In my heart, I believe the #1 reason most everyone I have ever met loves cheese is because we all have a version of the same memory: tomato soup and a grilled cheese sandwich. In my memory (and probably yours) the sandwich bread began as white but wound up golden brown. The cheese was orange and perfectly gooey when bitten into. It was a little bit sweet and a little bit salty, and it practically dripped down my chin when I pulled my mouth away. There was no butter that I could see, but my fingertips were always slightly shiny when I put the sandwich down. That is the consummate American memory of a grilled cheese. My local diner made them. My college greasy spoon made them. My mom made them.
In every case, the cheese used in that addictive, crunchy, buttery, comforting sandwich was “American cheese.” Maybe at a fancy friend’s house the American cheese slices came individually wrapped in plastic. My folks bought it at the supermarket deli counter, sliced up by the half-pound. When I started working in cheese I began to wonder if an equally masterful grilled cheese could be made using better cheese. By better I mean just as tasty, but made without additives. A fun fact is that, by definition, “American cheese” is a pasteurized processed cheese. It’s cheese that is processed usually by melting it down with whey, milk protein and emulsifying salts. That’s why it melts so well and so quickly, and that’s why it’s gooey rather than greasy. In short, the processing is why American cheese makes grilled sandwiches so fantastic.
So, is it possible to get a similar result with cheeses that aren’t combined with all the additives? The answer is…you can get pretty darn close. Flavor-wise, there is no other cheese that will give you the vaguely sweet/salty hit that sliced American does. But, if you can master the techniques of grilled sandwich making, you can definitely achieve the perfect, golden, toasty exterior and the delightfully melty interior — and then you can learn to enjoy a whole bunch of other flavors that I for one find equally satisfying.
Grilled Cheese Technique
If you don’t get the technique right you’re going to wind up with burned bread or unmelted cheese or, horror of horrors, both! Here’s what you need to do:
- Use a non-stick pan. I know there are diehards out there who won’t be separated from their cast-iron skillets but if there’s one time to make the break, this is it. You want toasty bread, not grilled or burned bread. Also, when the cheese melts just right it spills out the sides of the bread. In a non-stick pan you get to scrape up those little cheese toasties and eat them as a bonus. They’re likely to burn or go molten greasy in a cast-iron.
- Butter the bread, not the pan. Evenly coat one side each of two slices of bread. This will ensure even, golden crispness rather than underdone and overdone patches. And speaking of bread, check your ingredients. Bread with added sugar is going to brown more quickly and makes the race to melty goodness tougher. Seek out breads with no sugar added.
- Most critically, if you’re going to branch out from pre-sliced American: you’ve gotta grate the cheese yourself. I know it’s extra work, but large-hole box-grating your cheese will allow it to melt evenly and more quickly so your cheese gets gooey before the bread incinerates. Plan on 2-3 ounces per sandwich. Let’s get serious about the cheese!
- Once you’ve prepped everything, preheat the non-stick pan over medium/medium-low heat for about 2 minutes. Drop in a slice of bread, buttered side down. Evenly distribute pinches of grated cheese. Top with the second slice of bread, buttered side up.
- Cover with a pot lid! Resist the urge to touch it, move it around, peek underneath. Just leave it alone for 2 minutes. Now, after the 2 minutes are up, you can use a spatula to peek underneath. When it’s golden, flip it and, leaving it uncovered, gently press down on it with the spatula to finish cooking. This will take another 2 minutes, but the liquidy cheese melting out the sides is a good sign that you’re nearly there.