For many of us, thoughts of grilled cheese sandwiches transport us back to either our own childhood or to our kids'. The ooey-gooey melting cheese encased between two perfectly golden crisps of bread has always been the comfort food of childhood, but now this favorite is benefiting from an adult makeover.
"Enjoying grilled cheese is such a quintessential American experience and as someone whose passion is educating people about American cheeses, I wanted to provide people a chance to indulge in modern-day grilled cheese while remembering the sandwiches of their childhood," says author Laura Werlin, whose book Great Grilled Cheese: 50 Innovative Recipes for Stovetop, Grill, and Sandwich Maker (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2004) provides excellent variations on this classic.
Building the sandwich requires thought. First, the bread. Marlena Spieler, author of Grilled Cheese: 50 Recipes to Make You Melt (Chronicle Books, 2004), offers this advice: "The bread needs to be light enough to crisp up and not dominate the cheese. While I adore dense, dark pumpernickel, it is not the best bread for grilled cheese." As long as the bread doesn't dominate, most types work well. Spieler advises using sourdough, rye, focaccia, pita, light pumpernickel, rosemary, and of course the classic white.
Werlin agrees: "One of the best things about a grilled cheese sandwich is that you can use just about any bread you like. But for everyday grilled cheese, I think sourdough is best. Presliced sourdough is usually just the right thickness, and its tanginess gives the right edge to the gooey filling."
Next, the pièce de résistance: the cheese. "Use a cheese that becomes oozy, perhaps even stringy, when melted. Hard cheeses such as Parmigiano-Reggiano will not melt, although they will add flavor because of their nuttiness, so a sprinkle or two with a good melting cheese makes a great sandwich," suggests Werlin.
Laura Werlin recommends the following melting cheeses, for that perfect gooey sandwich: mozzarella, Monterey jack, Colby, young Cheddar, Havarti, Fontina, Gouda, Gruyère, Swiss, Emmentaler, provolone (not aged), young Asiago, Brie.
To add the adult touch to the sandwiches, both Werlin and Spieler rely on their imagination, the produce aisle, and the refrigerator. "Adding other ingredients has much to do with my preference and my mood. Sometimes I try new things—a new mustard, chutney, cooked or pickled veggies, leftover meat, salami, a swipe of olive or sun-dried tomato paste," says Spieler.
Werlin looks to pizza for inspiration. "You can combine two or even three cheeses, add herbs or spices, add different types of smoked meats, and even turn a grilled cheese sandwich into dessert, depending on the cheese."
Yes, a dessert grilled cheese! "In some ways, sweet grilled cheese sandwiches are the most fun because they are so unusual," says Werlin. "Fresh cheeses—ricotta, fresh goat cheese, fromage blanc, and other soft, creamy cheeses—work best in a grilled sandwich with sweet ingredients like sugar, dried and fresh fruit, and, believe it or not, chocolate." In fact, she likes to call these "bread pudding you eat with your hands."
While milk or tomato soup may be the preferred accompaniment for childhood grilled cheese, adult grilled cheese sandwiches pair well with beer and wine. "If it's a goat cheese-focused sandwich, I would choose a Sauvignon Blanc. For a traditional Cheddar with apples and ham, choose a slightly more full-bodied white such as a light Chardonnay or even better, amontillado. The die-hard red wine fan will almost always find a match with a fruity Pinot Noir," advises Werlin. "If you're looking for just one overall wine match," she adds, "go for a light, fruity white such as Riesling or Chenin Blanc."
Laura Werlin offers these tips for making the perfect grilled cheese sandwich:
- Butter the bread, not the pan. This distributes the butter evenly and ensures a properly crisp sandwich.
- Grate the cheese; it will melt faster (before the bread gets beyond a golden crisp).
- Use a nonstick pan instead of a harder-to-clean cast-iron pan.
- Cover the sandwich during the first half of cooking to help the cheese melt more quickly.
- Butter is best, as it provides great flavor and texture. However, if you prefer oil, use regular olive oil, not extra-virgin.
- Give the sandwich a good squeeze with a spatula after it's been flipped to help create the perfect ratio of bread to cheese.