I grew up in a pretty big family. There were us seven kids, my mom, and my dad. My father used to enjoy making challenging dishes whenever he had time off but that still left the bulk of the cooking up to my mother.
I don’t think that Mom was ever particularly wild about cooking, but when Dad died when I was eight she got a bit depressed and the cooking got simpler. She still made all kinds of real sit-down dinners but weekday lunches were pretty quick, partly because school was a twenty-minute walk (in each direction) and we got only an hour off for lunch, so basically we’d come home, the soup was ready, we’d scarf it down, and head back to school.
Weekend lunches sometimes featured more involved menus, my favourites being avgolemono soup, leftovers, pigs in a blanket, and grilled cheese sandwiches.
She used to make grilled cheese “sammiches” on a rectangular electric fryer that had a hinged second frying surface that folded over and would fry both sides of the sandwiches at the same time. The weight of the upper heating surface gently flattened the sandwich, making it appealingly thinner. Those sandwiches were great and definitely classify as comfort food in my book!
When I moved out and got my own place, I didn’t have one of those hinged frying things so I developed my own techniques and recipes for grilled cheese. Let’s face it, a grilled cheese sandwich is not brain surgery although if you wear latex surgical gloves while eating one, you’ll spend a whole lot less time washing up afterwards! So without a hinged frying thing like Mom’s, I had to grill my cheese in conventional frying pans.
In some ways, making this sandwich in a conventional frying pan is even better than using the same kind of grilled cheese press my mom used to use — the press would squeeze the cheese out of the sandwich once things got hot, limiting the amount of cheese you could put between two slices of bread. With a regular frying pan you can vary the heat — frying hotter makes for crispy bread but a less melted filling. Another bad thing about the press was that sometimes the top piece of bread would stick to the upper heating surface so when you opened the press, your sandwich would get pulled apart.
I’ve found that the secret to a grilled cheese is patience. Keep the heat low and make sure it doesn’t burn. Apart from that, it’s your choice of ingredients that counts. Let’s start with a basic “missionary-style” sandwich.
What you’ll need:
- A couple of pieces of generic sliced bread.
- Cheese slices, cheddar or “American singles”, about the thickness of “American singles”.
- Butter or margarine.
- A frying pan, preferably non-stick or well-seasoned cast iron.
What to do:
- Put a single layer of cheese between two pieces of bread being careful to not let the cheese get closer to the crust than about a ¼”. If you really want to add more cheese, put it more in the center of the bread.
- Butter the outside surface of the top piece of bread.
- Flip the sandwich over and place it buttered side down into a cold frying pan. Butter the side of the bread that is now on top.
- Turn the heat on at a low setting.
- When you notice that the butter is starting to melt, wait about two minutes, take a spatula and check under the corners of the bread to see if it is done to your liking.
- Once the underside piece of bread is all toasty the way you like it, flip the sandwich over. This can be tricky because the cheese has probably not yet melted so there will be no adhesive effect. Unless you are very good at flipping stacked items and not having them tumble all over the place, I recommend you using a second spatula to hold the whole thing together. You could also use tongs with large contact surfaces but using narrow tongs will probably result in disaster!
- Monitor the doneness of the underside piece of bread remembering that it will take less time to crisp up than the first did.
- When the bread is toasted and the cheese is melted, gently compress the sandwich with the spatula.
- Remove and enjoy!
Get jiggy with it!
The above recipe is just a starting point! You can use different cheeses and add other ingredients. There is a fine line between a “grilled cheese with [insert name of ingredient here]” and a “grilled [insert name of ingredient here] with cheese”, but who cares? Just make a sandwich you’ll go ape for!
Here are some suggestions for elevating the humble grilled cheese to something much more than a quick lunch…
- Spice it up: Add a little bit of your favourite dried herb or some finely chopped fresh herbs. Personally, I’m a sucker for basil. Sometimes I’ll shoot a little cayenne or cumin in there. If you try other ingredients, as suggested below, match a spice to that ingredient and cheese combo. Use spices and herbs sparingly, especially when using mild and creamy cheeses!
- Try using other cheeses: You pay your taxes — there’s no reason to confine yourself to cheddar or Yankee singles! Being Canadian, my default cheese is cheddar but havarti is great too, as is mozzarella. Alternate different coloured cheeses. Try whatever floats your boat!
- Man does not live by bread alone: … but it can’t be a sandwich without it! Try different types of bread, like those mini loaves of dark breads, with sharper cheeses and fry up some hors-d’œuvres. Or a grilled pita with cheese using olive oil instead of butter. One thing to remember that the thicker the bread, the less heat will make it to the cheese to cause melting. You can work with this so if you find your preferred cheese melts before the bread is toasted, try thicker bread.
- Diversify: Add sliced meats and/or vegetables, but keep them sliced paper-thin. Bacon is an old standard and tomato is a natural with cheese. Just remember that the bacon will not cook inside the grilled cheese — you must cook bacon, and anything else that is not at its best raw, before putting it inside the sandwich! Cold cuts are wonderful additions to a grilled cheese. I like smoked chicken, turkey, or ham. When adding other ingredients, slice the cheese extra thin and put the non-cheese ingredient(s) between two layers of cheese. That way the cheese melts and “glues” the ingredients to the bread.
There you have it. A wonderful lunch or late-night snack. Serve with soup to make it a meal or some Lipitor to make it into your 60s!