It’s easy to overlook the grilled cheese as a culinary delight. Reminiscent of rainy childhood afternoons, and most typically prepared with highly processed ingredients, this hot sandwich can in fact yield an opportunity for fresh and delicious experimentation — even for the most cooking-averse grown ups.
“Put together properly, you can really experience the perfect bite,” says Nancy Silverton, whose famed Campanile made waves in L.A. with its sandwich nights — so much so that she went on publish “Nancy Silverton’s Sandwich Book.”
Says Silverton, “If it’s the perfect bread, the perfect cheese, and it’s toasted properly, you don’t need anything else, right?”
Indeed, the simplicity of the recipe means that every cook is free to experiment at will. “It really just comes down to certain people have certain preferences,” says Mindy Friedlander, who owns Jerry’s Sandwich Shop, a popular lunchtime stop in Chicago’s West Loop. With the sandwich relying largely on personal taste, you’ve only got three decisions to make: Bread, cheese and cooking method.
Heavy, dense breads will make it harder for heat to penetrate the cheese, so if you’re not using a press — which skips the problem by compressing breads and heating from both sides — either slice them thinly or pick a lighter bread. And think briefly about the bread’s flavor. “What bread’s going to go best with the cheese you’re using?” asks Sicha Ortuzar, a partner and chef at midtown Manhattan’s ‘Wichcraft. For adventurous lunchers, Ortuzar serves a cheddar grilled cheese with ham and poached pears on cranberry-pecan bread.
With cheeses, remember that you’re going for a consistency best described as gooey. Because cheese is just a fancy mix of water and fat, extremely aged cheeses, like parmesan, have little water and can disintegrate into an oily mess. Conversely, spreadable cheeses like soft goat cheese can easily turn into a puddle. From there, flavor reigns king, and if you can afford to splurge on high-quality cheese, your tastebuds will likely thank you. “If you go to the gourmet cheese section, they’re going to have a whole lot more flavor,” says Margaux Sky, author of “Fabulous Fillings and Beautiful Breads.”
If your budget doesn’t allow for the finest of cheeses, it can help to add in a few embellishments. The most traditional are tomato and onion, but Ortuzar suggests taking a cue from cheese aficionados. “[Think of it like] eating things from a cheese board — the condiments people serve with that,” he says.
Power of the panini pressOnce you’ve nailed down your ingredients, it’s time for assembly. If you’re worried about your waistline, you can bypass the butter; a seasoned or nonstick pan makes it unnecessary. Should you succumb to butter’s temptation, Silverton recommends using clarified butter when possible, since it has a higher burning point. For a lighter taste, you can also just brush on a little olive oil.
Cheese will melt more quickly and evenly if it's grated, but don’t go overboard. Two ounces will be plenty for flavor, and more will likely spill out as the sandwich melts.
If you want to dress it up with fresh vegetables or spreads, you’re wading into murky territory. Some cooks swear by simply insulating tomato or apple slices between piles of cheese, which helps to keep the bread from becoming soggy. Others champion adding extras in after cooking. Just remember that the former approach will yield hot, soft ingredients, while the latter will give you a crisper, fresher taste.
Once assembled, many cooks — Silverton, Ortuzar and Friedlander among them — swear by a panini press, which guarantees even heat and can prepare two sandwiches at once. If you’re using the stovetop, you’ll want to use a low to medium flame, says Ortuzar. “If its too hot, the bread is going to crisp up too fast and the cheese is not going to melt,” he cautions.
Wherever your experimentation takes you, don’t overlook the plain and simple pleasures of lightly buttered bread and melted cheese, says Silverton. “When we’d do those sandwich nights at Campanile, no matter how fancy and innovative the sandwiches were, the most popular in the end was just the simple grilled cheese.”
The Perfect: Grilled Cheese
Experimentation aside, here’s a simple grilled cheese you can make with ingredients you likely already have in the fridge.
