Melt With You
It's almost winter--time for grilled cheese
Published: November 24, 2010
So now that it’s officially cold out, and fucking dark already by the time you start to actually feel awake, the natural tendency is to eat fatty foods, hunker down, and simply avoid the biting wind and grayness that typify a Baltimore winter. And also perhaps reflect on the year that has suddenly evaporated, a mere cloud of dust in our wake as we hurtle away from warmth and inexorably towards icy, inky darkness. You know what’s good for shitty days when you feel powerless in the face of death? A grilled cheese sandwich and some soup.
Exactly why the grilled cheese sandwich, particularly in conjunction with tomato soup, is associated with crappy weather is debatable. The pairing certainly possesses the sensual aspects that many cold-weather comfort foods seem to share: warming broth, crispy browned surfaces, starchiness, and gooiness. The practice of serving them together has an interesting history. Apparently Navy cooks during World War II served grilled cheese sandwiches as a satisfying yet economical meal (thanks to the advent of low-cost processed cheese). They were often accompanied by tomato soup, which was also cheap and considered a good source of vitamin C, perhaps a maritime carry-over from anti-scurvy lemon days. So maybe a rough weather/open seas connection? Then again, maybe the whole cold-weather thing is all in my head, since whoever is in charge of such things decided National Grilled Cheese month would best be celebrated in April, of all months.
Aside from its comfort-food connotations, the grilled cheese sandwich is an elegant example of the transformative power of cooking. That it is cooked at all is probably why it‘s something of a “special occasion” sandwich. Not that it’s some big undertaking—hell, you can make a decent one without a pan, or even a kitchen at all. (Surprisingly, that old urban legend about using an iron to make grilled cheese sandwiched turns out to be totally legit. You’re basically using it as a one-sided panini press—see the recipe at citypaper.com/grilledcheese—and it produces an exceptional specimen, nicely browned if a bit smushed.)
Nevertheless, the chasm between a fully realized, crackly/chewy/oozy grilled cheese sandwich and its raw state, the cheese sandwich, which invariably takes on the consistency of uncooked dough in one’s mouth, is vast indeed. Seriously, when’s the last time you had a straight-up cheese sandwich? That’s what crackers are for, right?
Then there is the moniker of “grilled,” when, at least here in the United States, they are usually pan-fried. Broiled versions do exist, and this I suppose could squeak by on a technicality, since direct radiant heat is used to melt the cheese. One such preparation is the “cheese dream,” which is simply cheese-topped toast, served open-faced. The Welsh rarebit is variation on this theme, except the cheese is made into a sauce, which is then poured over toast. I’ve always attributed the name to the fact that the griddles used in restaurants and diners are sometimes known as “flat-top grills,” and thus the food cooked thereupon is “grilled.”
The key to the grilled cheese is the frying, or more specifically, the direct contact of the bread with a hot cooking surface and lubrication with some sort of fat. Anyone who has been lazy enough to try making a less hands-on grilled cheese—using two pieces of toast and a microwave, say—knows well the bitter sting of failure. Toasted bread, even with subsequent or prebuttering, is too brittle and hard, due to moisture loss when cooked in a toaster or an oven. Plus, if you start with toasted bread, how’s the cheese gonna melt?
There is the aforementioned broiling method, but again, you have the same problem with the toast. Toasted bread and pan-fried bread are just completely different animals, the latter possessing a more delicate browned crust, and more elasticity beneath that crust. In the context of a grilled cheese, it forms more of a pliable pocket or jacket, as opposed to the stiff platform-type structure that toast provides to, say, a BLT. As far as type of bread, I look for something with medium density, since the frying will soften the bread overall, and something like Wonder bread tends to become overly floppy. Also, I prefer white bread, since I want the bread mainly for texture and structure, and prefer the cheese and fat to provide the flavor. It’s best not to have any big holes or pockets through which cheese may escape, rendering most baguettes a poor choice.
Cheese is an area where I am uncharacteristically tolerant. I don’t think it really matters, although I will say that shredded is best for thorough bread coverage and even melting. Using sliced cheese often requires custom tiling to neatly cover a slice of bread. And yes, sometimes when I crave a grilled cheese, it must be made with fake-ass American, which is surprisingly required to contain at least 51 percent actual cheese. Avoid low- or non-fat cheeses, as they sometimes just refuse to melt. Like, you can put the cheese directly on the fucking pan, on high heat, and it will just sit there, intact, mocking you. Trust me, I’ve been there. I even wrote an angry letter to Borden (hey, it was on sale) about it.
While butter seems to be the lube of choice, it has a major drawback—spreading difficulty. In a typical household, the butter will be refrigerated, and thus hard. Perhaps in response to the butter spreading issue, softer compounds such as margarine or even mayonnaise are commonly applied to the bread, the latter making for a surprisingly tasty, glisteningly golden final product. Oil works fine too, except olive oil makes for a weird-tasting sandwich.
I certainly don’t have the forethought to leave butter out to soften, so instead of buttering the bread, like seemingly everyone else does, I butter the pan and mop with the bread for an even coat. In fact, I don’t even bother to cut off a pat; instead I’ll use the butter like a glue stick and just schmear it straight on the hot pan, wiping any drippage with the bread. Barbaric? I guess, but it works. I offset this sloth with an extra step that again few others seems to incorporate: I fry both sides of each bread slice. I think it results in better texture than if the cheese is allowed to meld directly with naked bread, and you double the amount of browned surface, and mo’ brown equals mo’ better. If I’m feeling extra industrious, I will go balls out for the ol’ double grilled cheese, wherein after the sandwich is complete, an extra layer of cheese is applied to the outside to form a secondary crust (recipe below). And yes, it is awesome.
Double Grilled Cheese
Sliced white bread (Pepperidge Farm Country White is good)
Shredded cheese (any kind as long as it’s not too hard or dry)
Butter (or oil, or spray oil)
- Heat a large nonstick frying pan at medium-low.
- Butter the pan surface lightly and add two slices of bread, mopping up excess if necessary.
- Fry for about a minute or until lightly browned, then remove both slices.
- Lightly butter one side of pan and add one slice of bread, untoasted side down, then top with shredded cheese and top with second slice of bread, untoasted side up.
- While frying, lightly butter the other side of the pan. After two minutes or when golden brown, flip sandwich onto untoasted side.
- Fry for about two minutes, then lightly butter the other side of the pan and add some shredded cheese directly to the pan (a portion slightly smaller than a slice of bread), and flip sandwich on top of it.
- Fry for another minute or until lightly browned, then repeat step six for the other side.
- Drain on paper towels before serving.
Sliced white bread
Butter or oil
An electric iron
- Preheat iron to the “linen” setting—make sure steam is off.
- Butter outer surfaces of two bread slices, and place cheese in between.
- Fold foil so that just one layer is covering the bread on each side.
- Place iron on top of sandwich for about three minutes or until golden. Flip sandwich and repeat.