The Art of the Perfect Grilled Cheese (Plus 20 Variations to Shake Things Up)

Slideshow

The possibilities for grilled cheese are endless. [Photographs: Vicky Wasik]

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.

You know before you even bite into a grilled cheese whether it's going to be transcendental or not. Look at a perfect one, and cheese slowly oozes from the edges. The bread's face is an even golden-brown that's suffused with butter. Pick it up, and you can feel the butter in the bread (but it doesn't leave your fingers greasy—at least, not too greasy), while the crust is crisp yet flexes ever-so-slightly, revealing a layer of tender crumb underneath.

And that's all before you shove that glorious cocktail of textures and fat into your mouth.

So, what are the secrets to the best grilled cheese?

We've learned a thing or two over the years. Here are our best tips and our favorite recipes.

Grilled Cheese Defined

Potato Chip Grilled Cheese

Before we get to the specifics, 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 heat. 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 there 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 the cheese, but none may overwhelm it.
  • be made with sliced bread. Thus a sandwich made with whole, crust-on loaves like a panino or a Cubano do not qualify.
  • be served hot all the way through, with the cheese thoroughly 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 or deep-fried.

Agreed? Let's lock some details down.

The Bread

Aside from having to be sliced, the only other rule here is that your bread can't be too perforated with air bubbles (or your cheese will drip out) or sliced too thick (lest your cheese not melt). White bread and American cheese 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 also a great way to use up day-old bread, since the grilling process will resuscitate it a bit.

The Cheese

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 Taleggio 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 Fontina and Parmigiano, for instance.

The Method

The best method we've seen for making a perfect grilled cheese comes from Adam Kuban. His secret? Griddle the bread on both sides. That's right. Cook 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.

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 lightly with salt to season the outside of the sandwich (you can skip the extra salt if you use salted butter). If you want to go really wild, leave out the butter altogether and instead spread a layer of mayonnaise on every surface of your sandwich before cooking. It'll melt and brown, adding a touch of tangy-sweet flavor.
  • Low and slow is the way to go. Cook 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? Squirt a good amount of yellow mustard onto the plate and dip as you go along. The next step up is to actually—wait for it—put another ingredient in between the slices. It's not that hard. Here are just a few ideas.

  • Fresh Vegetables, Fruits, and Herbs: To each their own, but we prefer fresh juicy vegetables with a distinctive sweet or tart flavor. Cucumber in a grilled cheese? No thanks. Slices of fresh tomato, figs, tart apples like Granny Smiths, pears (even under-ripe ones!), sweet grapes like Concords or their tangier Muscat cousins, even 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: They're easy to add, salty, meaty...basically just what 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.

The Variations

Does life get much better than gooey melted American on golden, buttery bread? I think not. It can, however, be a bit more interesting. You can see all our recipes in the slideshow or jump straight to one from the list below!

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