Some people put macaroni and cheese at the top of their “comfort food” list, but for me, nothing beats a grilled cheese sandwich. The melting, oozing cheese between slices of crisp, buttery bread is utterly seductive and totally satisfying. Best of all, making a really great grilled cheese sandwich takes almost no effort yet can be as gratifying as a dish that takes all day to cook. While researching a book on American cheesemakers, I grabbed every opportunity to hone my technique, and along the way, I invented several variations to keep things interesting.
The big three: great-tasting cheese, thinly sliced bread, and butter. The most important ingredient in this sandwich is obviously the cheese. Pick a good-quality cheese, and if you want that oozy, creamy cheese center, be sure it’s a good melter. Figure one to two ounces of cheese per sandwich. Instead of cutting slices, I like to coarsely grate the cheese using the largest holes on a box grater—grated cheese melts faster and more evenly. (Cheeses like Brie and fresh goat cheese can’t be grated, of course, so just remove any rind, which won’t melt, and slice or spread-the cheese.)
I’ll say right now that I judge any grilled cheese sandwich first and foremost on how crispy-crunchy the bread is, which usually correlates directly to how thinly the bread is sliced. I find that 1/4-inch slices give good, crisp results. Thickly sliced, chewy-textured bread competes with the melty cheese, which is the star of this show. Regular sliced white bread will do the job, but I prefer something with more flavor and substance, such as Italian country bread, sourdough, egg bread, or rye.
What’s the best choice for the cooking fat? Grilled cheese demands butter, which supplies flavor, richness, and that classic toasty golden color to the bread. It works best to spread softened butter right on the bread rather than to melt it in the pan. This way, you’ll use exactly the amount of butter the bread needs, and the sandwich won’t get greasy. If the butter is cold, it won’t spread easily and will rip into your bread, so pop a stick in the microwave for five seconds to soften it.
Keys to a great grilled cheese sandwich
• Use a nonstick skillet or griddle. This prevents sticking, even when some of the cheese oozes out of the sides. In a skillet, you’ll need to cook the sandwiches in batches.
• Heat the pan well and have a lid handy. The hot, dry pan helps crisp the buttered bread. I keep the lid on only long enough to let the cheese begin to melt. Then I flip the sandwich and let it finish cooking uncovered so it crisps rather than steams.
• Press the sandwiches firmly with a spatula after flipping. The bread needs maximum contact with the pan for the most crispness. Just before they’re done, I flip them once more and press again—a minor step, but it ensures that crisp crunch.