Grilled cheese.

This classic comfort food sparks a food memory for you, right?

For me, it's being a kid, sitting outside in my snow fort. My heavy woolen mittens are alternately icy and soggy; my feet are freezing inside black buckle-up rubber galoshes. My mom calls me in for lunch: Velveeta grilled cheese with sweet pickles.

For my son, it would be sitting outside in his snow fort, high-tech gloves keeping his hands warm, Sorel boots nice and cozy. I call him in for lunch: grilled extra-sharp cheddar on crostini, oil-cured olives on the side.

Yeah, and I walked 2 miles through snow drifts to school every day. September and May included.

We'll get back to grilled cheese memories in awhile. But for now, suffice it to say that unless you have a dairy allergy, or really can't stand cheese, a grilled cheese sandwich is one of life's simplest yet most compelling pleasures.

Bread and butter, cheese and a hot grill – what more do you need? Actually, nothing; basic grilled cheese is simplicity itself.

But, as all who've ever hesitated in front of the newest iPad (or a really awesome pair of boots) know, need and want are two very different things.

If you don't need a grilled cheese recipe; but want to go beyond the basics, read on; I'm about to share my favorite cheese-y secrets with you.

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1. Start with homemade bread. Really.

Since you're using just three ingredients here, each one of them had better be darned good. You want a loaf that's sturdy enough to slice to order: thick or thin, depending on your grilled cheese preference. English Muffin Toasting Bread (left) and Honey-Oat Pain de Mie (right) fill the bill.

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You also want a bread that's close-grained enough that the cheese doesn't leak through, yet whose open texture absorbs just enough of that same melting cheese to infuse the bread with flavor. That would be another favorite, Potato Wheat Bread.

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I also care about the bread's shape. Sure, I can deal with the typical crown-top (often mushroom-top) loaf.

But how lovely it is to use a lidded pain de mie pan (a.k.a. Pullman pan) to make a loaf that yields a perfectly square slice, one that doesn't require you to use a mosaic of cheese pieces to cover its surface.

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2. Spread the bread with mayonnaise, rather than butter.

This is a venerable trick, known to short-order diner cooks and restaurant chefs alike. Mayonnaise spreads easily, covering every square centimeter of bread. It also browns beautifully, and lends depth of flavor that goes beyond simple butter.

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3. Give your favorite cheese the meltability test.

There's no law that says Velveeta (front and center above) is the only cheese suitable for a grilled cheese sandwich. Decide on your favorite, and then...

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...check out its meltability using your microwave.

The three cheeses pictured above include a Velveeta clone (left); full-fat cheddar (center); and reduced-fat cheddar (right). After 10 seconds in the microwave, the Velveeta clone is completely melted; the full-fat cheddar, partially melted; and the low-fat cheddar, barely softened.

Which makes sense. The Velveeta clone includes added water; naturally it'll melt quickly. And full-fat cheese will melt more quickly than lower-fat cheese. And this matters because...?

The rate at which your cheese melts will determine the temperature of your pan. For cheeses that melt quickly (and flowing-ly, so that they can potentially leak right out the sides of the bread), choose higher heat. You want to brown your bread before the cheese melts completely.

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For cheeses that are slower to melt, use lower heat. And cover the pan, to create a small oven; the trapped heat will help melt the cheese more quickly than simple surface heat.

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4. For the best-looking sandwich, use whole-grain bread.

Whole-grain bread makes the most evenly browned grilled cheese. Why? Because the flour itself contains every part of the grain, including the oil-rich germ. Bread made with whole-grain flour has tiny bits of oil dispersed evenly throughout – oil that turns golden brown when it hits the heat of the frying pan.

OK, I can hear your next question: does this mean I can lower grilled cheese's fat content by omitting the mayo or melted butter?

Well, not really. There's only enough oil in the flour to help the bread brown, not enough to give your grilled cheese sandwich its signature crisp, rich crust. Keep the butter/mayo; even the thinnest application will work magic.

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5. Enhance the sandwich's flavor by adding something sweet.

Some of you like sweet pickles with your grilled cheese – not just on the plate beside your sandwich, but inside, with the cheese. Or how about a touch of sriracha, for sweet heat?

Apple or pear slices are delicious, adding crunch as well as sweetness and flavor. Fig butter is a classic; figs and cheese are long-time partners.

And, if you're lucky enough to have a fellow baker who gives you a couple of jars of preserves or chutney every Christmas (thank you, Chef Susan Reid!), this is the perfect place to enjoy it.

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So. you've heard me mention "Velveeta clone" – what's up with that? The cheese you see pictured here, and in many of the sandwiches above, is one I made myself from assorted cheese ends from my local supermarket's deli – which I buy for $1.99/pound. You can't beat that!

I've also made the recipe using extra-sharp cheddar; provolone and Swiss; and a packaged four-cheese Mexican blend of grated cheeses.

You can make your own melting cheese, using your favorite cheeses, in less than 10 minutes. Maybe even less than 5 minutes. Interested? See our post, The Secret Ingredient Chefs Won't Admit Using.

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Who can resist? Happy grilling!

What's your favorite grilled cheese memory? How about any special secrets you have for making the best sandwich ever? Please share in comments, below.

 

PJ Hamel
The Author

About PJ Hamel

PJ Hamel grew up in New England, graduated from Brown University, and was a Maine journalist before joining King Arthur Flour in 1990. PJ bakes and writes from her home on Cape Cod, where she enjoys beach-walking, her husband, two dogs, and really good food!