Biting into a crispy shell of fried bread with cheese oozing out — also known as grilled cheese — has been a comfort food longer than you can imagine. In fact, early Roman texts reference combinations of cheese and bread. The French had their croque monsieur of toasted bread, cheese, and ham on menus in 1910. The early American version was first known as “The Cheese Dream,” so named by Marion H. Neil in her 1916 cookbook called Sandwiches, Salads, and Chafing Dish Recipes.
Ms. Neil advises the cook to trim the crusts from thinly sliced white bread and spread with butter. “Place thick slices of cheese between the bread and fry in plenty of hot butter in the chafing dish. Serve with tomato or mushroom catsup.” In 1922, Good Housekeeping magazine offered “the tried and true tea-house friend, the Cheese Dream” sandwich with bread sliced at one-quarter inch and cheese one-eighth inch, fried in butter, and served with “two or three spoonfuls of highly seasoned tomato sauce poured around each.”
The inexpensive and delicious Cheese Dream became a staple during the Depression. Sometimes it was embellished with bacon, ham, or tomatoes. Navy cooks in World War II served countless “American cheese filling sandwiches” described in government-issued cookbooks. After the war, the sandwiches made their way into school cafeterias, where they were paired with tomato soup for the added vitamin C. Finally, the term “grilled cheese” made an appearance in print in the mid-1960s.
The main ingredients of grilled cheese are bread, cheese, and butter. Use high-quality ingredients. Don’t speak of Wonder Bread and Kraft slices. They may be authentic to your childhood dreams, but they will not give you a fabulous grilled cheese sandwich.
Start with a nice white bread. Sourdough, challah, brioche, potato bread, even multigrain all work. Look for tender but not mushy. Standard bread slice size of about one-half inch works really well. If you go the Texas toast wide slice route, melting the cheese may require more time. Adjust your cooking time and heat appropriately.
Look for flavorful melting cheeses — extra sharp cheddars, Gouda, chevre, Swiss, Gruyere, havarti, brie. The list goes on and on. Cheese is the star of your grilled cheese show. Investing in high quality will pay off.
Mayonnaise or butter? The debate can get heated over which condiment is best to spread on the outside of your sandwich before cooking. Mayonnaise is easy to spread in a thin coat and will give you the golden-brown crust. It has a higher smoke point and won’t burn in an overheated pan. If your butter isn’t soft enough, it can tear the soft bread when you spread it. If you are looking for speed and not flavor, go ahead and use mayonnaise, but the cheese will melt better when cooking low and slow. If you are not going for speed, you are chasing the cheese dream of golden crust with a melting middle. Don’t believe it? Fry a slice of bread coated with butter and one coated with mayonnaise and decide with your own taste test.
Cover your pan while cooking the first sandwich side. The cover will concentrate the heat on your sandwich, accelerating the cheese melt. However, covering the sandwich also seals moisture in the pan, which is fine when cooking the first side. After your flip, you want to keep that crisp crust snappy. Moisture will soften it, so leave the cover off for the second side.
Let your imagination go! Have fun. Once you have the basics for creating a delicious grilled cheese, you can try all kinds of different combinations. Have a cheese dream party with friends. Cut the sandwiches in quarters — triangles, of course! — and taste test different varieties.
While you might still think lovingly of the plastic melted American cheese between slices of flavorless white bread, all these years in the making have given chefs the chance to perfect the art of grilled cheese. Try some of the recipes below. They might even inspire you to the level of a “cheese dream.”
“The Amazing Basic” Grilled Cheese
2 slices of white bread
1½ ounces sharp cheddar cheese, thinly sliced
Softened butter (room temperature)
Heat a nonstick pan, preferably a well-seasoned cast-iron pan, over medium heat. The best grilled cheese is cooked low and slow. Put the sliced cheese between the bread slices. Add a thin layer of mustard if desired on the inside of one slice of bread. Lightly butter the outside of the top slice of bread.
Drop about 1 teaspoon of butter in the pan and let it melt until it stops sizzling. Sprinkle a pinch of salt on the melted butter. Put the sandwich in the pan, butter side down, on top of the melted butter. Smear softened butter on the top of the sandwich in the pan. Cover the pan. Turn the heat down to medium-low. This part is hard: no peeking for 3 minutes.
After 3 minutes, gently lift the sandwich out of the pan, drop another teaspoon or so of butter onto the pan. Allow the butter to sizzle out. Then gently turn the sandwich over into the pan and admire the even golden-brown crust facing up. Set a timer for what will feel like an achingly long 2 minutes. If you need to, you may slide the sandwich gently around the pan in the first 30 seconds to sop the beautiful lightly browned butter that is in the pan. After the 2 minutes, lift the sandwich to check for the even golden-brown crust on the bottom.
When the crust color is perfect, remove the sandwich from the pan and let it rest. As tempting as it may be to dive in and taste straight out of the pan, if you scald your mouth, you will miss out on the delicious flavor and texture. Cut the sandwich diagonally and watch in wonder as the cheese oozes out.
The Tomato & Cheese
4 thin slices dill havarti cheese
Thin slices flavorful tomatoes (see note below)
1 to 2 shaved slices Vidalia onion
2 slices quality white bread
Salt and pepper to taste
Note: If you are using winter tomatoes, opt for the smaller Kumato or Campari tomatoes and use 3 to 4 slices. If you are using farm fresh summer tomatoes, choose a rich heirloom variety and if the tomato is large, use 1 slice.
