A grilled cheese sandwich is an ode to childhood, a purist's dream and an archetypal comfort food all at once. Just three mundane ingredients and a few minutes should be all it takes to create something downright sublime, right? So why do so few sublime ones come our way?
As with other minimalist dishes -- an omelet, say, or a plate of pasta -- there are a lot of assumptions that can get in the way of the cooking, assumptions that need to be jettisoned before the dish can reach its true potential.
When done right, an exemplary grilled cheese sandwich is not grilled at all (it's toasted). Nor is it quick. And it certainly doesn't shine when it's assembled from just any cheese or bread. But combine slow griddling over a low flame with a cave-aged Gruyère, a loaf of freshly baked country bread and a nub of Normandy butter, and you'll have a simply made dish that approaches greatness.
High-quality bread, butter and cheese are already a magical combination; when toasted, that magic becomes transformative. The ingredients undergo a rough alchemy, the butter browning, the bread crisping, the cheese melting into a glorious synthesis, shot through with a rich, caramelly perfume.
This magic is so strong that for many of us, it worked throughout childhood with squares of American cheese, pillowy white bread and margarine. Imagine the results with artisan cheeses, terrific bakery bread, creamy butter -- maybe some stone-ground mustard or slices of heirloom tomatoes -- and, importantly, a little grown-up patience.
Because along with great ingredients, the secret to a perfect grilled cheese sandwich is in the timing. Don't rush it. The bread needs slow encouragement to crisp evenly; the cheese is best when it's coaxed into melting.
In spite of its name, a grilled cheese sandwich should not be grilled. The bread will char long before the cheese melts. A cast-iron pan or griddle works best because it retains and diffuses the heat more effectively than other pans. You'll also need a weight or press.
Slow diffusion of heat and weighting the sandwich allow for even cooking and happy results -- a wide expanse of golden bread and, above that, an even field of melted cheese. Cooking it evenly means that when you flip the sandwich, the process continues on the other side: no pockets of unmelted cheese, no periphery of untoasted bread, no soggy interior.
To compress the sandwich, many restaurants use a panini press, which is like a flatter version of a waffle iron. At Campanile in Los Angeles, where Grilled Cheese Night has become an institution, large sandwich presses are set up behind the bar every Thursday. (If you have one, a George Foreman grill would work similarly, says chef Mark Peel.)
But at home, the easiest thing is to place a second, smaller cast-iron pan on top of the sandwich as it cooks or, even better, take a cue from MeltDOWN in Culver City, a new eatery entirely devoted to the owners' obsession with grilled cheese sandwiches, and use a steak weight.
Shaped like a trowel and about the size of a brick, it's sometimes called a bacon press and is available in cookware stores. Though it's designed for cooking steaks, it works perfectly on sandwiches. As Judy Rodgers recommends in "The Zuni Cafe Cookbook," you can also press the sandwich down as it rests on a cutting board before it even goes into the pan.
The weight condenses the cheese, pressing out air pockets, and flattens the edges of the bread so they remain pressed firmly against the heated surface.
The best bread for making grilled cheese sandwiches is freshly made and sliced (ask the bakery to do it when you choose the loaf so that you have uniform half-inch slices) -- maybe a country white sourdough or a light whole wheat. Dense whole-grain loaves tend to be too heavy; baguettes and some ciabattas can be shot through with air pockets -- gorgeous when sliced, maybe, but not the best vehicle for melting cheese. And though you might think that stale bread would make pretty good grilled cheese sandwiches, the already brittle crumbs can become like shards when crisped.
Choose a cheese that melts well, neither as hard and pungent as Parmesan, nor as soft and creamy as a Camembert or a fresh goat cheese. Even when grated, harder cheeses won't melt satisfactorily, and soft cheeses won't hold up to the cooking but will leak out of a sandwich and into the pan.
Widely available cheeses such as Gruyère, Fontina and Emmentaler are fantastic for this purpose, as are the whole gamut of cheddars, made in Wisconsin or Vermont or England, aged for six months or three years, or maybe smoked over apple wood. Blue cheeses, if not too gooey or overwhelmingly pungent, can make for pretty tasty sandwiches too. Be sure to slice the cheese very thinly, or better yet, grate it. It's a bit messier, but it melts the most evenly.