Grilled, Toasted or Pressed—
Who doesn’t love a good grilled cheese sandwich? All that warm, gooey cheese oozing in between slices of crisp toasty bread. Since you can quickly do the deed with the help of either a skillet, griddle, grill, sandwich press or oven, this classic combination goes by a variety of different names. So call it whatever you like. Just be sure to make it with an honest loaf and real cheese for the most sublime flavor and texture experience.
"Melted Cheese Sandwiches", continued:
BREAD: Whether whole grain or white, country French or Italian style breads from your favorite artisanal bakery will create a more rustic looking sandwich with the greatest textural contrast in each bite. Whereas thinner sliced, fine-grained loaves can offer you a more crisp than crusty result that is uniform and even tender throughout. There’s also the option of breads that have herbs, nuts and/or dried fruits kneaded into the dough for additional dimensions.
CHEESE: And why limit yourself to the generic grocery store jack, cheddar and so-called swiss cheeses so many of us grew up with, when there’s a whole world of other choices out there just waiting for you to discover them? Some of the most flavorful and reliably smooth rather than stringy melters include Gruyere, Emmentaler, Comte, French Raclette, Italian Fontia and English Cheddar.
EXTRAS: Now we come to all the embellishment possibilities. Besides their rich and satisfying deliciousness, grilled cheese sandwiches are a great way to use up days-old bread and odd bits of cheese as well as leftover cooked vegetables and meaty bites. So you can really make a meal of what is essentially a simple sandwich. Here’s a list of some of our all-time favorite combinations for you to play with and adapt to make your own. And after that I’ve outlined a variety of possible preparation methods for you to choose from. This is a passionately long post, so please skip around or ahead to the sections that interest you most.
Classic Ham & Cheese: Here’s a personalized trip to Paris. EITHER make with a combined spread of grated Gruyere or Comte, chopped thinly sliced ham, minced shallots or chives, just enough equal parts homemade mayonnaise and crème fraîche to hold everything together, authentic French Dijon mustard and black pepper to taste. -OR- Thin whole slices of the same ham and cheese inside bread spread with mayonnaise and mustard; cook to toast and melt, and then slip a fried or poached egg inside right before serving. Use a French bread batard or Pain de Mie pullman loaf.
Caramelized Onions: This is like lifting the floating gratineed crust off a bowl of French Onion Soup. Absolute heaven. The onions take more prep time, but it’s well worth the wait. Simmer thinly sliced onions in butter (with a bay leaf and thyme), covered, until melting tender; then uncover, season with salt and pepper, and raise the heat to medium to cook until turning golden brown. For even more flavor, you could add a little wine and/or chicken stock to reduce and deglaze the pan at the end. Layer inside crusty French bread with Gruyere, Emmentaler and/or French Raclette.
I started making this sandwich when I was cooking at the Petaluma Opera House Café back in the ‘80’s, and it’s remained a huge favorite ever since. Saute thinly sliced mushrooms (criminis work well) and red onions in olive oil and butter over high heat until golden brown; reduce the heat to medium before adding garlic, salt and pepper to infuse with flavor. Then add a little wine and/or chicken stock to reduce and deglaze the pan. Layer with Italian fontina inside an earthy part whole wheat levain-style bread.
Sautéed Peppers: You could choose sweet and/or hot peppers to go in either a Spanish, Italian or Mexican direction. But I usually use peeled, seeded and sliced sweet red peppers sautéed in olive oil with chili flakes, garlic, oregano and a sprinkling of Spanish smoked bittersweet paprika. Layer with Italian Fontal, Havarti or Monterey Jack. Thinly sliced or crumbled, cooked sweet or hot sausage makes a nice addition here too. Try to find bread with some cornmeal or semolina flour in it.
Crab Salad: This sandwich is a decadent celebration of the much anticipated crab season here in Dungeness country, but you could always substitute bay shrimp instead. Just mix it up with your favorite mayonnaise, minced scallions, celery and/or fennel; then season to taste with lemon juice, Tabasco or cayenne pepper, and maybe ground saffron. Layer with Italian fontal, Monterey jack or mild cheddar inside French or Italian style bread.
