Slideshow SLIDESHOW: 21+ Ways to Upgrade Your Grilled Cheese

[Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt unless otherwise noted]

Today is National Grilled Cheese day, we're told, so we decided to celebrate one of our favorite sandwiches in all its glory by giving you not 5, not 10, but a full 21+ ways to upgrade your basic grilled cheese.

But first, a bit of introduction is necessary, I believe.

(Feel free to jump straight to the slideshow »)

Grilled Cheese: Defined

Before we jump right into it, we need to set up a few parameters as to the definition. Exactly what is and what isn't a grilled cheese anyway? Obviously, cheese and bread must be involved, as well as some form of grilling. But does an open-faced Reuben count? Or how about a Mexican pambazo, dipped in sauce and griddled, with a million other ingredients?

We've thought long and hard about this, and here are a few basic rules that we think everyone can agree upon.

A Grilled Cheese Must...

  • be a closed sandwich, griddled on both sides.
  • have cheese as the primary ingredient. Other ingredients can complement, but not overwhelm the cheese.
  • be made with sliced bread. Thus a sandwich made with whole, crust-on loaves like an Italian panini or a Cubano do not qualify.
  • be served hot all the way through, with the cheese melted.
  • be cooked on a flat, greased surface until golden brown. In extreme circumstances it may be cooked on an outdoor grill over an open fire. A grilled cheese may never be baked.

Agreed? Let's move on to some details on ingredients.

The Cheese

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A grilled cheese doesn't work with just any old cheese. You've got to have a cheese with just the right melting characteristics. Dry, crumbly, fresh cheeses like goat cheese won't melt properly. Ditto for overly aged cheeses like a Parmesan or hard Pecorino. Some of our favorites include the classic American and young Cheddar, Swiss-style cheeses like Gruyère (or its French cousin Comté), or young Italian and French cheeses like Tallegio or Brie. As long as it melts, it's got a place in our sandwiches.

If you do like the flavor of a non-melter, it's acceptable to treat it like another topping—that is, pair it with a cheese that does melt. A mozzarella and feta combo makes a fine sandwich, as does a Fontina and Parmigiano, for instance.

The Bread

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Aside from necessarily being sliced, the only other rule here is that it can't be too hole-y (or your cheese will drip out), and it can't be sliced too thick, (lest your cheese won't melt). White bread and American is what many of us grew up on, but if you want to go fancier, feel free to use a nice hand-sliced Italian ciabatta, a good sourdough, or a French boule. Grilled cheese is a great way to use up day-old bread, as the grilling process will resuscitate it a bit.

The Method

The best method I've ever seen for making a perfect grilled cheese comes from Adam Kuban. His secret? Grill the bread on both sides. That's right. Grill two slices of bread in butter, flip'em over so that the browned sides are facing up, add your cheese, and close your sandwich so that the cheese is sandwiched between the browned surfaces. (Here's his basic recipe). Not only will this get you better tasting bread infused with more butter, but it'll also give your cheese a head start on getting extra-melty.

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Some other tips to keep in mind:

  • Use butter, and salt your skillet before adding the bread. I like to melt the butter, then sprinkle the skillet or griddle with a light sprinkling of salt to season the outside of the sandwich (you can skip the extra salt if you use salted butter). If you want to really wild, leave out the butter and instead spread a layer of mayonnaise on each surface of your sandwich before grilling. It'll melt and brown, adding a touch of its sweet and tangy flavor.
  • Low and slow is the way to go. Grill your sandwiches at medium-low heat. Try to speed up the process and you end up with a sandwich that's hot on the outside but still cool and unmelted in the middle. It's also harder to get it to brown properly.
  • Keep things moving. I like to swirl my sandwiches around the skillet or griddle with a light pressure the entire time they cook to make sure that they get a perfectly even, deep brown color.
  • Serve 'em while they're hot!

On to the toppings.

Instant Upgrades: Straight-From-the-Package Add-Ins

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The simplest grilled cheese upgrade I know is to squirt a good amount of yellow mustard onto the plate and dip as you go along. The next step up from that is to actually—wait for it—put another ingredient in between the slices. It's not that hard. Here are just a few ideas.

