Toasted bread, melted cheese — is there anything better than a freshly made grilled cheese sandwich? The classic combo is hard to beat, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be improved upon.
The basic recipe — white bread and American cheese toasted in a little butter — is a good one, but with a few key adjustments, grilled cheese can go from a simple, satisfying sandwich to a mind-blowing culinary experience.
Here are eight tips for making the perfect grilled cheese sandwich. Incorporate one or more and you’ll be well on your way to bread and cheese heaven.
1. Pick the best bread
Will mediocre bread be improved when heated and layered with cheese? Yes, definitely. But using better bread will take your grilled cheese to a whole new level. Try using homemade bread or a loaf from your favorite bakery. It can be fun to experiment with whole wheat and whole grain varieties, as well as rye, sourdough, pumpernickel, or even a sweeter option like cinnamon swirl. You can also go further outside the breadbox, and use English muffins, waffles, croissants, focaccia, or pull-apart rolls. Avoid thick slices, which will make it harder for the cheese to melt, and skip loaves with a lot of holes. Also, note that day old or about to go stale bread is perfect for grilled cheese, as the fat and heat will bring it back to life.
2. Butter — or mayo — up!
Standard procedure for grilled cheese is to butter the outsides of the bread before placing it in the pan — for more flavor, butter both sides, inside and out. This works quite nicely, adding flavor to the sandwich, while also preventing burning and sticking. But guess what works even better? A thin layer of mayonnaise. Mayo does everything butter does, but better — it’s surprisingly good for browning the bread. Plus, mayonnaise adds just a hint of tanginess, which cuts some of the richness of the classic bread and cheese combo. Not willing to forego butter? Try spreading butter on the inside of the sandwich and using mayo on the outside for the best of both worlds.
3. Pre-toast the bread
Grilled cheese is supposed to be quick and fuss-free and this does add an extra step, but it’s well worth the effort and hardly any trouble. Spread mayo (or butter) on both sides of both slices of bread then add to the pan you’ll cook the grilled cheese in. Briefly toast both sides just until starting to brown. Take the slightly toasted bread out of the pan, assemble your sandwich, and return it to the pan to finish cooking. This takes just an extra minute or two and makes for a sandwich that’s crisper and more flavorful.
4. Use the right cheese
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with using American cheese — it’s a classic for a reason — but there’s a whole world of cheeses out there just waiting to be melted between two slices of bread. Stick to varieties that melt, such as fontina, Gruyere, Comté, young cheddars, Taleggio, and any of the jack cheeses, and don’t be afraid to use more than one kind. Fresh cheeses like feta and aged cheeses like Parmesan won’t really melt, but are a great way to add more flavor; just be sure to combine them with enough melting cheese that you still get that satisfying grilled cheese experience.
5. Don’t use too much cheese
Beyond using the right cheese, you want to use the proper amount of cheese. There has to be enough that the sandwich is sufficiently cheesy but not so much that the cheese spills out the sides and creates a mess. The ratio depends on the size of the bread, but for average slices, you want somewhere in the neighborhood of 1/3 cup of cheese per sandwich. Thin slices are better than thick, while grated cheese is especially good for melting.
6. Dress up your grilled cheese
Cheese should always be the star of the show, but there’s no reason why fontina or cheddar can’t share the spotlight with a few supporting players. Bacon or sliced ham and tomatoes are no brainers, but try being more creative with your add ins. Sautéed mushrooms, caramelized onions, sliced avocado and roasted red peppers can take your sandwich in delicious new directions. Thinly sliced apples or pears add brightness and contrasting texture, while mustard or olive tapenade add bite and nuts or potato chips add crunch. Consider adding honey, jam or chutney for a salty-sweet sandwich. Whatever you do, don’t go overboard. Remember: Cheese should always be the focus.
7. Go low and slow
Think like a barbecue pit master and exercise patience when making grilled cheese. Keep the heat in the medium to medium-low range and adjust it as you cook, ensuring that the bread toasts at the same rate that the cheese melts. This is especially important if you pre-toast, as you don’t want to burn the bread before the cheese is fully melted.
8. Press down for a panini-style grilled cheese
If you own a panini press, by all means use it to make grilled cheese. But if not, you still have options for making your grilled cheese super crispy. The simplest approach is to firmly press a spatula on the sandwich while it cooks in a regular pan or, even better, a grill pan. Go one step further and lay a heavy pan on top of the grilled cheese while it cooks, making sure to flip it at least once, so both sides develop that perfect crust.