Why hello there, and welcome back to Kitchen Catastrophe Quick Tips, where we take time to crack into some facet of food culture and root around its gooey insides for things to enjoy and learn about. Is that a reference to bone marrow, oil drilling, or eating insects? None of the above, you numb-skull, because today’s post is about Grilled Cheese, which the title should have told you. Also, Monday’s post. I’m your belligerent berater (berator?), Jon O’Guin. And we’ve little time to waste, because I wasted all of it already. So let’s brown some bread and melt some hardened milk, for the secrets of Grilled Cheese.
Given how often I talk about Cheese, and Sandwiches, some might say “it’s weird how little he talks about Grilled Cheese”. Don’t listen to these people. Firstly, because I’m the only person who’s allowed to talk about himself in the third person in this neck of the woods, and secondly, because I’ve covered Grilled Cheese technically 4 times now. I straight-up grilled cheese, made a 7-cheese Grilled Cheese, Made hot dogs that were also Grilled Cheeses, and now we’re here, and I’m right on the brink of having removed all meaning from the word ‘grilled’.
This one at least has Grill Marks, so that’s something.
However, I suppose I haven’t SYSTEMATICALLY discussed what makes a great grilled cheese. (Except, also yes, I did that, in the 7 cheese post) IN A THOROUGH AND THOUGHTFUL MANNER. (It’s 2:30 in the morning, we don’t have time for thorough and thoughtful.) SHUT UP…Parenthetical Jon? That’s not normally a persona for these things. Growing new personalities? Don’t like that. No sir. (Before I go: Our first actual grilled cheese was a 7 cheese grilled cheese, and this is quick Tip 7-7. That feels interesting.) Oh good, he’s also a weirdo.
In any case, as should be obvious, there’s a couple things that make a great grilled cheese, and we’re going to talk about them. What are they? Glad you asked: they’re the Bread, the Fat, the Cheese, and the Gubbins. What the heck are Gubbins? Stay tuned to find out!
Get That Bread
Let’s start with the basics: What type of bread is best for a grilled cheese sandwich?
The answer to that is: “one that’s not too thick.”
Seriously. That’s it.
It ain’t Rocket surgery.
The reason we can’t get any deeper of a response is because A, there are too many variables to properly speak from a point of objectivity ,and B, your personal tastes are going to shape your responses. As an example, while soft white bread, especially a higher-end white bread like a Pullman loaf or Japanese Milk Bread is to many the “default” grilled cheese bread, against stronger cheeses, it’s going to suffer. A cheese mixture of, say, Bleu Cheese and aged Cheddar is going to work better on a similarly powerful bread, such as Rye or Pumpernickel.
The important thing here is to weigh stability, contrast, and similarity: Those soft white breads from before are going to struggle if trying to hold a very wet internal mixture of cheeses, as they simply lack the gluten-strength of heartier loaves. But those heartier loaves are going to have issues if dealing with relatively ‘normal’ cheese mixtures, as they might overpower them. No one’s going to really get as much joy out of a medium cheddar and Monterey Jack mixture on Rye, since it’s mostly just going to taste like Rye.
This Cornbread Grilled Cheese, on the other hand, will taste marginally more like Bourbon.
Little whiskey joke for you all.
But as long as you’re weighing your options, really any bread is feasible. I’ve made winning grilled cheeses on English Muffin bread, and had ones I liked on sliced ciabatta. My family personally defaults to Wheat Breads, as we believe in strong moral and dietary fiber.
Time to Chew The Fat
When you cook a grilled cheese, you very rarely actually grill it. Even when you DO, you need a fat applied to the bread to keep it from sticking. When you’re cooking in a pan, you definitely want something underneath. The default here is, of course, butter. But is it the only option? The fact that I made this a section instead of a sentence suggests not, so let’s confirm that suspicion.
Of course, you can feasibly use a great number of oils, but in practice, a couple points limit your options:
1.For best browning, you want the fat applied to the bread, not left in the pan. This makes something like Bacon Grease difficult to use appropriately.
2.The bread is going to pick up the flavors of whatever fat you apply to it and fry it in. This makes intensely flavored options trickier to use, and often avoided. I don’t make a grilled cheese to get a blast of toasted walnut oil, for instance.
