old enough not to eat off the kids' menu anymore, it's because now you must know how to make your own grilled cheese whenever you want. This isn't necessarily true. Humans do not have this kind of instinct when it comes to hot things over a flame. Like with fried eggs or toasted marshmallows, there is serious technique involved that must be learned over time.

The most important thing that distinguishes a good grilled cheese from a bad one is the balance of grease and crunchiness that develops on the exterior of the bread. Glistening and golden brown, the perfect grilled cheese leaves your fingers with a crumby sheen that turns any white napkin translucent after hand contact.
If you want your grilled cheese to be any good, do not mistake PAM for a reasonable griddle lubricant. I tried this one day thinking I was being smart, and the result was dry as sand. Don't get me wrong, I love toast, but it doesn't make the best vehicle for melted cheese. What you want in a grilled cheese sandwich has a certain set of criteria that shares almost nothing with nutrition.

The ideal pan lubricant for a grilled cheese sandwich, you may be shocked to learn, is butter.

There is no adequate substitute.
You may think you're being clever using something like Earth Balance Non-Hydrogenated Vegetable Oil with Natural Butter Flavor. But trust me, nothing else will deliver in quite the same way as butter. We are not reinventing the wheel, here.

Since I spent all my money on vacation, I need to revisit some of history's cheapest weeknight dinner options. Grilled cheese is one of the most reliable choices, and it's especially delicious when paired with Campbell's tomato soup. Furthermore, everybody knows that any combination of bread, cheese, grease, and tomato makes the best food-based accompaniment to beer, which is the real focal point on a Wednesday night.

In making mine, I looked back on all the best grilled cheese sandwiches I've ever had and took a hint from my high school's cafeteria ladies. They had no shame in their pudgy stomachs as they literally dipped the bread in oil before frying.

So here's what I did:
Microwave 3 Tbsp. butter in a shallow dish.
Heat a dry pan for a minute on medium as you construct your sandwich.
Best cheeses include: American, a mild Cheddar, or Jack. Something that's not going stay hard and crumble, but will melt like a gooey dream between the layers of bread.
Remove butter from the microwave just as soon as it has barely melted.
Dredge one side of the sandwich in the butter, and place it in the pan.
Watch the heat! You want it hot enough to create a nice crust on the bread, but not so hot that it cooks the bread without melting the cheese inside. A good way to fix this problem is to cover it with a pan lid, turn up the heat and flip early, especially if you're in a hurry to eat.
Don't forget to dredge the other side of the bread in the melted butter before you flip!
It's better not to butter both sides of the bread at once, lest it soak in on the top piece and get soggy.
Also, wipe the pan with a dry paper towel between sandwiches. The old butter will burn if it stays on the surface of the hot pan, and it will ruin your sandwich.

That's just a starting point! There are all kinds of things you can do beyond the basic grilled cheese , such as:
pan-sauteed veggies, roasted garlic, chipotle cheese, bacon, tomato, turkey or ham, spinach, arugula, onion.

Or, according to Denny's, mozzarella sticks.


  1. this is a very good analysis of the ideal grilled cheese sandwich. very wise of you to refer back to the greasy crunch factor from the high school cafeteria -- they really did it right. i hope we can make some epic ones when i get home. i only had one question, which is why you didn't mention the importance of the right bread to make or break any sandwich. personally i think that bread with sunflower seeds in it really improves the grilled cheese tomato soup experience. other faves are sourdough and rye. however, i understand that being broke in college can limit the affordable bread selection. i would like to try the combination of pesto and fresh banana peppers on a grilled cheese sandwich, what do you think?

  2. That's an interesting point, and honestly I thought about approaching the bread as it can change everything. But the only bread I had was spongy, pre-sliced Autumn Wheat.
    Quality bread can be a rare delicacy. I like different types of seeds in bread but have never tried it in this context. I would like to try your pesto/banana pepper grilled cheese idea using Swiss cheese on sourdough, that sounds delectable.