When it comes down to it, grilled cheese sandwiches are pretty simple. You add some cheese to bread, throw in some heat, and you have a sammie. If it's 3 a.m. and you're in college, that's OK, but it's not going to give you anything like the delicacy you can get at even a decent sandwich place. For that, you've got a few things — seven of them, in fact — to consider so you can make the most gourmet, mouthwatering, amazing grilled cheese you'll ever have.
The war for the perfect grilled cheese can be lost at the grocery store if you don't buy the right cheese. The good news is that there are thousands of types of cheese; the bad news is that not all of them work for hot sandwiches. You're going to need cheeses that melt quickly and smoothly, like cheddar, jack, Swiss, Gruyère or Brie. Hard cheese like Parmesan or aged Gouda may never melt, defeating the purpose of heating the sandwich in the first place, and if they do, they will be strange and lumpy.
There's a reason processed, only-sort-of-dairy American cheese is so popular for grilled cheese: It melts extremely well. If you're new to the realm of hot sandwiches, it's a good place to start, but we recommend thinly sliced or shredded cheddar for its flavor and more natural process.
Once you have your cheese, it’s time to consider the bread. You can use just about any kind of bread so long as it's about a 1/4 inch thick (or roughly the thickness of a non-squished slice of American white bread). It can be thicker, but the more bread there is, the longer it will take to cook. Go any less, and the bread may not stand up to the cheese it has to support.
No matter what type of bread you use, though, toast both sides of it before you add the cheese. This will allow the bread to hold up to the cooking process and avoid getting soggy. This can be done either in a toaster for about 30 seconds, or until the bread just starts to brown or by buttering both sides of the bread and cooking for 30 seconds to a minute.
However, don't over toast. You're still going to cook the bread, and you don't want it burned before you add the rest of the ingredients.
The next thing to consider is how you stack your ingredients. Cheese is phenomenal culinary glue for keeping the sandwich together during cutting and eating. However, cheese is only guaranteed to stick to bread or other cheese. If your sandwich consists of only cheese, you don't have much to worry about, but if your sandwich has other ingredients (like tomatoes, sliced meat, crushed potato chips, etc.), then you need to consider how the sandwich is going to stick.
To do this, first make sure there is cheese touching the bread. Ideally the cheese touching the bread will make contact when the 2 slices of bread are folded over. If that can't happen, try to stack ingredients on top of the cheese, and then add another layer of cheese. The hope is that when the middle layer of cheese melts, it will stick to the cheese next to the bread. It will also add a layer of cheesy goodness.
The easiest thing to do when making grilled cheese is to burn the bread, because it's so easy to do. To avoid burning your bread, you have one of two options. The first is to slather the outside of both ends of your sandwich with butter, keep your stove heat set to medium and cook the sandwich, flipping every 30 seconds or so or until the cheese is melted and the middle is warm.
However, this isn't always possible. Therefore, we recommend heating your oven to 350 degrees F, slathering the outside of 2 pieces of bread with butter, putting them butter side down on a baking sheet and topping those pieces of bread with all the fixings.
Bake the sandwich halves until the cheese starts to melt (about 7 minutes), and then throw them into a skillet over medium heat, in which you've melted some butter. That way the middle gets nice and melty, and you can finish the sandwich.
The application of pressure during cooking is a bit of an art in making grilled cheese. Pressure should be gentle and applied with a spatula whenever the sandwich is in the skillet. Each time the sandwich is flipped, you should press down on it in the hope that you're getting the cheese from the top and bottom layers to touch. It also makes the sandwich easier to eat.
Whether you're cooking the sandwich in the oven or the skillet, covering it is a great way to concentrate the heat, melt the cheese and minimize the amount of time the bread is touching a hot surface. That reduces the chance that the bread will burn.
However, cooking under cover traps steam, which can soak into the bread and make it wet. Pre-toasting the bread will help prevent soggy bread, while cooking the bread on the last one or two times without cover will help recrisp the bread.
No matter what you do to a grilled cheese, it's probably going to be pretty good as long as the bread isn't black and your ingredients are good. Once you've mastered a plain grilled cheese with American, feel free to branch out, but don't get too cocky. This is a grilled cheese, and you want that ooey, gooey, melty, stringy cheese to be the star.
That's why we recommend having more cheese by width of the precooked sandwich than anything else. We also don't recommend overfilling the sandwich (say, no more than 1/4 inch of filling), because any more will prevent the ingredients from getting warm and the cheese from melting before the bread burns.
We recommend adding these items to your grilled cheese for a little flavor boost:
Other cheeses: Goat cheese, cream cheese and a dusting of finely shredded Parmesan don't melt, but they taste great. Spreadable cheese on the bread can even help act as glue.
Meat: A small slice of ham or roast beef can add a lot of flavor to a grilled cheese. Avoid more subtle meats like turkey. Save it for turkey melts (which aren't grilled cheese, since turkey is the primary ingredient).
Fruit and jams: Fruit, nuts and Brie are a natural combination that makes fantastic sandwiches.
Crunchy items: Panko, potato chips, corn flakes and crumbled croutons all add a little extra texture to your sandwich, which can be a nice change from the normally soft grilled cheese.
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