3.In practice, this limits the more common fat options to a few options that your average cook will HAVE ON HAND. For instance, the salty, savory taste of schmaltz, or rendered chicken fat, is probably something a lot of people would be FINE tasting on their grilled cheese, but it’s not an ingredient most houses have in the fridge. Same with say, Duck fat. I’m sure there are bougie restaurants who fry their grilled cheeses in Duck fat, but I’m not paying $1 an ounce for grilled cheese coating.
Their “Better than Butter” tag was decided after people realized “Cheaper than Caviar” wasn’t actually a ringing endorsement.
And while yes, my 7-cheese Grilled Cheese used a frico crust instead of a fat coating, such methods are rather finicky, and for a higher skill cap, as my own struggles with the process indicate. Thus, the primary options boil down to: Softened butter, Melted Butter, Margarine, Olive oil, and Mayonnaise. Here’s a quick break-down.
Softened Butter: the classic option. You know it, you love it. Probably, I don’t know.
Melted Butter: Weirdly, I can’t find much data on brushing melted butter on grilled cheese sandwiches, other than this: IT’s typically how restaurants do it. Your average grill has a “melted butter wheel” in the back, where a small metal tub holds a bunch of melted butter, with a flat wheel partly submerged in it. When the cook wants to butter bread, he rolls the wheel with the bread, applying the butter.
I had seen at least a dozen of these things on food TV before I saw someone rub a piece of bread on it, and realized this wasn’t some weird grill-grater.
Margarine: Useful if you want something like butter, with a couple perks:
1.Vegan. Margarine is made from vegetable fats, and therefore meets vegan standards.
2. Soft. Margarine doesn’t harden as thoroughly as butter, so if you’re looking for a fast grilled cheese, this can be used straight out of the fridge.
3.Other dietary concerns. Again, as a vegetable fat, Margarine avoids dairy allergies, lactose-intolerance, as well as religious/kosher rules.
That all said, it’s arguably a little unhealthier than butter due to the types of fats it has, and not everyone likes the taste, so it’s understandable if you don’t want it on your sandwich. Speaking of healthy…
Olive Oil: The “healthiest” choice. Very useful if you’re looking at a Greek or Italian themed sandwich (Ciabatta bread, mozzarella, etc). Can have a flavor issue, with more “olive-y” oils perfuming the sandwich.
Mayonnaise: Ah, the controversial child. Mayonnaise has become something of a chef-y “secret” option for using on the outside of your grilled cheese (and inside, sometimes. More on that in the Cheese Section). IT has two distinct advantages over normal butter: 1, like margarine, it’s already soft enough to spread. And 2, it creates a more interesting browning pattern. Visually, a well-made mayonnaise grilled cheese looks a little more “unique” than a butter grilled cheese.
It looks a little like French Toast, versus Toast.
There are some downsides, of course: First off, you have to use full-fat mayonnaise, as low-fat just doesn’t have the oil to make it work. Second, Mayo can be a little finicky at higher temps: if your “medium” heat is on the higher end, the mayo can darken quicker. Lastly, the taste: most people expect a certain level of, well, ‘butteriness” in their grilled cheese, and Mayo replaces that with a slight tang of vinegar, which not everyone is a fan off.
However, many people believe the extra liquid in mayo makes the bread a little fluffier under the crisped layer, so if you’re going for a super-soft grilled cheese, it may be your best call.
Alright, we’ve covered the outside of our sandwiches, with the bread and oil, so let’s get inside them, with the cheese, and the gubbins. Cheese first, of course.
Cheese Me, Please Me
No discussion of the Grilled Cheese sandwich would be complete without mention of American Cheese, that super-melty, legally mostly-cheese mess that millions of kids munch down per year. While, yes, it is something of a culinary Frankenstein, and not really the healthiest cheese in the world (in fact, it’s legally NOT cheese in much of the world), it does have one advantage worth discussing: that sucker melts at the drop of a HAT.
This whole brick will melt on a warm rock inside 15 seconds.
Many professional chefs have noted that, for all its flaws, there’s nothing that melts into a sandwich or burger quite as well as those krafty little slices of mush.
As as we’ve discussed before, Meltiness is an important part of the grilled cheese, even if it isn’t ‘actually a word’. You want that gooey texture, that impressive cheese pull. I’ve seen literal arguments break out between couples over how much melt there should be in a grilled cheese. Those relationships did not last, and I’m definitely sure it was because of their differing opinions on this ONE TOPIC that caused them to fail.
