Does the world need a guide to making grilled cheese sandwiches? Probably not. They are one of the most basic things you can make, after all. Even a grade schooler could be trusted to put one together.
But even if we think we’ve mastered the game, it doesn’t hurt to take a step back and ask what exactly is a grilled cheese sandwich? What makes it great? How can we make it even better? Because if any food is worthy of existential questioning, it should be the one we know and love best, right?
Or maybe you’ve just ended up with grilled cheeses that are burnt black on the outside and rock solid on the inside more times than you’d care to admit (it’s okay—it even happens to the best of us). Not to worry, though: with these rules in mind, you’ll be on your way to getting golden-crisp, ooey gooey sandwiches each and every time.
1. Choose your bread wisely
Your archetypical grilled cheese is made on pre-sliced white bread, which is a fine choice, but it’s not the only one. Most pullman-style loaves, a good sourdough, or even hardier ryes or whole wheats will get the job done. Whichever bread you use, just make sure that it doesn’t have lots of holes (or the cheese will drip through) and that it’s sliced on the thin side (to ensure that everything gets melted through). And with more strongly-flavored whole grain breads, pick a cheese that will complement it. For example, American cheese would be completely out of place on whole wheat, but nutty taleggio holds up nicely. Get our Grape and Taleggio Grilled Cheese recipe.
2. Butter (or mayo) up
The outsides of your sandwich should have a bit of an oily shellac to them, full of rich, greasy flavor—you’re not aiming to make toast here. You want to have a sense of lightly-fried crispiness on the outside with a softer crumb beneath, the sort that has a slight crackle as you bite into it. There are a few ways to achieve this. You can a) melt butter directly in the skillet, b) melt the butter in the microwave or on the stovetop first, then brush it onto the surfaces of the bread, or c) spread a thin layer of mayonnaise on the outsides of the sandwich before frying it. The last method works especially well because it tends to produce a more evenly browned bread and adds a pleasant tang to the sandwich. Our recipe from Gabrielle Hamilton, who is known for her mayo-coated grilled cheeses, will show you how it’s done. Get Gabrielle Hamilton's Minestrone Soup with Grilled Cheese Sandwiches recipe.
3. Not all cheeses melt equally
Have you ever tried to make a grilled cheese with aged cheddar or pecorino, only to find that you’re stuck with a cheese that’s as hard hot as it is cold? Firm, aged cheeses and fresh cheeses simply don’t melt in ways that are conducive to getting the gooey, runny texture you’re going for here. A young, high moisture cheese should be the base of the sandwich—it has a protein structure that stays strong and stretchy even with heat. Young cheddars, mozzarella, Swiss-style cheeses, and soft cheeses like Camembert or Brie fit the bill perfectly. They’ll give you the stringy, oozing insides that make grilled cheese amazing, as ably demonstrated by this melty Jarlsberg creation. Get our Sweet Hot Mustard and Jarlsberg Grilled Cheese recipe.
4. Don’t be afraid to mix and match your cheeses
Grilled cheeses sandwiches are not like single-origin coffees or fine wines: you can feel free to mix up different types of cheese to get more intense and interesting combinations. This especially holds true if you want to put a crumblier or harder cheese in your sandwich—if you pair it with a more melty cheese, it will have something to hold onto. Combinations like feta and mozzarella, or brie and gorgonzola (like in this recipe from House of Yumm) will give you a bit of both. Get the recipe here.
5. Keep things low and slow
You’re not searing steaks here: grilled cheeses should be cooked slowly at low temperatures so that they get evenly heated, right down to the core. By keeping your stove’s flame just above its lowest setting for a longer period of time, you’re not only more likely to get a completely melted layer of cheese, but you’ll also avoid charring the bread until it’s black. Low heat especially helps with thicker sandwiches that take longer to heat through, like these hefty grilled cheeses with massive chunks of short rib. Get the recipe here.
6. Keep things under pressure
Bread (or sometimes even the pan) can have some kinks in it that prevent it from lying completely flat on the surface, resulting in a sandwich that might be thoroughly toasted in one spot, but practically untouched in another. To avoid any unevenness and get perfectly browned bread, it helps to put a weight on top of the sandwich as it cooks. Another skillet, a plate, or even just pressing down with the back of a spatula will help accomplish this. These Brie, pear, and mustard grilled cheeses get the hang of the technique. Get the recipe here.
7. Don’t stop at the cheese
Cheese should be the star of your sandwich, but that doesn’t mean that other ingredients can’t play a supporting role. Think of creative ways to pair off your cheeses—fruits, veggies, meats, pickles, and spreads all have their place. You can even go totally off the wall, like with this completely bonkers kimchi ramen grilled cheese sandwich. Get the recipe here.
Header image: Sweet Hot Mustard and Jarlsberg Grilled Cheese from Chowhound
Miki Kawasaki is a New York City–based food writer and graduate of Boston University's program in Gastronomy. Few things excite her more than a well-crafted sandwich or expertly spiced curry. If you ever run into her at a dinner party, make sure to hit her up for a few pieces of oddball culinary trivia.