Grilled Cheese, Happiness on a Plate

grilled cheese

Life is all about the little things that bring about happiness.  Sunrises, first kisses, popping bubble wrap, sunsets, walks on the beach…well, you get the point.  But I seriously doubt that anything can knock a grilled cheese sandwich off the top of that list!  A grilled cheese sandwich is the ultimate comfort food.  It combines salty and sweet, crispy and gooey, and rich and sumptuous into the perfect package.  It’s packed with flavor and texture, and is really easy to make in a very short period of time.  Yes, a grilled cheese sandwich may be the perfect food.

Although a grilled cheese sandwich may be easy to make, that doesn’t make it simple.  There are few important things to consider when it comes to the perfect grilled cheese.  The way I see it, this sandwich has three important parts that make it work:  The bread, The cheese, and The butter.  These comprise the concrete parts of the sandwich that cant really be tinkered around with.  There are, however, other additions that can be included to give it a little more pizazz, but I’ll get to that a little later.

First, the bread.  To me this is the number one, most important piece that is key to a good grilled cheese.  What makes a grilled cheese such a pleasing sandwich is it’s texture, and it gets 60% of its texture from the bread.  When you take a bite, there are three textures you will feel, crispy, chewy, and gooey.  To maximize that satisfying bite, the right bread is essential.  Now,  I’ve made grilled cheeses with a lot of different kinds of bread, and here is what I’ve fund out: wheat and other whole grain breads burns too easily, and is too dry.  White bread cooks nicely, but is too soft and fluffy to get crisp.  By far the most satisfying is a nice chewy sourdough.  When sourdough toasts, it develops a crisp surface that traps a bit of moisture on the inside to help bring the bread back to life a little.  I like to use freshly baked bread and slice it myself, but  you should be able to find something that works in the bread aisle.  Keep in mind though, the more rustic/chewy the bread, the better the sandwich will be.

The next important part is the cheese.  Obviously it wouldn’t be a grilled cheese without the cheese.  But there are important choices to be made.  The cheese plays a lot of key roles in this sandwich so it’s important to choose the right one.  The cheese gives the sandwich MOST of the flavor, so bear that in mind when shopping.  Also, the cheese contributes to the final texture, and acts as binding agent to not only keep the sandwich together, but also provides enough moisture to keep the sandwich from feeling dry.  For the most part, cheeses are categorized into three different classes: soft, firm, and hard.  Something like brie (which is a soft cheese) melts really nice and gives the sandwich a buttery, creamy flavor.  Cheeses like Gouda and Fontina (firm cheeses) also melt nicely and have an almost sweet characteristic.  While cheeses like Asiago and Parmesan (hard cheeses)  can be a bit gritty when they melt, they have a nice nutty/grassy flavor.  Really there’s no wrong choice when it comes to cheese.  You can either blend these flavors and textures together to balance out it’s characteristics, or you can use a single type of cheese to highlight the flavors and textures you like.  Just as a side note, there are thousands of different types of cheeses, the ones I listed are a good starting point and are good examples of texture and flavor, but by all means, experiment with as much cheese as you can get your hands on.  The only thing I would recommend against is using the cheese that comes in the cellophane sheets.  I won’t name names, but I think you know what I’m talking about.  Most grocery stores carry an artisanal cheese section, and while these cheeses can be a little more expensive, it is definitely worthwhile to invest in the good stuff, don’t cheap out on this one!  My favorite cheese to use…in case you were wondering, is a nice sharp white cheddar.  It has everything I could want out of a cheese.  it melts nicely and has a sweet, nutty and pungent flavor.

Finally, the butter.  It might not seem like this plays a big role, but the butter is the medium on which the flavor and texture develop.  I’ve seen health some “healthy” recipes that eliminate the butter and use the oven to toast the sandwich, but the sandwich will end up being too dry.  Nope, can’t get around the butter.  It’s more healthy than margarine or other butter substitutes, and will facilitate developing not only a rich flavor, but also a light crispy texture on the bread.     I like to use unsalted butter because the cheese MAY already be salty enough.  If your sandwich needs a little more seasoning, consider sprinkling a few flakes of salt on the bread after it finishes cooking.

Ok, remember when I said that you can add extras?  What I was talking about was the addition of one or two things to bring out flavor and texture.  These are optional!  And keep in mind that the more simple you go, the better the final sandwich will be.  You can use roasted tomatoes, bacon, thinly sliced apples, etc., etc.  The key is that they are playing a side note to the cheese, so keep it simple and subtle.

As far ass cooking goes, the grilled cheese is a fun and forgiving sandwich to master.  It’s pretty easy, to cook, and if it gets messed up or burned, its easy to start over and try again.  but I have developed a few tricks that make it easier and gives really good/consistent results.  First, you should be doing this on cast iron.  It’s a really cheap metal that will last forever if cared for, and conducts the heat perfectly for this application.  When I’m assembling my sandwich, I like to make three or four at a time so next time I want one, it will already be ready to cook.  What I do is butter the outside of all my bread and lay the two buttered sides together while I’m continuing the assembly so I don’t get butter all over my countertop or cutting board.  Slice the cheese as thinly as possible (for softer cheeses like brie or camembert, this isn’t really too important), and layer it evenly making sure to cover the entire surface.  If you are using any extra ingredients like bacon, tomatoes, etc., make sure to put them in the middle of the cheese layers so that when the cheese melts it will hold them in.  Lay the buttered  bottom bread (say that three times fast) on a piece of plastic wrap and flip the top over wrap tightly and refrigerate for later use.  By having a few sandwiches already assembled, it makes this a really easy procedure.

When you are ready to cook, put your cast iron pan or griddle over medium low heat and wait for the pan to fully come u to temperature.  Now the secret, if it really is a secret, to cooking a grilled cheese is cooking on a low temperature.  The bread should just barely be sizzling when you lay it down.  Pull a few corners of cheese so that they are sticking out.  This will melt around the sandwich and give you a really delicious cheese skirt.  after the sandwich has been down for about 10 seconds I use a spatula to lift up a corner and make sure nothing is burning.  If I’m seeing color, I move it to a cooler part of the pan. Remember, low and slow is the way to go for grilled cheese.  If after 10 to 20 seconds everything is fine, I cover the sandwich with a bowl.  This essentially creates an oven on top of the pan that will help the cheese melt throughout the sandwich much faster.  This in turn keeps the bread from drying out nd helps create that crispy surface I was talking about earlier.  After about a minute, the sandwich should be ready to flip.  remove the bowl (be careful, it’s going to be hot!) and lift up a corner of the bread to make sure the cheese is starting to melt.    Carefully flip the sandwich over and gently press down to force out a little of the cheese.  Should look something like this:

grilled cheeseNow cover with the bowl for another 30 seconds to a minute. to fully melt the cheese.  Remove the bowl and cook for another 30 seconds to crisp the cheese.

Keep in mind, these aren’t exact times.  It may take longer on your cook top, which isn’t a bad thing, as bread can burn very easily in a hot pan.  The most important part of cooking is  the feeling.  Cook a few of these using the above tips and feel it out.  The sandwich will tell you when to flip it and when its done and when the pan is too hot.  Pretty soon you will be a grilled cheese master and can experiment with it.

So hopefully this post will entice you to start making grilled cheese sandwiches and give you great results.    Let me know in the comments below how yours turned out!

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