Put a slice of bread on your work surface. Stack 2 slices of dill havarti cheese on the bread. Arrange tomatoes on the cheese. Salt and pepper the tomato to taste. Add the onion. Top with the remaining 2 slices of cheese and slice of bread. Butter the bread on the outside of both sides of the sandwich. Cook as before for “The Amazing Basic.”
The Brie & Bacon
Brie to cover bread
Trader Joe’s Black Forest Bacon
2 slices white bread
Salt & pepper
Preheat oven to 400 F. Line a sheet pan with aluminum foil topped with parchment paper. Lay the bacon slices on the parchment without overlapping. Cook in the oven for 15 to 20 minutes until your desired doneness, preferably crispy. Remove bacon from the pan and drain between paper towels. When cool enough to handle, break or cut slices to about 4 inches long.
Slice the brie about ⅛-inch thick. Remove the rind if desired. Lay bread slices on your work surface and cover both with brie. Add 2 to 3 pieces of bacon on top of the brie on one slice. Cover with the other side of the sandwich. Butter the bread on the outside of both sides of the sandwich. Cook as before for “The Amazing Basic.”
Fig & Pig variation: Spread about 1 tablespoon of fig preserves underneath the bacon before cooking.
Pimento Cheese & Raspberry
Your favorite pimento cheese
2 slices white bread
Slather one slice of bread with your pimento cheese. Slather the other slice with 1 to 2 tablespoons of preserves. Put the sandwich together. Lightly coat the outside of the sandwich with butter on both sides. Cook as before for “The Amazing Basic.”
Shrooming Grilled Cheese
Portobello or cremini mushrooms to taste, sliced
6 to 8 pecan halves
1 ounce of Gruyere cheese, thinly sliced
4 tablespoons chevre
2 slices sourdough bread
Extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
Preheat oven to 425 F. Toss sliced mushrooms in extra-virgin olive oil to coat. Spread in a single layer on a foil lined sheet pan. Roast for 10 to 15 minutes until the mushrooms have released their juices and browned a little on one side. Stir partway through cooking. Set aside to cool.
In the pan to be used for the grilled cheese, toss the pecans over medium heat in a little butter. Stirring constantly, toast the pecans for 2 to 3 minutes until they are one shade darker brown than when they started. Don’t turn your back on them as they can burn quickly. Set aside the pecans to cool. Break into smaller chunks.
Place your bread on your work surface. Divide the chevre between the 2 slices and spread it across the bread. On 1 slice, add mushrooms and pecans and top with Gruyere cheese. Put the sandwich together. Lightly coat the outside of the sandwich with butter on both sides. Cook as before for “The Amazing Basic.”
The Italian Grilled Cheese
2 slices white bread
1 to 2 tablespoons pesto, homemade or high-quality store bought
2 slices picante provolone cheese
2 ounces fresh mozzarella cheese, sliced or torn
2 to 3 small Peppadew peppers, thinly sliced
Place the bread on your work surface. Smear pesto on both slices. Top with 1 slice provolone on each piece of bread. Cover 1 slice with mozzarella and scattered Peppadew peppers. Put the sandwich together. Lightly coat the outside of the sandwich with butter on both sides. Cook as before for “The Amazing Basic.”
And finally, saving one of the best for last …
The Jalapeño Popper Grilled Cheese
2 jalapeño peppers, divided
2 slices hearty white bread
4 tablespoons Philadelphia cream cheese
1-ounce extra-sharp cheddar, thinly sliced
3 pieces Trader Joe’s Black Forest Bacon, cooked (see Brie & Bacon)
1 tablespoon finely grated Pecorino Romano or Parmigiano Reggiano cheese
Lightly coat 1 whole jalapeño pepper with oil. Grill for 6 to 8 minutes on high until the pepper has softened and the skin has some char on it, turning the pepper a few times while cooking. Remove from the grill and let rest until cool enough to handle. Peel off charred skin. Slice open the pepper and remove stem, seeds, and ribs. Slice into long thin strips.
Lay the bread slices on your work surface. Divide the cream cheese and spread on the 2 slices. Arrange the jalapeño on 1 slice of bread with cream cheese. Top with bacon and cheddar. Put the sandwich together. Lightly coat the outside of the sandwich with butter on both sides.
Slice paper thin rounds from the remaining jalapeño. Five or 6 rounds will do. Press the rounds into the butter on one side of the sandwich. You may need a bit more butter on this side to hold the jalapeños. Sprinkle the Pecorino Romano on top across the slice. Press it into the butter with your fingers.
Preheat the pan over medium heat. When hot, drop in the butter and allow it to melt. Put the sandwich in jalapeño side down. Turn the heat down a little bit. With a spatula, lightly press the sandwich into the pan. Cover the pan and allow to cook undisturbed for 2 to 3 minutes. Use a thin metal spatula to lift the sandwich, making sure to scrape up the cheese and jalapeño in place on the sandwich. Add more butter and gently flip the sandwich into the pan. Cook uncovered for another 2 to 3 minutes until golden brown on the second side. Remove from the pan and let cool until safe to handle. Slice and enjoy.
Cheese Dream Party Tip
Want to have your friends over to test out your new mad cheese dream skills? You can prepare all the sandwiches up to the point just before you coat the outside with butter. Cover with a damp paper towel and plastic wrap on top. Keep in the refrigerator until you are ready to cook. When you are ready, coat the sandwiches lightly with softened butter and cook as directed.