Grilled Cheese: A Comfort Food Classic

Toasted or pan-fried, open-face or closed, it's always in style--at our house anyway!

On one of our first dates, my husband Jeff wooed me by serving up an open-face grilled cheese sandwich: cheddar cheese on toasted rye bread, one of his favorite snacks. I was duly charmed. Many guys had taken me out for dinner, but none had actually cooked for me. Little did I know that this dish and one other—lemon chicken, which he also concocted in his small kitchen in Tiburon—represented the full extent of his culinary prowess at that time. (These days he makes a mean veggie burger!)

Decades later, grilled cheese is still one of Jeff’s favorite foods, though he usually orders it in restaurants rather than making it. His favorite is from a dining establishment called Local Grill & Scoop in Cannon Beach, a picturesque town on Oregon’s coast. Their version includes lots of butter and several kinds of cheese oozing out of the center, but the distinguishing feature is a great deal of parmesan melted into a sumptuous crust that clings to the outside of the bread. Tied for first is Sherman’s Deli & Bakery in Palm Springs, with their crinkle-cut cottage fries vying for the main attraction! Though the sandwiches are delivered in traditional grilled cheese style, with cheese smooshed between two square slices of toast and cut into triangles, my husband insists on separating the pieces. His explanation:

“Grilled cheese is so incredible. If you eat it open face, you get four pieces instead of two and get to enjoy the experience even longer.”

With that in mind, I decided to do my own take on grilled cheese this past week. This gave me the excuse I was looking for to make bread—and tomato soup, which I thought was a must with grilled cheese. It also would make good use of several pounds of ripe tomatoes I’d brought back from a trip to the farmers market.

The question I had when I first thought of writing about this topic was: What’s the best bread to use for a grilled cheese? For that matter, what’s the best cheese? It’s clearly subjective. What’s your opinion? Please let me know!

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The ones I remembered from lunches around Formica kitchen tables at my friends’ houses when I was a kid were probably made on Wonder Bread with Velveeta or American cheese.

My mother’s grilled cheese was an open-face version fashioned with whatever bread she had on hand—most likely rye, sourdough or challah—topped with cheddar and melted under a broiler. Usually the dish arrived with a black-brown crust that you would peel back to reveal a molten orange mass underneath. .

I dug up a copy of a book that some friends had given to Jeff years ago as a jokey birthday gift, knowing his passion for superheated bread and cheese.

In the book, Great Grilled Cheese: 50 Innovative Recipes for Stovetop, Grill, and Sandwich Maker, author Laura Werlin suggests the origins of the American idea of grilled cheese might be linked to a mid-18th Century recipe for “Savoury Toasts” from Eliza Action, an English writer and cook.

“This may well have been the precursor to America’s grilled cheese sandwich because she recommends frying cheese-topped bread in a pan,” then completing the melting process by placing the bread and cheese by the fire. The resulting open-face sandwich would have made my husband very happy!

Werlin’s repertoire of recipes range from the Original American Grilled Cheese with white bread, butter and American cheese to more modern variations such Grilled Cheddar and Broccoli with Cayenne Butter, or Grilled Ricotta and Shrimp with Cilanto Pesto; desserty dishes such as Chocolate-Hazelnut and Goat Cheese Melt, and Grilled Brie with Apricot Jam (on a baguette). Even quesadillas make an appearance, with tortillas standing in for bread. And “grilled,” according to Werlin, could really mean using a toaster oven, stovetop, sandwich maker, waffle iron—or the backyard grill.

But when it comes to making grilled cheese, at my house we opt for the classic no-frills version, though usually it’s made with cheddar rather than American cheese.

After friend Kelly Bevan said that her son’s favorite grilled cheese was one she was inspired to make from a favorite mac and cheese recipe from Bon Appétit, I decided to give the recipe’s combo of cheeses—Fontina, Gruyère and sharp white cheddar—a try.

On some homemade Japanese Milk Bread (a fluffy white bread that incorporates a paste of milk and flour called tangzhong to increase bread’s tenderness and shelf life), it was miraculous!

Instead of butter, Kelly uses a thin slick of mayonnaise on the outside of the bread slices and cooks the sandwiches in a cast-iron skillet. I love using cast-iron also, but you have to watch the sandwich with unremitting concentration since it goes from golden brown to charcoal black in the blink of an eye.

Since there are so few ingredients in a classic grilled cheese—basically bread, cheese and fat—the quality and taste of each makes all the difference. I used Werlin’s recipe for “The Best Grilled Cheese” as my template, varying the bread and cheese choices. I’ve tried lowering the fat content by using a nonstick spray, but it affected the taste—and the sandwich tended to burn even more readily. Clearly, folks, this isn’t diet food!

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Three Loaves

I made three types of bread to pair with cheese, all from recipes from King Arthur Baking, my go-to source for baking inspiration, advice and often ingredients and tools. (Just FYI: I get no kickbacks or favors for touting this employee-owned company—I just happen to like them!).

What I made:

Sourdough from a recipe for Rustic Sourdough Bread.

Jewish Rye Bread, a recipe I wrote about in a previous post. It’s a bit dense and doesn’t have an enormous rise, but it’s another great pairing with an aged cheese. I also think it would make an excellent base for a Reuben sandwich.

Japanese Milk Bread, a great choice for the classic grilled cheese look—and a delightful toasting bread!

The Bottom Line

Grilled cheese is probably not something you should eat every day, but it’s a great snack, a perfect road food and connects many of us with happy childhood memories. Pick any bread or cheese you like (and, yes, store-bought bread is just fine!), and, whether you eat it open-face or in sandwich form, you may find you agree with Jeff on the subject of grilled cheese, at least for the length of time it takes to finish eating it:

“Life is about grilled cheese, laughs, love, having fun, and TV theme songs. There’s nothing else that matters.”

Thanks for reading this edition of Ruth Talks Food. Please let me know how you like your grilled cheese. Open-face or sandwich-style? Sourdough, rye, white or wheat? Ciabatta? Cheddar, Jack or Swiss? I’d love to hear from you! And, please don’t forget to subscribe to receive future newsletters. Thanks again for stopping by!

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