The Ultimate Grilled Cheese Sandwich

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The ultimate grilled cheese sandwich, although, simple in its approach is nothing to be taken lightly.  In actuality a great grilled cheese sandwich is a very complex work of art that requires patience and fortitude. If you have every tried to cook one I think you know what I mean.  From the temp of the pan, to the pan type, and the ingredients can and will impact the outcome.

Decisions, decisions, decisions ….

The Cheese:

I love cheese, my family loves cheese.  In fact my son loves it so much that often times he will ask for a bowl of grated cheddar cheese and when provided to him he will eat the entire bowl.  Understand it is not an adult size bowl but to his 5 year old body size is relative.  My wife on the other hand has a different relationship with cheese.  She is not discriminatory in her relationship with the creamy food substance that we otherwise known as cheese.  She has a saying, “I haven’t met a cheese that I don’t like”  Although, if it came down to it I think she would like on Gorgonzola, Gouda and Guryere.  As for me; I partially agree with my wife, there is at least one cheese that I didn’t like.  One that I met while traveling in Norway with the Navy, Brunost.  On the other hand I am more like my son, I am a cheddar guy, specically aged white cheddars.  If you are curious you should check out Tillamook Vintage Extra Sharp White Cheddar that has been aged for over 3 years.

Cheese to me is a lot like a fine wine or a great beer.  Each is distinctive in its own nature and each have their own characteristics.  But we are not here to talk specifically about cheese.  On to the S-A-N-D-W-I-C-H.  So what is the right cheese to use in a grilled cheese sandwich and yes it does matter.  Why you ask?  The answer as with many answers is in the compositions of taste and chemistry.  Regardless of your cheese delicacy ceratin cheeses just should not be mixed and in addition the chemical composition of cheese changes as it is heated.  For a complete analysis of what happens to cheese when it is heated check out the book the kitchen as a laboratory.  In chapter one, The Science of a Grilled Cheese Sandwich, Jennifer Kimmell, prove scientifically why Gouda, Manchego and Gruyere are best suited for a grilled cheese sandwich.  She summarizes on her blog:

“Examples of cheeses with good melting properties include Gruyere, Manchego, and Gouda. These varieties balance the final cheese pH to achieve both soluble calcium and soluble protein, resulting in a cheese mass that melts and flows upon heating while keeping the fat trapped within the matrix. The pH can be both perfectly balanced and too acidic in a single cheese variety. Take mild versus aged cheddar. While the mild cheddar melts evenly and maintains the fat within the matrix, the aged cheddar, because of its lower, more acidic, pH, will melt into lumps, releasing free fat.

From <http://www.cupblog.org/?p=5296> “

And as much as I would like to disagree, given that Cheddar did not make the final 3, I cannot.  The composition and chemistry of those three cheeses works perfectly.  They meld together under the heat of the pan and don’t produce too much oil which in the end will ruin a great sandwich.

The Bread:

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As with cheese there are many different types to choose from and I have to be honest I do not consider myself a bread connoisseur as with my cheeses but I am partial to a great Sourdough.  Now this poses a problem that one may not realize right away.  Even though Sourdough is a great break it is not suited for a grilled cheese sandwich because of the holes.  To truly get a great grilled cheese sandwich you need a bread that does not provide the opportunity to lose the cheese.  In other words choose a bread with small holes.  Another thing to keep in mind is that you don’t want your slices to thick.  Choosing a bread that comes sliced too thick will increase the chance of burning the bread before the cheese melts.  Try to stick with something around 1/2 inch slices.

The Preparation:

Now that we understand the cheese and the bread situation we can get started.  As with any meal I like to get all of my ingredients together prior to starting.  Once all my ingredients are together I preheat my pan.  My pan of choice for grilled cheese is a large cast iron skillet.

Ingredients and Making magic:

  • 3 slices of Manchego
  • 3 slices of Gouda (Preferably smoked)
  • 3 slices of Gruyere
  • 1 tbsp of butter, (at room temp or 68 degrees), spread one half on each side of the bread being careful not to rip the bread
  • Garlic Salt, Penzey’s is my preference
  • 2 slices of bread
  1. Preheat pan on medium heat 4 on a scale of 1 – 10.  The temperature setting is key as you don’t want a pan that too hot because your bread will end up burning before your cheese will melt.
  2. Butter 1 side of each slice of bread, leaving face up on the workstation.
  3. Sprinkle garlic salt on butter side of bread.
  4. Once pan is at medium heat (about 5 min) place one slice of bread in the pan butter side down.  It is important to build the sandwich in the pan otherwise you will have the tendency to push down on the bread.  This will result in the butter the butter being left on the working surface.
  5. Layer the cheese on the slice of bread and cover with second piece of bread.
  6. This next step is where it all happens.  Cover the pan with a plate, lid, or a stock pot for 2 – 3 minutes.  After lid is removed increase the heat on the pan to 5.5.  It is important to not cover for too long because covering the pan will cause condensation to form which we don’t want because that will cause our bread to get soggy and no one likes soggy bread.  But 2 – 4 minutes on low head is just enough to generate enough heat to speed up the melting process of the cheese.
  7. After a couple of minutes remove the cover from the pan and check the down side of the bread.  If it is golden brown and crisp to the touch then flip the sandwich.
  8. Once both sides of the bread are crisp and gold brown remove the sandwich to a cutting board and let rest for 2 – 3 minutes.  This will give the cheese enough time to cool and meld together a bit more.  If you cut too soon you will lose all of the cheese.

In Conclusion:

Finally, to make a great grilled cheese you much choose right cheese or in my case cheeses, the right bread and like cheese there are so many to choose from, the important thing is to choose one with small or limited holes.  Choose a great butter, if you must you can use margarine but I am not a fan.  My preference for butter is Tillamook unsalted or Chef’s cut of Challenge butter.  As for Garlic salt, I prefer Penzey’s.

Lastly, is the right temperature and pan to cook it all in.

From there have some fun, who says grilled cheese has to only contain cheese.  How about a Grilled cheese with Pancetta, grilled red onions, tomatoes and 4 cheeses: Gruyere, Gouda, Manchego and Aged White Cheddar on Sourdough.  I know I broke two of the rules but I can’t help it.  I like to test boundaries.

Enjoy, Have fun and experiment and above all else if you have kids include them in the excitement and learning that is to be had in the kitchen.  Until next time.

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