- 2 slices whole wheat or whole-wheat sourdough bread
- 2 ounces grated sharp or extra sharp cheddar cheese, preferably white
- 1-2 slices tomato
- 1 slice onion
- 1 T. butter, softened
1. Lightly butter outside of one piece of bread.
2. Spread half of cheese on bread.
3. Place tomato and onion on top of cheese.
4. Spread remaining cheese on top of tomato and onion.
5. Place second piece of bread on top.
6. Butter top slice of bread.
7. Heat seasoned cast-iron, or nonstick, skillet over medium-low flame. [See variation*]
8. Place sandwich in pan.
9. Cook until underside is golden brown and cheese is beginning to melt, 1-3 minutes.
10. Flip sandwich.
11. Cook until underside is golden brown.
12. Remove from pan and turn off stove.
13. Cut sandwich in half and serve immediately.
Variation: Grilled Cheese en masse
Need to make a slew of sandwiches? Assemble up to 8, put them on a nonstick baking sheet and bake them at 350 degrees until the underside browns, about 5-10 minutes. Flip and cook until underside browns, another 3-5 minutes. Besides churning out a stack of sandwiches, any add-ins will soften nicely — my favorite is green apple — and, done right, onions will begin to sweeten in the heat.
Classic Grilled Cheese Upscale ingredients and simple presentation made this the biggest seller at Nancy Silverton’s sandwich nights at Campanile. Silverton favors Gruyere for its distinct flavor and “unique meltability” — when hot, it stretches into satisfying strings as you pull the sandwich away from your mouth.
- 8 slices white or whole-wheat sourdough bread
- 8 ounces Gruyere cheese, sliced into 24-32 1/16 inch-thick slices
- Softened butter, about 2-4 T.
1. Turn panini press on and set it to high. Let it heat up for 5-10 minutes.
2. Butter each slice of bread. Ideally, you should line the bread up as if you are making the sandwich and butter both outsides of the bread.
3. Set half of the bread slices buttered side down and cover them with the cheese slices, folding them over if they extend past the edges of the bread. Place the top slice of bread over the cheese, buttered side up.
4. Close the top of the grill and cook for until lightly browned, a few minutes.
5. Serve immediately.
‘Wichcraft Grilled cheddar with smoked ham, pear and mustard on cranberry-pecan bread
A complicated medley of flavors make this grilled cheese a meal in your hand.
- 8 Slices good quality cranberry-pecan bread
- 10 oz sharp Vermont cheddar, (8 slices)
- 8 thick slices (1/8 of an inch) of good quality smoked ham (such as Jambon Royale from Niman Ranch, available through D’artagnan)
- 6 oz poached pears (see below)
- Dijon mustard
- Fresh ground black pepper
Yield: about 1-½ pounds
- 2 pears
- 2/3-cup sugar
- 2/3-cup cider vinegar
- 2/3-cup water
- 1 piece star anise
- 1 tsp whole black peppercorns
- 2 ea cloves
- Pinch of dried hot pepper, such as ground pepperoncino, cayenne, or red chilis
- ½ cinnamon stick
Combine all ingredients, except for pears, in a pot and bring to a simmer. Simmer for 15 minutes.
Peel and core the pears, slice at about 1/8 of an inch. Add the pears to the liquid and simmer for a couple of minutes. Remove from the heat and cool in the liquid.
To assemble the sandwiches:
1. Lay four of the slices on a board and place a slice of cheese on each one. Lay two slices of the ham on each sandwich
2. Remove pears from the poaching liquid, being careful to leave the spices behind. Allow it to drip so the bread stays dry
3. Lay the pears over the ham
4. Grind fresh pepper over the pears and cover with remaining cheese slices.
5. Spread a thin layer of Dijon mustard to the top slice of bread and place on top of the sandwich
6. Grill the sandwiches on a hot Panini grill; no oil or butter is necessary. If you don’t have a grill you can cook them on a hot sauté pan, brush the bread with a little olive oil, cook the first side on the top range, flip it and finish in the oven until the cheese is thoroughly melted
Tracie McMillan is a Brooklyn-based writer who covers food and social issues.