The beauty of a grilled cheese sandwich is that even a mediocre one still tastes pretty good (I find the same is true with pizza). However, chefs and cooking pros have come up with some great tricks that will turn a regular grilled cheese sandwich into something sublime.
Once you know their tips, you can elevate your humble grilled cheese into a thing of beauty and a joy forever. Or, barring that, you can at least proudly serve some grilled cheese for dinner, alongside a nice green salad.
Gabrielle Hamilton, author and chef/owner of beloved Manhattan restaurant Prune, encourages her cooking students to "butter" the bread with mayo before grilling it. Why? Mayonnaise is chiefly made of oil and the smoke point for most vegetable oils is 450ºF, almost 100 degrees higher than butter, but mayo is easier to distribute than actual oil.
Using mayonnaise ensures that your bread will get to the perfect brown and crispy state without any unsightly blackened spots and edges. Plus, as Francis Lam points out, mayo is slightly tangy and adds a piquant flavor to your grilled cheese.
Don't worry, mayo-haters: there are alternatives out there. I got this tip from Cook's Illustrated and have never looked back. For amazingly flavorful, crunchy, crispy grilled bread, melt two tablespoons of butter (microwave or stovetop is fine). Next, use a pastry brush to apply the butter to both sides of the bread.
The pastry brush ensures even application of the buttery goodness without tearing the bread. Which leads me to my next point…
You absolutely, but absolutely, have to grill your bread slices on each side. Biting into a grilled cheese that's only been toasted on the outside pretty much ruins an un-ruinable sandwich. As if adding texture and flavor weren't enough, keep in mind that grilling both sides of the bread provides a little more warmth so that your cheese will melt evenly.
Listen, I wouldn't turn down a properly made grilled cheese even on puffy, tasteless Wonder Bread. That's the beauty of the grilled cheese sandwich: it's edible in almost every form.
But a grilled cheese on whole-wheat sourdough miche? Or slices from a hearty country loaf? That's a grilled cheese for which I would walk over hot coals. Plus, grilled cheese sandwiches are great for using up old or even frozen bread (the application of butter and heat will do a lot for getting rid of the taste of freezer burn).
It goes without saying, but don't choose a bread that is riddled with large holes. Your cheese will fall out!
For grown-up palates, you want a variety of tastes when it comes to the cheese in your sandwich. While medium or sharp cheddar is always a winner, I personally like a mix of Fontina, Gruyere, and mozzarella. Play with cheeses according to your palate.
As J. Kenji López-Alt points out, just be sure that you pick one cheese that melts well like cheddar, Brie, or Tallegio, especially if your other cheese is hard or crumbly, like Parmesan or goat cheese.
It's a pain, but shredding the cheese will pay you back with a wonderfully thick, smooth, melted center. Sliced cheese almost always melts unevenly and requires more cooking time to make sure that all of it gets melted.
So shred, shred, shred away, and pile on more cheese than you think you need: the volume of unmelted shredded cheese, like fresh spinach, is significantly and visibly reduced once it's cooked down.
Also, skip pre-shredded cheese if possible. In my opinion, they're overpriced (they're charging you for labor, not how much cheese you get), and the cheese tends to be dried-out and flavorless compared to the kind you shred yourself.
Alton Brown points out that "grilled cheese" is a misnomer, since the bread itself is grilled, and its gooey center isn't. Imagine putting cheese that has been grilled (like halloumi) between two pieces of grilled, buttery bread? Two words for you: Yes, please.
Brown takes the grilled cheese one step further and forms makeshift baking pans with handles out of spatulas and aluminum foil. In them, he mixes two types of cheese plus salt, pepper, and mustard powder and grills them until they get gooey and crispy before putting them in slices of grilled bread. Nominate this guy for a Nobel Prize in grilled cheese, please.
Francis Lam puts it best:
"You lightly toast walnuts to bring out their creamy flavor, shave them fine as snow on a grater (the Microplane is awesome for this), and pile them on the cheese to add another dimension of richness to the sandwich.
I stole this idea from a dish I once had at the restaurant Jean-Georges. The grater does a neat little trick—stripping crunch from the nuts, turning them into feathery shards of pure flavor. It lets you integrate their fatty goodness into dishes without disturbing the texture. I tried it one day on a sharp cheddar grilled cheese, and loved the way the nuts seemed to bolster the richness of the cheese while otherwise melting away."
I use this trick all the time. It works especially well with Gruyere and Brie, if you want to go to there.
There are a lot of people out there with nut allergies. For them, try another trick from Cook's Illustrated and Alton Brown: season your cheese before you stick it in your sandwich. The addition of some good sea salt, freshly ground pepper, and a touch of Dijon mustard on the bread or about half a teaspoon of mustard powder mixed in with the cheese will call out the flavors of the cheese and make them sing in a way unseasoned cheese just won't.
And finally, the last tip, also from Cook's Illustrated: to get the cheese truly melted and keep your bread crisp, you need low, low, low heat and a cover. While the bread may turn a shade or two browner than its original grilled state, it won't burn, and the lid will ensure that the heat doesn't dissipate and melts the cheese thoroughly. So lower that flame until it's barely visible and get a heavy lid of any kind to place over the sandwich while the cheese melts.
Frico—aka Parmesan cheese crisps—were all the rage in the restaurant world a few years ago. Now some cooks take their grilled cheese to new levels by putting cheese on the outside of the bread and frying it so that it forms a crisp, cheesy layer.
The method is pretty easy. Once your grilled cheese is done, melt about a teaspoon of your fat of choice (mayo, butter, or oil) in the pan, unless you have plenty of grease leftover from the sandwich.
Next, place about a tablespoon or two of cheese (depending on how large your sandwich is) in the melted fat. It will melt, bubble, and start to crisp. Right when it's at the stage between bubbling and crisping, drop your sandwich on top of it and press down hard so the frico becomes one with the bread. Hold it there for several seconds until the cheese becomes really crisp.
Repeat on the other side, and voilà! You have now entered a new dimension of grilled cheesiness.
Now, what if you're craving grilled cheese but your stove isn't working (a horrible situation) and you don't have a grill on hand? If your electricity is A-okay, then just use your toaster.
What tricks do you have for making great grilled cheese?