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In praise of the grilled cheese sandwich

Grilled cheese at Three Sheets (Becky Stein)

Grilled cheese at Three Sheets (Becky Stein)

My teenager had about a half hour to find herself something to eat before an evening debate team meeting, and she was being obstinate. There was an assortment of leftovers to choose from, both homemade and from restaurants. She could make a salad, cook a package of ramen noodles, eat a bowl of cereal.

None of it sounded good. She wasn’t hungry yet. She would be fine. Could I just let her finish her show?

“How about I make you a grilled cheese?” I asked.

“Fine, ” she said.

Most any parent would recognize what I just did, which was pull the infallible grilled cheese sandwich card. It is the food — sometimes loved, sometimes tolerated, never rejected — that follows your children through life.

You made grilled cheese when they were still in highchairs, and then made it for that finicky friend from kindergarten who used to come over for playdates and wouldn’t eat anything else. You made it for the group that assembled in your kitchen after trick or treating. You made it for dinner more often than you’d like to admit because you couldn’t get your act together to go shopping. You made it when they came home from high school after a really cruddy mean-girl day. You made it before the prom because you knew they wouldn’t eat anything later.

Fact: No one’s grilled cheese tastes anything like yours, even if they use the exact same ingredients.

Another fact: Grilled cheese sandwiches are always better at home, made by a parent.

The gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches that restaurants serve always bite. You know what I’m talking about — the three cheeses with tomato and basil. They’re terrible because chefs see them as vehicles for excess. You get these weighty behemoths on flabby, over-buttered bread with rolls of cheese escaping the crusts like round bellies from Polo shirts. That’s not appetizing.

A touch of excess works. I love the way the lady in our company cafeteria takes the grilled cheese out of the panini press, cuts it in half, then twists the two halves round and round to break that obdurate strand of cheese that doesn’t want to let go. That’s appetizing.

But the best grilled cheese is a paragon of restraint. When our kids were little we used the fluffiest, most marshmallowy white sandwich bread, one Kraft Single slice and a generous smear of soft butter. A quick turn in a hot skillet renders the two slices of bread crisp on the surface while the inside puffs. It somehow fuses with the cheese that doesn’t have much body at this point beyond its function as stringy, delicious goo. You tongue can alight briefly on a rivulet of molten cheese for that “aah” moment, but a more sustained happiness comes from the miracle of cheese-infused bread.

At one moment in my grilled cheese career, I got sick of coaxing refrigerator-cold butter into spreadability with the help of a microwave set on stun (defrost), and I got the bright idea to use mayonnaise. Looks gross, works like a charm.

We have, however, given up totally on Wonder Bread and American cheese. Now my grilled cheese sandwich likely consists of 12-grain bread and thin, thin slices of sharp cheddar or gruyere. I do still use mayonnaise to coat the bread, and then I cook it in a preheated skillet to get the all-important puffiness in the center. If the bread blackens slightly we don’t care.

If the cheese doesn’t fully melt, that’s a tragedy. I still strongly believe that you are doing greater grilled cheesedom a disservice by overstuffing a sandwich to make it seem more of a meal. Better to make an extra sandwich or two to split.

I fear the grilled cheese serves as the very last vestige of pure kid cooking in my repertoire. No matter what is going on in our lives, I will scrounge up a couple of slices of bread and an end of cheese to make my kid this sandwich. My kid will act like a kid when she takes it. For that reason alone, I have no choice but to go through these timeworn motions with love.

- by John Kessler for the Food & More blog

50 comments Add your comment

GaPeachy

October 14th, 2013
3:36 pm

Good one John! I can remember grilled cheese sandwiches being the first thing I could cook on the stove on my own. And you are right, no ones sandwich tastes the same. I still can’t get my bread quite like my Mothers.

janice

October 14th, 2013
3:53 pm

grilled cheese – ultimate comfort food!

