The humble, yet revered, grilled cheese lands among the most universally loved foods out there. I mean really, the soul-warming and gooey appeal of a grilled cheese transcends age, race, and gender... it's like the Harry Potter of sandwiches. So simple and satisfying, a grilled cheese is often one of the first things we learn how to cook. And often, it's one of the first things many of us--myself included--learn how to cook wrong.
I'm not usually someone to call out "right" from "wrong" in the kitchen--I'm of the belief that if it tastes good to you and you didn't cut a finger off while making it, you did it right. That said, I have years of experience making less-than-awesome grilled cheese sandwiches that gift me with the wisdom and authority to now say that yes--despite the fact that it's difficult for melted cheese on buttered bread to ever be a bad thing, there are definitely a few factors that differentiate an OK grilled cheese from a great grilled cheese:
1) Fat on the bread not in the pan. This was one of the biggest game changers in my grilled cheese life. Normally, if you're cooking something in a pan, you heat the oil or butter in the pan, then add the food and let it sizzle, right? Right. Except not for grilled cheese. In order to achieve the most even caramelization on the bread, the fat needs to coat the outside of the sandwich, not the bottom of your skillet. To do this, brush the outer side of the sandwich slices evenly with your cooking fat of choice (we opt for heart-healthy olive oil, but the same rules apply for melted butter), then add to a heated pan slicked with cooking spray.
2) Control the heat. If I'm whipping out a skillet for a quick stove top job, 9 times out of 10, I'm throwing that sucker over medium-high heat. But not for grilled cheese--for grilled cheese, you're gonna wanna dial it back just a touch. This isn't a steak, the idea isn't to hit it with a quick sear. Using moderate heat allows the cheese enough time to melt as the bread gradually browns. If your pan is too hot, the bread will burn by the time you reach that wonderful state gooey cheese nirvana... nobody wants that.
3) Selecting the cheese. I assume if you're reading this, you've likely "graduated" beyond the Kraft American Single. And since we're all such big sophisticated boys and girls, there's something we need to take a sec to be adult about acknowledging--the Kraft American Single is a great cheese for grilled cheese; it is the perfect set of cheese training wheels. This iconic slice of the processed food industry is magnificent at melting. And that meltability is an important principle to keep in mind as you move forward in your grilled cheese life. It's all well and good to include certain cheeses in your grilled cheese life exclusively for their distinct flavor, but if you want that signature goo factor, you also need to include a cheese that's prone to melt (like mozzarella or provolone). Welcome to the art of cheese blending. For my ideal grilled cheese, I am especially fond of raclette--it's an exceptional melting cheese that also brings pungent flavor to the table. For the recipe below, we also threw some cheddar into the mix. Because you only get one life to live, and why not?
4) Even distribution. Unless you are actually using a uniformly pressed American cheese square, you need to shred and evenly spread [on bread] for the best melting results. Because I dig an oozing creamy grilled cheese, I mixed my cheese with a bit of mayo for the recipe below (*note: you don't have to, but this does help stretch your cheese a bit farther). This helps to further ensure even distribution and allows you to spread the cheese on the interior sides of both bread slices--which is super helpful if you're throwing some other non-cheese components into the mix, as this allows the melting cheese to encompass the other ingredients so that your sandwich doesn't fall apart. And speaking of those other components...
5) Keep the non-cheese add-ins in check. I'm something of a purist; so to me, once you start adding in layers of meat and veggies, you're making a toasted sandwich, not a grilled cheese. I'm sure some very logical person could pose a very logical argument against me on that, but I believe cheese should be the star of a grilled cheese, the end. When the cheese is not the star of a grilled cheese and is left in a supporting role, you lose the tightly sealed toasty gooey package quality that makes a grilled cheese a grilled cheese (take that for logic). Not to mention, part of losing that tightly sealed toast gooey package quality is that your sandwich is apt to fall apart. Few things in this life are more demoralizing than your sandwich falling apart into a hot skillet when you try to flip it. To live your best grilled cheese life, keep it simple. A slice of tomato and a few fresh basil leaves are my absolute favorite grilled cheese "extras." They bring enough brightness to compliment the cheese, but never threaten to upstage it.
OK, so now that I've officially killed the word "gooey," I bid you--go forth and grill cheese.
Tomato-Basil Grilled Cheese
2 tsp. olive oil 4 (1-oz.) slices whole-grain bread 2 Tbsp. canola mayonnaise 1 1/4 oz. raclette cheese, shredded 1 1/4 oz. light sharp cheddar cheese, shredded 2 (1/4-inch-thick) tomato slices dash black pepper 4 fresh basil leaves, torn into pieces
1. Place oil in a small bowl. Brush 1 side of each bread slice evenly with oil; place oil side down on a cutting board. Combine mayonnaise and both cheese in a medium bowl, stirring with a rubber spatula to combine; spread cheese mixture evenly over non-oiled side of each bread slice. Place 1 tomato slice on top of cheese mixture on 2 of the bread slices; sprinkle evenly with black pepper and basil leaves. Close sandwiches with remaining bread slices.
2. Heat a medium skillet over medium heat; coat with cooking spray. Add sandwiches to pan; cook 3 minutes or until browned. Turn sandwich; cook 2 minutes or bread is browned and cheese is gooey. Serve immediately.
SERVES 2 (serving size: 1 sandwich) CALORIES 335; FAT 18g (sat 6.2g, mono 6.1g, poly 3g); PROTEIN 17g; CARB 26g; FIBER 4g; SUGARS 4g; CHOL 26mg; IRON 2mg; SODIUM 626mg; CALC 352mg
Other Favorite Grilled Cheese Sandwiches: