A grilled cheese sandwich is a perfect union of bread, butter, and melty cheese — so why would you ever want to turn your back on one of its key ingredients? Especially if that ingredient is butter?
Lots of reasons, as I learned from Gabrielle Hamilton, chef and owner of Prune. Even diehard lovers of the buttery version (I am one) will find something new and valuable out of smearing their bread with mayo instead. As she says in this CHOW video, "This is the greatest cooking medium of all time for a grilled cheese sandwich."
Mayo won't burn as easily as butter does, which — just like that — solves the biggest challenge of grilled cheese: how to get the insides to heat through before the outside blackens.
With a standard, buttered grilled cheese, you have to cook it low and slow, keep the pan covered to capture the heat, and peek compulsively to make sure it's not starting to smoke — or involve an oven. But if you rely on mayo instead, you don't have to stress — its smoke point is higher than butter's, so it's much less likely to turn on you.
You can also have grilled cheese sooner. You don't have to wait for butter to soften, or tear or smush your bread in haste — even downy slices of brioche or Pullman won't be damaged when you slip over them with a knifeful of mayo, which is blessedly soft at any temperature.
But these are matters of convenience and reliability; what's most important are the results, which are not like any grilled cheese that butter could make. The oil and egg in mayonnaise brown and crisp more evenly and lavishly than butter, creating a glossy crunch from edge to edge.
Hamilton's recipe — like so much of the honest, happy food she serves at her restaurant Prune — is a comforting balance of high and low: extra-sharp cheddar spilling out of good bread, plus mayo in a jar.
She's also known to serve sardines and Triscuits on the same menu as chicken liver mousse with Cognac jelly, and to drop Knorr bouillon cubes in the vegetable soup she makes for Christmas Eve. She serves that soup with expensive Champagne — not a bad idea here either.
Makes 10 sandwiches
20 (1/2-inch-thick) slices rustic bread (from about 1 1/2 loaves)
1 cup mayonnaise
1 pound shredded extra-sharp cheddar cheese
Photos by Mark Weinberg
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