Finn McCool

October 14th, 2013
3:56 pm

Like the grill cheese sandwiches bookending a double burger with cheese and bacon?

donkey200

October 14th, 2013
4:29 pm

What happened to the Restaurant Inspections reports? Supposed to be out on Monday and Thursday. Didn’t have any at all last week.

Baltisraul......

October 14th, 2013
4:57 pm

donkey200…..anyone looking forward to restaurant inspection reports needs a hobby and quick. Just look them up and then go play a round of golf or something.

janet

October 14th, 2013
5:48 pm

Growing up Catholic, it was grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup every Friday night. I never got tired of them. I will try the mayo trick next time.

DSM

October 14th, 2013
7:36 pm

I have abandoned butter for olive oil. Makes for a really great sandwich.

I just schnitzeled my pants!

October 14th, 2013
7:45 pm

Enter your comments here

I just schnitzeled my pants!

October 14th, 2013
7:48 pm

OK…..Who cut the cheese?

Johns87

October 14th, 2013
8:12 pm

Good article about a great comfort food.

Tom

October 14th, 2013
10:31 pm

My secret: Use white mountain bread (white) from Publix. It makes an awesome grilled cheese. I’ll try the mayo but I can’t imagine it will beat the land of lakes spreadable butter that I use now.

B. Thenet

October 14th, 2013
10:33 pm

Excellent work.

After years of watching my wife leave half eaten(at best) grilled cheese sandwiches on her plate, I have now started reminding her when she tried to order one at a restaurant that “you know you are going to hate it, why order it”. Some things are better done on your own, and grilled cheese is one of them.

Though I still have a soft spot for grilled cheese sandwiches you could always find someone grilling up in the parking lot of Phish/Dead concerts with the added promise of garlic and tomato on them. Then again, I cook in the manner of a dazed hippie so they knew how I like it.

Ain't that the Truth, Ruth

October 15th, 2013
1:57 am

Is there ever an “artful” description of macaroni & cheese or grilled cheese that doesn’t include the terms “goo” or “gooey”? The main ingredient of food writing tends to be cliches.

less is ... MORE

October 15th, 2013
4:53 am

Gourmet-weighty-behemoth grilled cheese sandwiches at restaurants are always terrible,

so are pizzas with with too much darn cheese, it ruins the pizza.

Wm Gillaspie

October 15th, 2013
5:48 am

Grilled pimento cheese & slice of homegrown tomato! Not just for everyone maybe but it’s the ultimate love-food. Look out tummy, here comes yummy.

Rawmilkdrinker

October 15th, 2013
6:05 am

Why not just put the butter on the skillet and plop the sandwich down on top of it as it is melting? As for mayonaise, I never knew one would even consider not putting mayo between the cheese and bread until my sister in law ( a good northern lady) expressed amazement that I did so. She was also quite impressed with how delicious the sandwich was as well!

(the other) Rodney

October 15th, 2013
8:03 am

Comte, country french bread, and bacon – that’s about as excessive as I get with grilled cheese. But yeah, there’s really few things better …

Lizzy

October 15th, 2013
8:33 am

A grilled sandwhich is so easy & satisfying to fix at home, but gotta say Waffle House has the truly traditional version (like you mentioned John, from back in the day) with buttery grilled bread and American cheese – it’s simply a classic that will send you back in time. I dig a Swiss cheese on rye with a slice of tomato all grilled and melted also – I would hate to have to give up either version for a simple and satisfying meal.

Baltisraul......

October 15th, 2013
9:06 am

Lizzy…..We also enjoy the swiss on rye and add 2 slices of bacon to top off a great Friday night meal. It goes without saying that you also have tomato soup on the side.

Lisa

October 15th, 2013
9:09 am

Our grandson, 4.5YO, has asked for grilled cheese every lunch time except for the times he wants hot dogs on sticks (toothpicks) He loves grilled cheese. Me too!

Slim with the tilted brim

October 15th, 2013
11:42 am

John, Didn’t this Article run in the AJC several weeks or a month ago?

