Grilled Cheese

In my heart, I believe the #1 reason most everyone I have ever met loves cheese is because we all have a version of the same memory: tomato soup and a grilled cheese sandwich. In my memory (and probably yours) the sandwich bread began as white but wound up golden brown. The cheese was orange and perfectly gooey when bitten into. It was a little bit sweet and a little bit salty and it practically dripped down my chin when I pulled my mouth away. There was no butter that I could see, but my fingertips were always slightly shiny when I put the sandwich down. That is the consummate American memory of a grilled cheese. My local diner made them. My college greasy spoon made them. My mom made them. 

In every case, the cheese used in that addictive, crunchy, buttery, comforting sandwich was “American cheese.” Maybe at a fancy friend’s house the American cheese slices came individually wrapped in plastic. My folks bought it at the supermarket deli counter, sliced up by the half pound. When I started working in cheese I began to wonder if an equally masterful grilled cheese could be made using better cheese. By better I mean just as tasty but made without additives. A fun fact is that, by definition, “American cheese” is a pasteurized processed cheese. It’s cheese that is processed, usually by melting it down with whey, milk protein and emulsifying salts. That’s why it melts so well, so quickly and that’s why it’s gooey rather than greasy. In short, the processing is what makes American cheese make grilled sandwiches so fantastic. 

So, is it possible to get a similar result with cheeses that weren’t recombined with all the additives? The answer is…you can get pretty darn close. Flavorwise, there is no other cheese that will give you the vaguely sweet/salty hit that sliced American does. But, if you can master the techniques of grilled sandwich making you can definitely achieve the perfect golden toasty exterior and the delightfully melty interior and then you can to enjoy a whole bunch of other flavors that I for one find equally satisfying. 

Grilled Cheese Technique

If you don’t get the technique right you’re going to wind up with burned bread or unmelted cheese or, horror of horrors: both! Here’s what you need to do:

  1. Use a non-stick pan. I know there are diehards out there who won’t be separated from their cast iron skillets but if there’s one time to make the break, this is it. You want toasty bread, not grilled or burned bread. Also, when the cheese melts just right it spills out the sides of the bread. In a non-stick pan you get to scrape up those little cheese toasties and eat them as a bonus. They’re likely to burn or go molten greasy in a cast iron.
  2. Butter the bread, not the pan. Evenly coat one side each of two slices of bread. This will ensure even golden crispness rather than underdone and overdone patches. And speaking of bread, check your ingredients. Bread with added sugar is going to brown more quickly and makes the race to melt-dom tougher. Seek out breads with no sugar added.
  3. Most critically if you’re going to branch out from pre-sliced American: you’ve gotta grate the cheese. I know it’s extra work, but large-hole box grating your cheese will allow it to melt evenly and more quickly so you get gooey before the bread incinerates. Plan on 2-3 ounces per sandwich. Let’s get serious about the cheese!
  4. Once you prep everything up, preheat the non-stick pan over medium/medium low heat for about 2 minutes. Drop in a slice of bread, buttered side down. Evenly distribute pinches of grated cheese. Top with the second slice of bread, buttered side up.
  5. Cover with a pot lid!!! Resist the urge to touch it, move it around, peek underneath. Just leave it alone for 2 minutes. Now you can use a spatula to peek underneath. When it’s golden, flip it and, leaving it uncovered , gently press down on it with the spatula to finish cooking. This will take another 2 minutes, but the liquidy cheese melting out the side is a good sign that you’re there. 

Let’s Talk Cheese

I’ve already admitted that American cheese has its own unique flavor that you’re not likely to get from another cheese. What you will get is a whole bunch of other milky, salty, tangy, nutty flavors that are amazingly delicious. Here are the cheese tips:

  1. Stick with semisoft to firm textured cheeses. The softest cheeses (like Brie) have an edible rind that never fully melts so you wind up with a gooey interior layer and then chewy clumps of rind. It’s not great. Rock-hard cheeses (like Parmesan), meanwhile, don’t have enough moisture to melt and what is the goal here if not gooey, gooey, gone?
  2. Remember that firmer cheeses are more aged cheeses and, accordingly, they are likely to have thick, hard rinds (or even wax rinds) that you need to remove before grating and melting.
  3. As with homemade mac and cheese, the best types of cheese to go for are the Havarti and young Goudas, or the Alpine (Swiss) style cheeses. Havarti-types have a milder, milkier flavor that I actually add a sprinkle of kosher salt to before piling on my bread. The Swiss-types are nuttier and more complex in flavor. I’m cautious about recommending Cheddar because only young Cheddars will melt evenly without getting greasy, so avoid aged or “sharp” or “extra sharp” Cheddars. For melting, you want a mild Cheddar.

Look for these cheeses for ultimate meltability:

  1. Havarti-Types


Havarti with Dill


Smoked Gouda

Fontina Fontal

Fontina val d’Aosta

Midnight Moon (this has a sweeter flavor, more like caramel)

Mediterranean Gouda

Cablanca Goat Gouda


Sweet Grass Dairy Thomasville Tomme

  1. Swiss-Types


Swiss Emmentaler


Jarlsberg Lite

Madrigal French Swiss

Grand Cru

Karst Cave Aged Cheese

Pleasant Ridge Reserve


Cave Aged Gruyere



  1. Cheddar-Types

Red Dragon Mustard Seed and Ale


Irish Cheddar with Whiskey

Maple Smoked Cheddar

Excalibur 3 Month Cheddar

New Bridge Mild Cheddar

If You Want to Fancy Things Up

Should you wish to get more gourmand than the typical white bread and cheese route, here are some things to consider:

  1. Part of the beauty of grating your cheese is that you can grate different types and blend them together. This will allow you to add in very aged cheeses that are too dry to melt on their own. A fat pinch of Parmesan or Aged Gouda to your cheese blend will pack in some serious toasted nut flavor.
  2. In addition to buttering your bread slices, you might try a smear of mayo. This will deliver extra crunchy bread though I find the taste of the mayonnaise to be distracting from what I want, which is, yes, the cheese.
  3. If you’re going to layer in other fillings, make sure you’ve got cheese in contact with bread with the filling in between. This ensures everything is blanketed in melted cheese.
  4. Speaking of other fillings, what might you want to consider or avoid? There are classic additions, like bacon or a slice of Creole tomato. Consider slow roasted vegetables. Caramelized onions are especially delicious with Swiss-type cheeses. It’s like eating a French onion soup sandwich. Fresh greens, like arugula, lettuce or spinach, should be avoided. They wilt and get slimy, adding nothing to the experience. If you’re craving veggies, go for cooked greens, like collards or blanched, chopped broccoli. 

But really, what makes a good grilled cheese so good is its perfect simplicity, well executed. And of course, there’s that bowl of tomato soup!