The look of confusion is priceless. Every time I mention to someone that I'm going to be "grilling cheese," I watch them slowly try to parse what I'm saying. He surely meant to say 'grilled cheese,' right? Nope, I'm not talking about making a sandwich with melted cheese in it. I'm talking about taking a slab of cheese, throwing it on the grill, and cooking it until browned on the outside and softened on the inside.
The concept often seems impossible to the uninitiated, but ever since I first set eyes on grilled halloumi at a gyro shop, it's been a crucial element of my grilling repertoire. The magical hard cheese sears beautifully while retaining its shape over high heat; I love cooking it up for guests who first marvel at the notion that cheese can be grilled, and then fall for its salty flavor and chewy texture.
Although halloumi has long been my go-to, it's not the only grill-worthy cheese out there. So, without further ado, meet our five grill-able cheeses:
Origin: Cyprus, Greece.
Milk: Goat, sheep.
Use: In salad, skewers, sandwiches.
There's no better place to start than with halloumi, the rightful king of grilling cheese. The salty, semi-hard goat's and sheep's milk cheese hails from Cyprus and has a high melting point that makes it suitable to grill. In my heavily Greek neighborhood, halloumi can be found in almost every supermarket at a reasonable price. But, after writing about it a number of times, I've learned from all of you that it can be quite pricey in areas where it's not as plentiful. I urge you to take the plunge anyway—it's entirely worth it.
In its raw state, halloumi is dense and hard...not exactly the kind of stuff you'd want to put on a board next to some Comté and Gorgonzola. But once grilled or pan-fried, its exterior turns crispy and golden-brown, while the inside softens without melting, for a pleasantly squeaky, chewy bite.
It's an especially versatile cheese, great in everything from salads to skewers and sandwiches. My favorite, though, is still the classic: loaded into a pita with tomato, red onion, lettuce, and tzatziki, where the substantial cheese provides a filling, salty base for the fresh vegetables and tangy, cooling sauce.
Milk: Sheep, goat.
Use: As an appetizer with lemon juice and black pepper.
Like halloumi, kefalotyri is made from sheep's or goat's milk, but it's a step up in both hardness and saltiness, with a bit less tang. This Greek cheese also has a very high melting point that allows it to be browned on the grill without turning into a gooey mess. Once cooked, its texture is creamier than that of halloumi, but still delivers a nice chew.
The strong salty character of kefalotyri makes it a little less all-purpose than halloumi—I find it to be a little overpowering in certain settings. I like it best as traditional saganaki—served grilled as an appetizer with a splash of fresh lemon juice and sprinkle of black pepper. It's a simple preparation, but one that perfectly showcases its full flavor.
Origin: Central and South America.
Use: In tacos.
This "grilling cheese" is a bit of an oddity. I can't say I know much about it, but I've seen it regularly in the Central and South American cheese section at my local grocery stores. It's not a traditional cheese as far as I can tell, but it is manufactured to have the properties that make it good for the grill. I bought it once thinking it would be a less expensive alternative to halloumi, but I quickly found out that was a misinformed assumption.
This cheese is notably softer than halloumi or kefalotyri, with a very fine texture. I initially doubted whether it would even work on the grill, but fortunately it lived up to its name, darkening over the flames while keeping its form. With a mild flavor, it's the kind of ingredient that really needs seasoning to shine; after some experimentation, my solution came in taco form.
The mellow flavor of the cheese pairs well with a fresh and spicy pico de gallo, and an accompanying slice of avocado enhances the dish's creamy texture. The cheese makes for a satisfying vegetarian taco with a grilled touch, while the toppings do the heavy lifting in the flavor department.
To make the mild-flavored grilling cheese shine, pair it with bold seasonings and fresh, spicy toppings.
Use: Paired with fruity and tart salsa.
Queso panela is a Mexican basket cheese made from cows milk. It has a fine, semi-soft texture that has more moisture than the previous cheeses. Meanwhile, its flavor is light and fresh with a touch of salt that clearly separates it from the blander "grilling cheese."
With its softness and moisture, queso panela doesn't exactly feel like a grill-friendly cheese. And in certain ways, it isn't—the higher water content prevents it from browning à la halloumi or kefalotyri, but it does retain its shape and remain perfectly manageable on the grill.
Although it doesn't display all the hallmark qualities of a great grilling cheese, the dish I put together with my cooked queso panela is my favorite of them all. It starts with a roasted tomatillo and poblano salsa that I spread across the bottom of a plate. Then, I nestle the slices of cheese into the sauce and finish it with a spoonful of onion and cilantro on top of each piece. The fruity and tart salsa is an excellent companion for the mild cheese, which gets a pleasantly fresh crunchiness from the garnish.
Use: Paired with olive oil, fresh herbs and crushed red peppers and served with baguette.
Having encountered pan-fried versions of provoleta, Argentina's melted provolone dish, I figured it was worth a shot moving the cheese directly onto the grill. And while provolone may not be a 100% grillable cheese, it works enough to make this list (albeit with a caveat or two).
I probably should've gone with a harder, higher quality provolone—the deli version I bought only did alright on the grill. I was hoping for a nice sear, but instead the cheese softened and stuck to the grates a bit. Luckily, it doesn't melt too quickly, so it's possible to soften one side, flip it, and soften the other with relatively little trouble.
Choose harder, higher quality provolone for a proper sear and easier release from the grill.
Off the grill, the provolone continues to melt, resulting in an amorphous blob that can either be taken as a hot mess or a delicious pile of soft and gooey cheese. Although I knew it would photograph as the former, I was anticipating the later. So I dove in, first finishing it with a traditional drizzle of olive oil, chopped fresh oregano, and crushed red pepper. This recipe makes for an incredibly simple but super-flavorful appetizer best enjoyed spread over grilled slices of baguette.
Bonus Cheese: Kasseri
Use: Sandwiched between squash and zucchini.
If I couldn't consider provolone as a true grilling cheese, then kasseri, another Greek cheese, really doesn't make the cut. It's made of sheep's milk, with a semi-hard texture and mildly tangy, salty character. I picked it up to test its grill-ability, but by the time I got my camera to photograph the first slices I threw over the flames, they were almost melted away.
I paid more attention to the next batch of kasseri, which I was able to soften well enough, but I had to work fast because it melted even faster than the provolone.
So if it didn't grill that well, then why included it here?
The dish I put together with the slices I didn't lose to the fire gods was so good that I felt like leaving it off would be doing a disservice to our readers. (Just don't say I didn't warn you!)
To serve it, I rest each piece of grill-softened kasseri between slices of grilled summer squash and then add a squeeze of fresh lemon juice and some mint. The sweet and fresh squash are a great contrast to the cheese's tang, which gets a nice boost from the lemon juice. The mint offers just the right herbal complement to the cheese and vegetables, and it all comes together so well that I've realized a grill-worthy cheese doesn't necessarily have to be like halloumi—even though kasseri won't brown or hold its shape, you can still use the grill to turn it into something delicious.