Childhood lunch staple. Best friend to tomato soup. Rainy-day indulgence.
An affection that started way back with those simple orange slices melted between white bread has morphed into an all-out obsession for our team.
So we decided to examine the humble sandwich a little closer. Which cheeses melt just right? Should you use white bread or sourdough? Fry it in butter, oil, or something else altogether? Is bacon sacrilegious? Herewith, our answers to all those very important questions and more.
First things first: the cheese. What you need is a semi-firm variety, which will melt into those dreamy ribbons as you pull the sandwich apart. Our favorites are taleggio, fontina, cheddar, and Gruyère — or any combination therein. Avoid soft cheeses: They're difficult to layer and don't melt well. Though it may seem like an obvious choice, skip mozzarella; it has unfortunate rubbery tendencies when heated. And though we understand the impulse to splurge on such a meal, pricey aged cheeses should be reserved for snacking. The cooking process renders out that lovely aged taste (and worth).
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Now for the bread: There's more flexibility here. Classicists can stick to a solid white Pullman loaf or bâtard for a solid sandwich. But we prefer whole-wheat sourdough. Its slight tang balances the rich, fatty cheese. No matter what you choose, buy a whole loaf and cut it into ⅓-inch slices. Any thicker and you run the risk of the burnt bread and unmelted cheese. Go smaller and the cheese may ooze right out and soak the bread with grease.
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Time to get to work. Slice your cheese as thinly as possible, using a mandoline or your knife skills. Layer said slices evenly across the bread so everything melts at the same rate. Our food editor, Andy Baraghani, is so obsessed with creating the right texture for his cheese that he actually slices it into cubes and blitzes it in the food processor to make loose paste (see the recipe) that spreads into a perfectly consistent layer.
At this point, most would reach for butter, slathering it on the outside edges of the bread and melting it in the pan. And that wouldn't be terrible. But the real trick? Spread a thin layer of mayonnaise on the outside of the bread and skip the butter altogether. It's a move we've pulled before, but its magic can't be overstated. (It fooled even the most die-hard butter enthusiast on the team.) Unlike butter, mayo won't burn, making for an all-over crisp, golden brown crust without any hotspots.
Once your cheese is melted and bread is toasted, resist the urge to eat it straight from the pan. Let the cheese set for about a minute or so. And, finally, your patience is rewarded.
Now that you've got the basics down, fancy up your sandwich with a few thoughtful add-ons. Just don't stack it high with meats (looking at you, bacon). Call us purists, but when it comes to grilled cheese, we believe the fromage should be the star. Here are a few slight variations to elevate the humble melt.
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Spices: A solid spin of the pepper mill, a pinch of Aleppo pepper, or a dash of crushed red pepper flakes will add a bit of contrasting heat.
Jam: On the inside of the bread, spread a thin layer of tomato jam for acidity, fig jam for sweetness, or onion jam for a kick that's somewhere between savory and sweet.
Wine: If you're busting out the food processor, a tablespoon of dry white wine turns grilled cheese into handheld fondue. Fold in some sautéed shallots to push it over the edge.
Herbs: Chives are our favorite (see our recipe), but fresh parsley or sage both help cut the richness while adding color.
Citrus: For a bite of brightness, add a ¼ teaspoon of lemon or orange zest. Just don't add the juice — it will make the sandwich soggy. (Pro tip: Try orange zest and fig jam together for something special.)
Aromatics: There's very little that isn't made better with the addition of sautéed garlic or onions. Blend roasted garlic into your cheese mixture or add shallots softened in butter (see the fondue note above) for extra dimension.
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