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  • Fresh Vegetables, Fruits, and Herbs: To each their own, but to our taste, fresh juicy vegetables with distinctive sweet or tart elements work best. Cucumber in a grilled cheese? No thanks. Things that work: Slices of fresh tomato, figs, tart apples (like Granny Smith), pears (even under-ripe ones!), sweet grapes like Concords, tart grapes like under-ripe Muscats, kiwi, sliced hot peppers (like serrano or jalapeño, or if you really want to torture your diners, habañero*), avocado (unless you, like me, hate the whole warm avocado thing), fresh basil leaves, chopped tarragon, or chopped rosemary. Oh, also cranberries, sliced strawberries, dried fruits like dried cranberries, raisins, currants, or prunes (or to get extra fancy, soak 'em in sweetened brandy beforehand).
  • Pickles and Other Cured Things: Pickles are the perfect complement to grilled cheese. The acidity and saltiness of a good pickle cut right through the rich cheese like the cornichons on a fancy-pants charcuterie platter. Try dill or bread & butter chips, pickle relish, British-style Branston pickle or piccalilli, sliced pickled jalapeño, olive (or better yet, Muffaletta-style olive salad), chopped French cornichons, capers, or sliced caper berries.
  • Deli Meats: Easy to add, salty, meaty, everything you want in a grilled cheese.
  • Jams, Chutneys, and Other Condiments: Anything that would go well on your cheese plate would go well in a grilled cheese. I particularly like sweet, jammy things like guava paste, cranberry relish, or fig jam. Also good: red pepper jelly, olive tapenade, honeycomb (try it out with blue cheese!), ketchup (if you really must), grainy mustard, apricot preserves, strawberry or raspberry preserves, orange marmalade, sliced preserved lemons, Sriracha (not for me, thanks), Buffalo wing sauce, apple cider jam, or a hot pepper relish.
  • Other Things: Now we start to enter into wacky territory. Pretzels are great with cheese sauce, so why not crunched up pretzels, or better yet, potato chips? Or for a meta-grilled cheese, how about a grilled cheese with crunched up Cheez-its? Melted milk chocolate works (try it with brie), as does Nutella.

*Fun prank: make a tray of grilled cheese sandwiches and hide a slice of habañero in one of them. Edible Russian roulette.

The Variations

So many variations, where to start? Let's just jump right in, shall we?

Of course, there's the one we all know and love. Bread, oozy, gooey, melty American cheese, griddled in butter until golden brown. Does life get much better than this? I think not. It does, however, get a bit more interesting...

You can go with the Grilled Cheese with Antipasti. Roasted red peppers, prosciutto, sun-dried tomatoes and a few torn basil leaves come together with melted mozzarella. I like to fry the whole thing in some of the oil from the sun-dried tomato tin. It's what your grandmother would have made if she owned an Italian deli and also made grilled cheeses.

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Or perhaps if your other grandmother were an Italian cheesemaker, she'd fry up a Grilled Caprese for lunch. Classic flavors of ripe sliced tomato, fresh mozzarella, and basil, all cooked toasted in extra-virgin olive oil.

Italian not your speed? How about a quick trip south of the border with a Queso Asado Doble Caliente? That would be shredded cheddar (or Jack!) cheese, mixed up with chopped pickled jalapeños and chopped canned chipotle peppers with a handful of chopped cilantro, grilled up between the buns.

The Chili Grilled Cheese Dog will take you right back to the ballpark. Thin-slice a single hot dog, fry it up on a hot skillet, then lay it on top of a slice of bread lined with American cheese. Spoon on some chili, add another slice of cheese, then close'er up and grill in the fat rendered out of the hot dog. Not big enough? A double dog'll do ya'!

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Another classic flavor combo, the Faux Cuban Grilled Cheese isn't quite a cubano (it's missing the roast pork and the crusted bread), but who're you kidding—it's the pickles, cheese, and mustard that make the sandwich, right? As Ed says, "pickles instantly make any sandwich better." I know a lot of Cubans who'd agree*.

*OK, one Cuban. I know one Cuban.

