In April 2021, Eat by Bobby McFarlandLeave a Comment

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More than any other food, the grilled cheese sandwich triggers nostalgia in seemingly everyone. In its simplest form, it’s made by buttering whatever sandwich bread you keep in the house, unwrapping a never-expiring slice or two of American cheese, and flipping it in your favorite skillet until the outside is golden-brown and the cheese is molten. It’s universal; it’s iconic; and when you need a dose of comfort, it’s irreplaceable.

There may be times, however, when you want to bring other cheeses and ingredients into the mix. If that’s the case, there’s a handful of tools and tricks to help you go from having a grilled cheese on your mind to one on your plate with as little fuss as possible.

The “Grilled Cheese” vs. “Melt” Debate
Some people who like rules more than having a good time insist that if you add anything other than cheese to a grilled cheese, it becomes a melt. I’d argue that if the cheese is the star of the sandwich, it’s a grilled cheese—no matter what else is in it.

Bread and Spread
It’s hard to beat sourdough for grilled cheese. Sourdough’s slight tang contrasts cheese’s richness, and its naturally higher moisture content allows the bread to remain chewy once the outside has been toasted. That being said, a grilled cheese on multigrain or whatever you have lying around beats going to the store when you’re already in the mood, so use what you have.

To complement the bread, spreading softened butter liberally edge-to-edge over the outside of the bread before cooking is commonplace.
But butter can take an hour or so to soften enough to spread, and sometimes the desire for grilled cheese can strike swiftly and unpredictably. So, in lieu of softened butter, I often reach for mayo because it’s spreadable right out of the fridge.

Mayonnaise, like butter, is mostly fat, so it functions similarly. While I slightly prefer the flavor of butter, mayo has the advantages of containing a little bit of egg and vinegar or lemon juice. The egg crisps up to aid in the toasting of the bread, and the vinegar—much like sourdough—provides a slight, balancing tartness.

Get Cultured
Cultured butter is made by churning fermented cream instead of fresh, resulting in a tangier, more complex flavor. It’s more expensive, but it’s great on a grilled cheese, or simply served with bread at the dinner table.

Choosing Cheese
Most cheeses contain the same handful of ingredients, but their flavors, textures and chemical composition vary wildly. Let that sink in—brie, Parmesan, cheddar and countless other cheeses start with almost the exact same ingredients, but different bacteria, enzymes and processes transform them into almost incomparable products. Given how complex the world of cheese is, you should select your grilled cheese fodder carefully and deliberately.

Because of the way it’s processed (and what it’s processed with), our grilled cheese gold standard—American cheese—melts extremely well. But more natural options exist—just look for something relatively young and high in moisture. Most sliced sandwich cheeses like mild cheddar, Monterey Jack, havarti, Muenster, provolone and Swiss work great. If you’re going for something a bit more gourmet, go to a high-quality grocer like Wegmans or Weaver Street Market, and ask someone behind the cheese counter.

Don’t Skimp
This isn’t a diet food, so load up on the cheese. Use at least 3 oz.—that’s about four standard grocery store slices—to really put the cheese front and center.

A Personal Touch
Once you’ve picked your bread and your cheese, take a look in your fridge and pantry. A lot of things go well with cheese (think of the endless combos on charcuterie boards), so use your imagination. Whatever you choose, make sure it can be spread lightly, sliced thinly, or chopped and distributed modestly to ensure it complements the cheese rather than dominating it. Add-ins can be as simple as a cheddar grilled cheese with chopped bacon or as nuanced as Gruyere with blackberry preserves and tarragon. Use what you have in the fridge or the garden, and have fun with it.

Make Sure It Melts
We’ve all been there… pulling a perfectly golden-brown sandwich out of the skillet and cutting into it only to find a lukewarm center in which the slices of cheese are so not-melted that you can still count them.

While grilled cheese is a relatively quick meal, its cooking cannot be rushed. Start the sandwich in a cold nonstick, carbon steel or cast-iron skillet (or griddle, if you have one), and bring it up over medium-low to medium heat—depending on the power of your range. By the time the bottom of the sandwich has seared, the middle will have gradually heated to the point that it’s almost melted.

Then flip it to finish for color on the other side. Depending on how much cheese you’ve packed into your sandwich, you may want to drop the heat a little after you flip the sandwich just to ensure it melts.

The Grilled NC
Whether you have out-of-state guests or just want to support local (and you should!), you can can pick up all NC-sourced ingredients that you need for a groumet grilled cheese at these two local stores: Union Special Bread (for the bread, of course) and Weaver Street Market (for the rest).
Bread: Union Special sourdough | Spread: Maple View Farms butter, softened to room temp | Cheeses: Chapel Hill Creamery’s Hickory Grove; English Farmstead Cheese’s Ashford cheddar | Add-ins: Lady Edison country ham; L&B Apiaries Spring Bouquet honey

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