Muffin

October 15th, 2013
12:26 pm

My mom used to make bacon wrapped grilled cheese. i loved it – but i ate bacon back then. Righteous Room has, hands down, the best “restaurant” grilled cheese. It’s $5 and comes with a side, which, if you’re lucky, is the homemade broccoli casserole for the veggie of the day.

Slight modification

October 15th, 2013
12:31 pm

Put a little garlic powder (or roasted garlic smear), paprika and parmesean cheese on the outside of the sandwich before grilling and you end up with a garlic bread grilled cheese. A modest upgrade that doesn’t add anything but flavor. The outside of the sandwich is greasy anyway.

Baltisraul......

October 15th, 2013
12:46 pm

Slight modification……who said you could improve on a grilled cheese? Your modification sounds outstanding!!!!!

Dave

October 15th, 2013
2:22 pm

Enter your comments here

Dave

October 15th, 2013
2:23 pm

Oops. Now I know how “Enter your comments here” gets there.

Nicely written piece.

Patrick

October 15th, 2013
2:28 pm

Grilled cheese sandwich and Campbells creamy tomato soup (made with milk). The perfect comfort food. Doesn’t matter how bad a day you’ve had. The boss could have jumped down your throat and out your backside. It took you three hours to get home instead of the usual one. You got a flat tire along the way. A bowl of hot, creamy tomato soup and a grilled cheese or two and all is right with the world.

And you’re right. No one’s grilled cheese is better than their mom’s or dad’s. I do like mine slightly overdone, which gives it more flavor.

As for the person who suggested Waffle House: TEXAS grilled cheese. On the Texas Toast. Before I had to quit going to Waffle House thanks to getting sick from the one near my house, that was one of my favorite things.

Andrea

October 15th, 2013
2:37 pm

We use melted butter to avoid tearing the bread with cold butter and I grate super sharp cheddar cheese to help it melt.

SusieQ

October 15th, 2013
8:11 pm

I see that the perfect combo of grilled cheese and tomato soup is a favorite of many others! That’s my go to lunch on a chilly day!

Lizzy

October 16th, 2013
8:06 am

Hi Patrick – I’m the other person re Waffle House grilled cheese sandwich recommendation. That’s a shame you were felled by the WH near you. It only takes one bad experience, I’m sure. I don’t eat out much so I guess that’s why I’ve been fortunate with no bad restaurant food experiences. I’ve enjoyed all the input on the humble grilled cheese from so many resident food bloggers, who have even stuck to the subject – long live the simple cuisine pleasures in life!! Now I’m craving the much touted tomato soup combo – I’m always the odd duck in that my grilled cheese stood alone but how can that be? Something else had to go with it and I fear it was in the form of another carb like go-with as in chips or fries. Also, crunchy sweet pickles are a nice contrast to the salty sandwich. Thanks fellow foodies for all the input!!

C.A.

October 16th, 2013
9:43 am

Okay, now I’m salivating and must hurry to the kitchen to make a grilled cheese! Hope there’s some sharp cheddar in the ‘frig.

Baltisraul......

October 16th, 2013
12:19 pm

In the last 2 days I have eaten3 grilled cheese sammies. What an eay target I have become! Of all the hundreds of times I have been to Waffle House, I have never had their GC. Thanks gonna change soon but I may hold off a couple weeks, am at my limit right now.

AzCat

October 16th, 2013
12:21 pm

Yay, pickles!!! Pickles go with (almost) anything. :-)

Bill

October 16th, 2013
1:11 pm

Obdurate strand of cheese, had to look up obdurate. Perfect word for the cheese and apparently the child. From now on when my kid has her nose planted in the Ipad and won’t accept my healthy snack suggestions, I’ll slather up a good grilled cheese or quesadilla no waiting for approval.

