Grilled Cheese: A Classic Comfort Food
Knowing how to make grilled cheese will earn you style points. Discover grilled cheese sandwich ideas…including one of the most unique grilled cheese recipes.
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! (See our suggestions for grilled cheese sides below.)
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. Creative grilled cheese recipes are easy to come by.
History of Grilled Cheese
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 best gourmet 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 showcases creative grilled cheese recipes in its own Grilled Cheese Championship, held every April in Dodgeville, WI.
Grilled Cheese Variations
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.
Best Grilled Cheese Ingredients
While you can make grilled cheese with white bread and American cheese singles, you are missing out on the decadent possibilities for this incredible comfort food. 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 come up with their own creative grilled cheese recipes and maybe even expand their food repertoire. Pick cheeses that melt well (the best cheeses are listed below), 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.
Best Bread for Grilled Cheese
When making a grilled cheese sandwich, the best types of bread are those that offer a perfect balance of flavor, texture, and toasting capabilities. Here are some popular and delicious choices:
- Sourdough: Sourdough bread has a tangy flavor and a slightly chewy texture, making it an excellent choice for grilled cheese. It crisps up nicely on the outside while remaining soft on the inside.
- Ciabatta: With its rustic and airy texture, ciabatta bread creates a crispy and crunchy exterior when grilled. It’s a great option for a more substantial grilled cheese sandwich.
- Brioche: Brioche is a rich, buttery bread that adds a delightful sweetness to your grilled cheese. It may not get as crispy as some other bread types, but its flavor is worth it.
- French Baguette: If you prefer a thinner and crispier grilled cheese, a French baguette is an excellent choice. Its crusty exterior adds a delightful crunch to your sandwich.
- Challah: Challah is a slightly sweet and eggy bread that works wonderfully for grilled cheese. It becomes beautifully golden and toasty when cooked.
- Multigrain or Whole Wheat: For a healthier option, you can go with multigrain or whole wheat bread. It may not get as crispy as white bread, but it offers a nuttier flavor and additional nutritional benefits.
Best Cheese for Grilled Cheese
The best types of melting cheese for grilled cheese sandwiches are those that become gooey, creamy, and stretchy when heated. Here are some popular choices that taste great and work exceptionally well:
- Cheddar: Cheddar cheese is a classic and beloved choice for grilled cheese sandwiches. It melts smoothly and has a rich flavor that pairs perfectly with various bread types.
- Swiss: Swiss cheese, with its nutty and slightly sweet flavor, becomes wonderfully gooey when melted. It adds a delightful twist to your grilled cheese.
- Gouda: Gouda is a semi-hard cheese with a buttery and caramel-like flavor. It melts beautifully, creating a creamy and indulgent grilled cheese experience.
- Mozzarella: Mozzarella cheese is famous for its fantastic melting capabilities. It becomes stringy and gooey, making it an excellent choice for a more decadent grilled cheese.
- Havarti: Havarti cheese is creamy and buttery, making it a fantastic option for grilled cheese sandwiches. It melts evenly and adds a smooth, mild flavor.
- Fontina: Fontina cheese has a rich and nutty taste and melts wonderfully, making it a popular choice for gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches.
- Gruyère: Gruyère cheese is known for its sweet and slightly salty flavor. It melts well and pairs exceptionally well with various ingredients.
- Provolone: Provolone cheese has a tangy and smoky flavor that works beautifully in grilled cheese sandwiches, especially when combined with other ingredients like ham or turkey.
- American: And, the list wouldn’t be complete without an obligatory mention of American cheese. This “cheese” is most commonly associated with traditional grilled cheese sandwiches because it melts incredibly well, resulting in a smooth and creamy texture. However, it is a processed food product rather than actual cheese.
Feel free to mix and match different cheeses to create your own unique and flavorful grilled cheese combinations. Combining two or more of the cheeses mentioned above can lead to some delicious and gourmet results.
Best Condiments for Grilled Cheese
When it comes to gourmet grilled cheese, the possibilities for delicious condiments and add-ons are virtually endless. Here are some popular and creative options to elevate your grilled cheese sandwich:
- Tomato slices: Fresh tomato slices add juiciness and a burst of flavor to your grilled cheese. They pair well with various cheeses and herbs.
- Avocado: Creamy avocado slices can take your grilled cheese to the next level. They add richness and a lovely buttery texture.
- Caramelized onions: Sweet and savory caramelized onions complement the cheese and add a delightful depth of flavor to your sandwich.
- Bacon or pancetta: Crispy bacon or pancetta adds a smoky and meaty element to your grilled cheese. It’s a perfect match with cheddar, Gouda, or Swiss cheese.
- Pesto: A spread of basil pesto can bring a burst of herby and garlicky goodness to your grilled cheese.
- Jalapeños: If you like some heat, sliced jalapeños or pickled jalapeños can add a spicy kick to balance the creaminess of the cheese.
- Roasted red peppers: Roasted red pepper strips provide a sweet and smoky flavor that complements various cheeses.
- Apple slices: Thinly sliced apples, such as Granny Smith or Honeycrisp, can add a refreshing crunch and a touch of sweetness to your grilled cheese.
- Fig or apricot jam: A dollop of fig or apricot jam can add a unique and delightful sweetness that pairs well with certain cheese varieties.
- Arugula or spinach: Adding some fresh arugula or baby spinach leaves can bring a peppery or earthy taste to your grilled cheese.
- Sliced pear or apple: For a slightly sweet and fruity twist, try adding thinly sliced pears or apples.
- Brie or Camembert cheese: Combining a melting cheese like Brie or Camembert with other cheese varieties can create a creamy and luxurious grilled cheese experience.
- Balsamic glaze or reduction: Drizzling some balsamic glaze or reduction can add tanginess and enhance the overall flavor profile of your grilled cheese.
Remember, the key to a gourmet grilled cheese is to balance flavors and textures. Don’t be afraid to experiment with different combinations until you find the one that suits your taste preferences best. Whether you prefer sweet, savory, or spicy, there’s a combination of condiments and add-ons that will make your grilled cheese sandwich a gourmet delight.
Grilled Cheese Sides
Grilled cheese is a relatively light comfort food and goes best when paired with complementary side dishes. Below are some of our favorites:
- Soup: Tomato soup is the traditional accompaniment to grilled cheese. However, chicken noodle is great, as is black bean or lentil. Chili also rocks, and you can skip the shredded cheese on top.
- Salad: You may as well add something healthy to offset that richness. A tangy vinaigrette or ranch is perfect…and if you’re skipping the tomato soup and need something red, pass the French.
- Fries: The American diner classic. Dip in ketchup or mayo (especially spiked with garlic, chipotle, or sriracha).
- Pickles: The acidity of pickled veggies helps cut through the fat, whether it’s classic cucumber pickles or something exotic like kimchi.
- Applesauce: Apples are a natural with many cheeses, especially Cheddar.
- Condiments: A sweet jam or chutney is a delicious accent for cheese, and a marinara sauce is the perfect pizzeria-style dip if your sandwich contains mozzarella, Fontina, or provolone.
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 making grilled cheese with mayo) 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 (our recipe below illustrates how to make a grilled cheese sandwich with shredded cheese). 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.
Garlic Brick on Seeded Rye with Roasted Garlic Butter
If you want to make a proven winner, this award-winning recipe is a perfect example of how to make a grilled cheese sandwich with shredded cheese. 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.) It’s still one of the most unique grilled cheese recipes and one of the best gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches we’ve ever tasted.
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.
Whether you like your comfort food basic or gourmet, there are many creative grilled cheese recipes waiting to be discovered to suit any taste.