Grilled Cheese: A Classic Comfort Food

Grilled cheese

Whether you’re a cheddar cheese and white bread purist or an inventive artisan cheese foodie, a grilled cheese sandwich always satisfies.

One of the kings of comfort foods is the venerable grilled cheese sandwich. Just saying the words “grilled cheese” conjures up a crispy hot sandwich with gooey cheese inside that will satisfy a craving for salt, carbs and dairy with minimal effort. Add a cup of traditional tomato soup and a side salad, and you have a well-rounded meal!

The great thing about making a grilled cheese sandwich is that on just about any given day, most of us have some variety of bread and cheese on hand. Grilled cheese recipes are easy to come by.

Grilled Cheese

Open-Faced Origin

It’s hard to believe, but the great American grilled cheese originally started out as an open-faced sandwich topped with shredded American cheese. During the Great Depression, when pre-sliced bread and processed cheese became widely available, the combination grew more popular—but still remained open-faced. The second slice of bread was added in the 1960s, transforming the sandwich into the grilled delight we know today.

Grilled cheese sandwiches are so ingrained in the American food culture that there’s even a month dedicated to it. April is National Grilled Cheese month, and you can find hundreds of grilled cheese recipes and contests looking to find the next great grilled cheese ingredient combinations around the country. The Los Angeles Times has embraced National Grilled Cheese month in a big way—check out this article for mouthwatering combinations of cheese, condiments and bread. And, of course, Wisconsin has its own Grilled Cheese Championship, held every April in Dodgeville.

How to Make Grilled Cheese

Making a grilled cheese sandwich can vary depending on the cookware you have on hand. One of the easiest is simply frying it in a pan. However, a panini press works very well, especially with hearty artisan breads.

Either way, spread butter (some recommend mayonnaise) on one side of each piece of bread and place the cheese of choice in between. Many grilled cheese aficionados swear by grating the cheese so that it melts quickly and evenly. When frying, set the heat to medium low to avoid burning the bread, and be sure to flip the sandwich so both sides are cooked to the same degree of doneness.

Fry or press the sandwich until the exterior of the bread turns golden brown. This is subjective of course, which is why grilled cheese can be customized for any taste preference.

Variations on the Grilled Cheese

While Americans have been enjoying grilled cheese sandwiches for decades, similar sandwiches developed around 1910 in Europe, such as the French specialty called croque-monsieur. Loosely translated as “crunchy mister,” it consists of French bread spread with Dijon mustard and topped with thinly sliced ham and Gruyère or Emmentaler cheese. The sandwich is then fried in butter. (A croque-madame adds a fried egg on top.) Years later, a similar sandwich called the Monte Cristo was created in California. This variation of the croque-monsieur is dipped in egg batter, pan-fried or deep-fried, and often sprinkled with powdered sugar and served with strawberry preserves.

Grilled Cheese Recipes for Weeknight Meals

Even though grilled cheese sandwiches are often featured as a lunch item, they can be made for any meal of the day. Try setting up a grilled cheese station (like a taco bar) where everyone in the family can have the opportunity to be creative and maybe even expand their food repertoire. Pick cheeses that melt well, and have fun selecting a variety of condiments and other complementary foods. This idea also works well for birthday parties instead of ordering yet another pizza.

Here are some suggestions for the Grilled Cheese Bar:

Breads: Country style white, multigrain, rye, asiago cheese, French peasant, and pumpernickel.

Cheeses: Cheddar, mozzarella, brie, Swiss, Fontina, Havarti, Monterey Jack, Muenster and provolone.

Condiments and Add-ons: jams, chutneys, fresh herbs, honey, bacon, pickles, olive tapenade, caramelized onions, fresh or sun-dried tomatoes, and even fruits like sliced apples.

If you want to make a proven winner, try this award-winning recipe:

Garlic Brick on Seeded Rye with Roasted Garlic Butter

This recipe comes courtesy of Christine Pieper, an analyst at The Wisconsin Cheeseman’s parent company, Colony Brands, Inc. It took third place in the Wisconsin Grilled Cheese Championship’s Professional Classic category in 2014. A “Classic” entry may only use cheese, butter and bread, with no additional fillings. (A compound butter may be used on the outside.)

Roasted Garlic Compound Butter:

1 lb. salted butter, softened

1 head roasted garlic

1/8 tsp. vanilla

1 Tbsp. bourbon

Make the night before so flavors have time to develop. Place butter in small to medium-size bowl; squeeze roasted garlic cloves onto butter, discarding the peels. Add the vanilla and bourbon to the butter. Mix all ingredients with a fork until well blended. Cover the bowl tightly and refrigerate overnight.

To make the sandwich:

½ cup shredded Garlic Brick at room temperature (shredding the cheese makes it melt more evenly)

2 slices seeded rye bread

You will need a medium non-stick skillet. Spread compound butter on the outsides of the rye bread. Place the first slice of bread on the skillet butter-side down. Turn the heat to medium. Place the shredded cheese evenly across the bread and then cover with the other slice of bread. Lightly press down on top layer of bread to make sure the sandwich has contact with the skillet and the cheese compacts slightly. Within 2 to 3 minutes, or when the bread smells and looks like it’s getting toasty, flip the sandwich over to cook the other side. Once the other side is toasted, remove from the sandwich from the skillet and serve immediately.

For more ideas, peruse this amazing array of combinations at the Grilled Cheese Academy developed by the folks at the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board.

Whether you like your comfort food basic or gourmet, there are many grilled cheese recipes waiting to be discovered to suit any taste.

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