Patrick

October 16th, 2013
1:21 pm

Lizzy – you should really try it. One thing that’s required to be done when having tomato soup with grilled cheese is dipping said grilled cheese in the tomato soup before eating it. You can thank me later.

Another good combination I don’t think many have tried: grilled cheese and chili. I used to get that at Waffle House a good bit, and once in a while my dad would do it up.

Kar

October 16th, 2013
2:57 pm

I can’t remember the last time I actually grilled a cheese sandwich. I find it easier just to pop bread covered with cheese into the toaster oven.

Almost no chance of burning it, you don’t have to watch it and I don’t miss the grease or flavor from the butter. Also, no clean up!

Lately if I want grilled cheese I’ve been doing wheat with jalapeno cheddar. You have the comfort food quotient from the cheddar with the zing from the pepper.

Lizzy

October 17th, 2013
8:46 am

Patrick, there’s a bowl of tomato soup with a g.c. sand. lurking in the near future for moi though just never been a dunker – what the hay, I’ll live life on the edge! Kar, I too enjoy toaster oven bread and cheese combo, BUT, although the grilled cheese does included added fat, for some reason beyond my knowledge there’s just a different taste to the ingredients – gotta be the fat and then there’s the cooking technique. I enjoy both, but at the end of the day, the pan grilled cheese sand. just hits a homerun (for me)….to borrow a quote – “Fat equals flavor.” I’m pretty sure someone French might be the author – classic French cooking involves the food group of fats.

Baltisraul......

October 17th, 2013
9:06 am

Lizzy…..go on and get out there on your dunking experience. Never did a donut in milk or black coffee? It is a new world out there for you. I envy your new experience. Let us know how it goes. If you go too fast, there are support groups that can help.

Lizzy

October 17th, 2013
9:25 am

Balti – I think I finally “get you.” I may need a 12 step program now for appreciating off the wall bloggers! Will take it one day at a time for now – LOL!

Baltisraul......

October 17th, 2013
11:52 am

Lizzy……admitting your short comings is the first step. Just like in the movie ‘Airplane’, we are all behind you.

Wallace

October 17th, 2013
2:48 pm

Grilled cheese is great, but PBJ’s are the staff of life!

Lizzy

October 18th, 2013
8:54 am

Yikes – Wallace, you made me think of a fun blog…..name your favorite sandwich!! AJC food staff – what say? If it’s already been done my apologies but I don’t recall seeing one. Mmmmmm, so many sandwiches to praise!

berry steve

October 18th, 2013
9:11 am

@ Lizzy, let me start, grilled ham and cheese!

Lizzy

October 18th, 2013
3:00 pm

thanks Berry Steve! I say I’m not a sandwich person, but there’s several that become crave worthy for sure…..homemade pimento cheese, bacon & tomato with mayo, roast beef & swiss – won’t even talk about the bread components as I may start swooning!!

PJ

October 18th, 2013
3:16 pm

I like to grill both sides of the bread for an extra crunchy, gooey, grilled cheese. I grill the first sides, then flip & add the cheese. It also helps to melt the cheese.

Baltisraul......

October 18th, 2013
4:50 pm

Lizzy……Reuben for me w/ fresh sauerkraut, Publix swiss cheese and 1000 island or russian dressing on Jewish rye. This could be fun!

art

October 18th, 2013
5:59 pm

@Lizzy, in the summertime, nothing beats a BLT with fresh tomatoes from the garden. In the wintertime, I agree with Balt, hey isn’t that a novel concept, the Reuben is hard to beat, although a pulled pork sandwich or a fried bologna sandwich can be fierce second place competitors.

Baltisraul......

October 19th, 2013
2:09 pm

Hey art, I’m novel.

Kevin Poleon

October 19th, 2013
4:59 pm

Cant beat the oul welch rarebit. One of the biggest sellers in my bar and restaurant

Lizzy

October 21st, 2013
8:43 am

all good times/things must come to an end – this has been, for me, one of the best blogs ever!!!