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A grilled cheese is a grilled cheese, right? I mean, it's the first meal that most of us learn how to cook at home by ourselves. It's the perfect midnight snack or soup-dipper. It's great for kids but is never turned down by an adult. It's salty, gooey, crisp, buttery, and comforting in all the right ways.
But there's grilled cheese, then there's GRILLED CHEESE. When you're faced with a perfect grilled cheese, globules of cheese slowly oozing out of the edges, a pure, even golden-brown face suffused deeply with butter, you know even before you bite into it if the experience is going to be transcendental. It's the way you can feel the butter in the bread, but it doesn't leave your fingers greasy (at least not too greasy). The way the crust is crisp but flexes ever-so-slightly so that you know there is a layer of tender crumb waiting underneath before you hit the molten core. The way the aroma—that buttery, brown aroma—curls up into your nose just before you take the first bite.
And that's all before you even get that glorious cocktail of textures and fat into your mouth.
So how do you get there? What are the secrets to the best grilled cheese?
We've learned a thing or two about it over the years. Here are our best tips and our favorite recipe.
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. For the true classic flavor, nothing is better than ultra-gooey, not-too-sharp American cheese. As we found in our American Cheese taste test, so long as you aren't going for vegan cheese slices, any old American cheese will do. I personally use Kraft Deli Deluxe Singles.
If you want to get fancy, a young cheddar, Swiss-style cheeses like Gruyère (or its French cousin Comté), or young Italian and French cheeses like young Fontina, Tallegio, or Brie go well, too. 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.
If possible, it's best to go with sliced cheese as opposed to grated. Sliced cheese is easier to distribute evenly, less prone to making odd holes in the interior of your sandwich, and often melts better (many of the best melting cheeses are too soft to grate effectively).
In addition to the obvious requirement that your bread must be 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.
I use either Pepperidge Farm or Arnold white sliced sandwich bread for my grilled cheese. It's got a bit more substance than Wonderbread and its ilk, but not so much that it becomes tough. If you can get your hands on it, Japanese-style shokupan will make the finest grilled cheese you've ever had.
Low and slow is the way to go with grilled cheese. Not so slow that the bread dehydrates, but slow enough that you can achieve a thick, even, golden brown crust on each side before the sandwich starts to burn. This means using a heavy pan. The easiest is to use a non-stick pan with an an aluminum core, which will distribute heat evenly and allows you to swirl your sandwich around, achieving more even cooking. A cast iron skillet that's been preheated for about 10 minutes over low/medium-low heat will work as well.
Make sure to use enough butter so that it really forms a good layer of contact with the bread. Butter does more than add fat and flavor—it provides a medium through which heat is distributed. If you don't use enough butter, you'll get spotty browning. Also, do not allow your butter to burn or brown. The browning should be slow browning of the proteins and sugars in the bread, not the milk solids in the butter.
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. 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.
I only ever use unsalted butter at home (it's more versatile), but I always felt there was something missing from my grilled cheese sandwiches until I realized that without the salt added from salted butter, that childhood flavor just wasn't there. Seasoning the cooked sandwich with a pinch of kosher salt solves that problem nicely.
Stay tuned over the next couple weeks for a dozen grilled cheese variations.
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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.