Winter Veg Rarebit: This is what I picture ordering for lunch at the village pub while on a walking trip through the English countryside green. Simply layer chopped cooked broccoli or roasted cauliflower with an assertive English cheddar, like the Cotswold Double Gloucester with chives. If you can find it, a hearty currant and/or walnut bread would go down a treat here. Then ask them to pull you a pint before you head back out into the cold.
Bring on the Greens: This time of year almost any good melter is made even better with a layer of leftover cooked chard or kale, quickly sautéed baby spinach leaves, or a pile of fresh arugula tucked inside, which wilts but holds up well. Now use up the rest of that old loaf too.
Seasonal Features: Consider swapping in braised leeks, blanched or roasted asparagus in the spring; sautéed squash, roasted eggplant, fresh tomato or ratatouille in the summer; and then on to a wild mushroom hunt in the fall.
Fruit & Cheese: Take inspiration from classic combinations like the ploughman’s lunch of apple and cheddar (with bits of bacon?); pear and Stilton or another favorite blue (Point Reyes, Rogue River or Cambozola?); fig spread with Tallegio (Teleme or Crescenza) and maybe an equally thin slip of prosciutto.
Surprise Inside: You can liven up even the most ordinary of melted cheese sandwiches with an unexpected layer of basil pesto, olive tapenade, sun-dried tomatoes or fruit chutney spread inside. Or how about a hot chili or pickle prize hidden in the center? Sue Conley of Cowgirl Creamery treated me to that last trick.
Speaking of which, I highly recommend a little side trip through the Cowgirl Creamery library of cheeses, which can offer you all kinds of other new ideas as well. And for local folks, it doesn’t get any better than Della Fattoria for a wide selection of traditional breads, which inspired my work there as the chef in their downtown café kitchen. Their doughs are all made with organic flours and a natural yeast starter before being baked in wood-fired ovens the way it's been done since forever.
- Although not completely necessary, I usually like to spread the insides of the bread slices with homemade mayonnaise to further bind and flavor the sandwich.
- Grating firm cheeses helps them to melt more quickly. Then you can also elect to combine them with the mayonnaise (and any other ingredients) for an easy-to-apply and contain cheese spread.
- The outsides of the bread are typically spread with soft butter. But it’s easy to overdo that amount, and impossible to apply smoothly if the butter is still cold. So you end up with either a greasy or uneven outer finish. Another approach is to grease the pan or griddle you might be using, but then you might have the awkwardness of needing to immediately flip the sandwiches over to butter both sides, and either way, the remaining exposed pan fat often burns and smokes for an adverse flavor. So I think the simplest and most effective solution all the way around is to gently melt butter in a little olive oil (which raises the flash point to withstand higher temperatures than butter alone can), and then brush both exterior sides of bread with a light, even coat of this tasty fat. OR you can follow the tip my friend, Eileen, passed along, and use mayonnaise for coating the outside as well!
Cook, turning over as needed, until the cheese melts and the bread toasts golden brown on both sides. This usually takes about 5 minutes a side, a little longer in the oven where there’s no direct contact with the heat source. But no matter which method you choose, make sure to watch carefully so they don’t burn.
- In a covered skillet over medium-low heat, turning once to brown the second side.
- On a griddle or grill over medium-low heat, turning once to brown the second side. You can lay a weight on top of each sandwich to meld the layers together.
- Inside an electric panini machine or sandwich toaster, which presses everything together and toasts both sides of the sandwich at the same time. Flat, ribbed and patterned cooking surfaces are available for an evenly browned or branded result. Non-electric sandwich presses are used on the stove burner and require turning over by hand to brown on both sides.
- In a preheated 400-450 degree oven on a parchment-lined sheet pan. You can first put a rack inside the pan to prop them up on for a crispier result. Either way, you’ll still need to turn them over halfway through to equally brown on both sides. This is the easiest way to make lots of sandwiches at once, and it also offers you the option of making them open-face with the cheese bubbling up to turn golden brown on top instead of bread.
LET'S EAT! When I was in grade school and hopped on my bike to come racing home for lunch every day, I always hoped Mom would have grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup on the stove. Make it cheddar and Campbell’s in that period piece. Now I satisfy the same desire with a more grown-up and homemade French version of that combo called “Grape Harvesters’ Soup”, which I drool over and wrote about last October. But grilled cheese sandwiches are happy to dunk into most any bowl of soup and they can also soften and warm up a plate of fresh cold salad when it’s still so frosty outside.
Bon Appetit! Kay