I tried to find a fun picture of like, a break-up, or toxic relationship for this bit, but instead just found sadness. And, weirdly, this puppy. I don’t know what relationship this puppy ruined, but damn.
As such, it might surprise you to hear that, as far as I’m concerned, basically ANY kind of cheese can go into a grilled cheese. Yes, despite the fact that many cheeses DON’T melt well, I still think they have a purpose here. Because the thing about cheese is, you can mix-and-match. Heck, you can cheat, by creating protein suspensions. What does that mean? Well, let’s say you’ve got some potentiy flavored but quite dry cheeses: Your aged goudas and cheddars, or Parmesans, for instance. Those cheeses will not melt super well. But if you mix them with something that DOES melt well, you can help the process along. Something like, say, a certain tangy topping we discussed back in the Fat section? Or, as I once did, a puree of pulverized peanuts? Yes, I have used Peanut butter to help dry cheeses melt into unified masses of molten goodness. You don’t need much, maybe 1 tbsp to a half-cup of mixed cheeses, for instance, but it’ll help smooth things out.
Of course, you can also just use OTHER CHEESES for that job. Get your gooey, melty buddies to hold the flavor of their pungent but petrified pals. That’s a dynamite duo. But thinking of potently pungent pieces, it’s time we discussed our last category, which I had to HEAVILY self-edit to avoid spoiling before now: the Gubbins.
Gubbins for a Guv’ner.
Gubbins, assuming you didn’t just Google the word ten minutes and one thousand words ago, is a mostly British phrase meaning “scraps, bits, odds and ends”. You might use it to refer to the various tools for a task, or the assortment of random things you keep in that one drawer in case you need them for something. It comes from the same root as “gobbet”, an even MORE obscure word basically only used to describe the aftermath of explosions in fantasy novels.
This is the kind of thing gobbets fly out of.
With this term, I refer to “Anything you put IN a grilled cheese sandwich that isn’t cheese, or intended to help the cheese melt. And that’s a LOT of room. Some people like to put tomatoes In their grilled cheese, or fresh herbs. Or a little bit of meat, such as bacon or pulled pork. Caramelized onions are a common choice. You see this a lot in restaurants, where there’s a feeling that the sandwiches need a ‘flourish’ if you want to sell them for more than, like, $6. But they also do wonders for bringing together a “unity of theme” to the sandwich.
You want an Italian grilled Cheese? Ciabatta bread, olive oil, mozzarella and sundried tomatoes. You want it greek? Switch in feta and diced olives. Take your hearty cheddar and rye grilled cheese, and spread in some horseradish, or diced pickle.
There are some people who hate gubbins in their grilled cheese, arguing that it makes it something else, a “toasted sandwich”, or “a BLT with a crap ton of cheese.” (which, and this is a pointless aside, but there was a recent Sargento cheese commercial that ticked me off, because they claimed to “put the TLC in a BLT.” And BLT’s don’t have fucking cheese in them. It’s an Acronym. Bacon-Lettuce-Tomato. If you put anything else in it, you have to ADD the letter. …Unless…you think think they meant “TLC as in “Tomato-lettuce-Cheese”? Like, REPLACING the bacon with cheese for a presumably healthier sandwich? I GUESS it could work, with like, an applewood-smoked cheddar, but I don’t think it’s what they meant…damn it, now I’m doubting myself.)
THIS sandwich, however, is definitely wrong. I don’t care if you like CBLTs, but they need that letter. I like TABLEs. (BLTs with Avocados and Eggs).
And those aren’t invalid complaints. But they’re also kind of short-sighted. There’s a line, sure, but as long as the cheese is the star, then it’s a grilled cheese. You don’t complain when a “turkey dinner” or “Pancake breakfast” has side dishes, do you?
And that’s an honestly much more thorough breakdown of grilled cheese than I thought I was going to give. Hopefully it will inspire or guide you for the next…six days of Grilled Cheese Month, and many more months to come. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go hunt down a cheese commercial to see if they have bacon on a sandwich or not.
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MONDAY: JON MAKES A MESS OF CORN MEAL, TO MEASURE METHODS, IN A POLENTA POLEMIC
THURSDAY: REMEMBER THAT ARSON JON COMMITTED LIKE, 3 WEEKS AGO? LIKE ALL SERIAL CRIMINALS, WE REVISIT THE SCENE, WITH A BREAKDOWN OF A COUPLE COZIES, AND WHY JAMES PATTERSON’S IS…KIND OF AN ISSUE.