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In Search of the Perfect Grilled Cheese Sandwich
April 12, 2017 is National Grilled Cheese Sandwich Day, so once again, I’m celebrating with one of my very favorite foods and reflecting on a blog post I wrote a little more than two years ago.
Since that time, I’ve continued to experiment with new cheeses, breads and spreads whenever I’m in the mood, and I must say that my preferences in this blog still remain my favorites to this day. Maybe I’ve finally got it right…
My quest for capturing the “perfect” grilled cheese sandwich has been more a sport than a culinary adventure. I’m quick to brag about my best recipe to date, but I’m never truly satisfied. Somewhere, I think, there’s got to be one more cheese I haven’t heard about, a new bread yet to be griddled or an even tastier butter I haven’t tasted.
Each winter’s “grilled cheese season,” I embark on a brand-new quest to better (or might I say “butter”) my best recipe to date, all in the effort to place a new trophy sandwich on my proverbial plate.
The seed of this obsession began one winter’s day after walking home from elementary school. I was about 7 or 8 years old then. My mom had a soup and sandwich at the ready, and even more importantly, Lunch with Soupy Sales was on TV. THIS, I thought, was gonna be a good day.
While I enjoy a good bowl of soup now, back in those days, soups weren’t my thing, especially Cream of Tomato, which I’ll bet was probably—you guessed it—Campbell’s.
This sandwich, on the other hand, was something other worldly, more like a pizza than a sandwich. It had a crunchy, brown crust and melted cheese. The only thing that was missing was the tomato sauce.
My first grilled cheese sandwich didn’t come with eating instructions, so I dunked it in the tomato soup like a donut.
Genius! I thought Of course, it took the pizza companies 30 more years to come up with “Crazy Bread,” so I was really ahead of my time.
My new sandwich friend became my default go-to meal whenever I was given the choice. Even odder, until then, I never much cared for cheese at all, except on pizza.
Needless to say, I OD’ed on this sandwich for a full year.
I’ll guess that dear old mom made those grilled cheese sandwiches from Velveeta® Cheese Spread, and I know for a fact that later, she used Kraft® Processed American Singles. Both iconic, both are still widely used in grilled cheese sandwiches to this day.
When I started making my own grilled cheese sandwiches, I began to think that something was missing. Both Velveeta® and processed American cheeses were a little too “melty.” Where were the pizza-like gooey strings I loved? Where was the chew?
I wanted it all.
So the quest began to find the perfect cheese.
Mind you, I have my own preferences, some more to do with looks than taste. I prefer the cheese to be yellow (I know it’s just coloring but…). The bread should have a crunch, yet I don’t like really hard, crusted, Artisan-style bread. Besides, it squishes the cheese out too much from the sides. Lastly, even though my mom “buttered up” both sides of her sandwiches with (yikes!) Crisco® shortening (which does give you a crispy, crunchy bread, and being a neutral-flavored fat, allows the cheese flavor to shine through), I still prefer to use a softened, salted butter instead.
My perfect Grilled Cheese Sandwich is always a work in progress, but I’m very proud of the one I make now. It’s cheesy, creamy, gooey, a little stringy, crunchy and buttery.
Making a grilled cheese sandwich is simple, but each component and process is essential for the perfect outcome.
My choice of bread is non-seeded Italian bread, cut just slightly thicker than usual. I like this bread because it’s neutral in flavor, has a tight crumb (not too many big holes), and both crisps up and browns well.
There are a lot of choices here, from mayonnaise (yep, mayonnaise), to the aforementioned Crisco® shortening, to margarine or even oil. I prefer NOT to add the fat to the pan but to spread it directly on both sides of the outer bread slices instead. I butter my perfect grilled cheese sandwich with softened Presidente or Irish Kerrygold salted butter so that the butter is spreadable and right where I want it.
Here is where it all happens. Personally, I want a cheese that has both great flavor and great melting characteristics. If I could only choose one, I’d probably choose Tillamook® Medium Cheddar. I’d slice it 1/8” thick and put on two layers, edge to edge.
Having said that, my Perfect G.C.S. uses three cheeses. In order from top to bottom, they are Tillamook Cheddar + Colby Jack +Aged Gouda. The star here, believe it or not, is the Colby Jack, which in my sandwich is 50% of the middle with thin slices of the other two on both sides. All totaled, the amount of cheese in my sandwich is about the thickness of a pencil (about ¼”). The reason I only use Colby Jack in this sandwich is that while it lacks just a bit in cheesy flavor, it gives me the perfect stringy chewiness that I love. Here’s one last tip: if you allow your cheeses to be at room temperature before putting them in your sandwich, when you griddle your sandwich, they will melt perfectly.
It’s preferable to use a heavy-bottomed skillet, one that’s set on medium-low heat (about 300 F.). This will allow the bread to brown and crisp up slowly and evenly while allowing the cheese to melt just right. Too hot a temperature, and the bread is burnt before the cheese is melted. Too low, and the cheese is melted before the bread is browned and crispy. 300 F. is the grilled cheese’s Goldilocks Zone.
Griddling is basically “fan-frying,” and for a grilled cheese sandwich, this takes a bit longer than you might think to do it right (about 4 to 5 minutes on each side). Use a lower temperature, chill out, go slow, and do it right. And by the way, although I don’t press mine down as it’s cooking, if you like a thinner sandwich, one where the cheese is oozing out of the sides and then crisps up on the pan, well, then you just go for it and do your thing…
While my perfect grilled cheese is just that, every once in a while, it’s ok to add in some extras. Some of my favorites are shaved honey ham, crisp bacon or thinly sliced Compari tomatoes with freshly torn basil leaves.
Finding YOUR perfect grilled cheese sandwich is a project well worth the journey, and as every journey begins with a first step, I recommend your first step be through the front door of Nino’s. Our cheese experts will point you toward my favorites or help you find a new favorite of your own. I might also suggest you pair it with Nino’s own homemade Tomato Basil Soup.
Dunking is optional.
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