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Saturday, May 7, 2011

In Praise of Grilled Cheese Sandwiches

This post is dedicated to my wonderful doctor, James M. Cleary, M.D., PhD. (who probably has far too little time to make grilled cheese sandwiches for his kids.)

There are at least two kinds of homemade sandwiches commonly referred to as grilled cheese.  One (the kind I grew up with) involves melting cheese over bread in the broiler or toaster-oven.  I think of this now as a toasted cheese sandwich; they are wonderful, but we won't be discussing them here at all.  The second kind is the diner classic: two slices of bread, cheese in the middle, fried in a pan or on a griddle until the bread is brown on the outside and the cheese goo-ily melted within.  There's a kind of magic, or alchemy to this—at least for a watching child—since you can't see the cheese melt.  You have to trust that the browning outside corresponds to the melting inside, and that the sandwich will (if you have your heat set right) turn into something more than the sum of its parts.  It's a valuable lesson in the power of the unknowable.

To Make a Basic Grilled Cheese Sandwich

Things you will need:
Frying pan of correct size for the number of sandwiches you wish to make (pan should have a cover)
Bread: twice as many slices as the number of sandwiches desired
Cheese: usually a mild, medium-hard cheese like American, Swiss, Monterey Jack, etc., 1-2 oz. per sandwich, thinly sliced

To prepare the sandwiches:
  1. Lay out half the bread slices, distribute cheese evenly over them, then top with remaining bread.
  2. Put pan on stove over medium heat until hot.
  3. Melt a lump of butter in the pan, and immediately add as many sandwiches as fit comfortably in the pan. Lower the heat and cover to help the cheese melt.
  4. Check to see if bread is brown after no more than a minute and a half, although more time may be needed for desired results. When bread is brown enough, flip.
  5. The second side should brown faster, so be prepared to check it in 30 seconds or so. When second side is sufficiently browned, remove from heat and enjoy.
  6. Wipe out the pan before making another round of sandwiches, so burned butter doesn't accumulate.

Variations On a Theme
Here's where the fun begins. 
You can, of course, put thin slices of tomato and/or Vidalia onion between cheese slices, in the very center of the sandwiches.  I know, I know, it's been done to death, but this is still one of the best things anyone can do to a grilled cheese sandwich.  But you don't have to stop there: any well-drained vegetable matter you like can be added between the layers of cheese: pickle or olive slices, jalapeño peppers, tapenade, carrot salad, baba ganouj—you name it.  (One of my favorites is chopped-up Indian spicy mango-lime pickle.)  Just make sure the additive is A) soft, and/or sliced thin, so it doesn't make the sandwich filling stand up in big, awkward mounds, and B) either cooked or suitable to eat raw, since what's in the core of the sandwich isn't going to get much more cooked than it already is.  And you'd better keep it down to a teaspoon or so per sandwich, since you don't want to overwhelm the cheese or make everything soggy.
You can do lots of other things to tart the grilled cheese sandwich up, too: rub the bread with a cut clove of garlic, for instance, or spread it ultra-thinly with some kind of fancy mustarddijon, whole-grain honey, or whatever.  The bread itself is subject to change, too.  Why not try rye, artisanal sourdough, or even—gasp—raisin bread?  (The last sounds weird, but I confess I kind of like it.) 
Now to the cheese: here's where you can really rock and roll.  To the basic cheeses, above, you can add shards of any cheese you like: strong-flavored—blue or Camembert—mild and mellow like Cheshire, etc. etc., depending on the taste and sophistication of your audience.  Unless you are very sure of yourself and of your cheese, I would use a base layer of the plain kinds listed above, then sprinkle on bits of the other cheese for flavor.  (For further information on the innumerable kinds of cheese in the world, I recommend the Encyclopedia of Cheese, at
You can add various forms of meat to grilled cheese sandwiches, too.  Crisped bacon is famously delicious, of course.  But what about sliced liverwurst, kielbasa, or country paté?  And a simple piece of leftover ham is wonderful, especially combined with mustard and a mild Gruyere or Emmental cheese.  That may not sound very gourmet, but it's getting awfully close to the classic Croque Monsieur of Paris bistro fame.  Add a slice of roast turkey, dip the sandwich in a little egg batter before frying, and you've got yourself a Monte Cristo.
Obviously, many other variants are possible.  Why not try something completely new?  And please let us know the results of your experiments: we all need to have our horizons broadened. 

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  1. You inspired me so I went to the store and bought some jack cheese and jalapeno peppers to make a lunch time sandwich of my own. It was delicious! The melt gave me a little trouble, I think perhaps I was skimpy on buttering the pan. I added a little more butter then the browning of the bread and the melting of the cheese just fell into sync. Magic for sure!

  2. Yay Tamara! I'll try your no-burn method next time. Thanks!


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