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Want to impress your dinner date? Whip up a couple of French Melts. That's a big ol' pile of sweet, caramelized onions (see here for an easy technique to speed up the process) melted with a fat slab of Comté cheese. It's like French onion soup in an easy-to-pick-up, extra-buttery package. Set the table cloth and pull out the fine china, dear, tonight I'm wearing pants to the table!

I love muffalettas as much as the next guy, but I've often asked myself, how awesome would this be if it were hot? The answer: awesome. With The Grilled Muffaleeze, we combine a real New Orleans-style olive salad made with olives, chopped pickled carrots, cauliflower, capers, and plenty of olive oil, with sliced sopressata, capicola, and melted provolone cheese, all grilled in olive oil. A hot bite of NOLA in your mouth.

If all the extravagance is wearing you out, you could always go to go extra extra simple. Four words: Potato. Chips. In. The. Sandwich.

OK, five words. Still just as tasty.

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I like a bit of dessert in between my main courses, so we'll make a brief interlude to discuss something that most of us already know: Nutella makes most things better, including a Grilled Brie with Nutella. The key here is to slice the bread extra thick and grill extra slow so that the melted cheese and chocolate ooze in and out of every pore. I'm not going to lie: this is a delicious mess of a sandwich.

Equally delicious and messy: have you ever wondered to yourself what would happen if you turned bacon-stuffed Jalapeño poppers into a sandwich? We sure did. That's why we roasted jalapeños (you can do them directly on an open flame until charred), fried bacon, and shoved it all into a sandwich with American cheese and cream cheese, then fried it all in the rendered bacon fat. Smokey, spicy, creamy, the The Stuffed Jalepeño Popreeze is everything you want in a bar snack in convenient sandwich form.

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Getting back to basics, the Grilled Kimcheeze is a modern classic, playing off the whole Korean/American fusion thing. Turns out that kimchi belongs in a grilled cheese about as much as a slice of American cheese belongs in a bowl of kimchi jjigae. (That is, a lot.)

Raise a glass of sherry and take a siesta to celebrate The Spaniard, made with sweet cooked figs, toasted marcona almonds, and young manchego cheese (don't go for the old stuff, or it won't melt). Olé!

EXTREME Grilled Cheese Sandwiches

These are the ones that start with the basic premise of a grilled cheese, but go one step beyond simply changing up the fillings.

The Hamburger Fatty Melt

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[Photograph: Adam Kuban]

A monstrous creation whose origins are unknown (perhaps the Mossy Creek Cafe in Fisherville Virginia?), but gained worldwide infamy when Adam wrote about it a few years ago. What is it, you ask? Only a hamburger with two grilled cheese sandwiches as its bun.

Yeah. Shove that on your griddle and fry it.

Want to go one step further? How about the Double Bacon Burger Fatty Melt? Two burgers, 12 slices of bacon, seven slices of cheese, 6 slices of bread, and one hell of a grilled cheese coma.

The Crisp Grilled Cheese

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[Photograph: Maria Del Mar Sacasa]

If cheese on the inside isn't good enough for you, how about cheese inside and out? This beauty gets grilled, then re-grilled in a thin layer of parmesan which crisps up on the outside like a cheese cracker.

Grilled Cheese With Tomato Soup-In-One

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[Photograph: Maggie Hoffman]

How many times has this happened to you: You take your grilled cheese, reach for your cup of tomato soup, dunk it in, and accidentally splash your soup out onto the dashboard of the car you're driving. It rolls down and lands in your lap giving you second degree burns on your nether-regions, causing you to jump the divider into oncoming traffic, then you die. Sound familiar?

Finally, there's a solution for those who want to eat their grilled cheese and tomato soup on-the-go. That's right, it's a grilled cheese sandwich with a tomato soup-flavored spread made from sun-dried tomato paste, cream cheese, and a few seasonings stuffed right into the sandwich.

Problem solving at its finest!

The Grilled Cheese Eggsplosion

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One of my favorite breakfasts: cut a hole out of a slice of bread, cook in butter, break an egg into the hole. Well, we wondered what would happen if we built a grilled cheese out of two of those bad boys. We did it, and deliciousness ensued.

Look at every one of these beauties in the slideshow »

So tell us, Serious Eaters, what are your favorite ways to upgrade your grilled cheese?

About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.

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