istock/BlakeDavidTaylorEverybody’s dream grilled cheese sandwich is crispy pieces of golden brown bread that leave your fingers slippery with butter, hugging gooey folds of cheese that ooze out when you take that first crunchy bite. But all too often, our grilled cheese reality is far less perfect, either a sad soggy mess or burnt on the outside yet curiously un-melted on the inside.
We asked Food Network‘s Chris Santos (a judge on Chopped), owner and chef at New York City hot spots Stanton Social and Beauty & Essex and author of the new cookbook Share: Delicious and Surprising Recipes to Pass Around Your Table to tell us all his grilled cheese secrets.
First mistake to avoid: Do not try to be healthy. “If you’re going to eat grilled cheese, you’re not trying to be healthy. Eat it less often but when you do, just go for the fat,” he says. That means take a break from your healthful whole wheat or 7-grain bread and reach for a rich brioche. “That’s always my first choice because brioche is buttery, and that’s how a grilled cheese should be,” says Santos. “Those healthier breads are great but not so much for grilled cheese because they often don’t absorb all that butter and fat.”
If brioche isn’t your thing, pick up an American classic. “Good old white bread is really good for grilled cheese, too,” he says. If you just can’t bring yourself to avoid whole grains altogether, try Sara Lee Soft & Smooth White Made With Whole Grains, which looks and tastes like regular white bread but with added benefits.
iStock/LauriPattersonNext, this isn’t the time to check out a fancy new cheese. When it comes to getting that melty goodness, simple is best. “It may seem very low brow, but American cheese is a great melting cheese,” says Santos. A good trick is to build a 50/50 mixture of classic American and a good quality Cheddar or goat cheese. “Try to mount [American] with a cheese that has a little more character,” he says. (Find out what your favorite cheese says about your personality.)
Speaking of character, there’s nothing wrong with adding other fillings to your sandwich. One of his favorite additions is bacon. His new cookbook even features a grilled Cheddar and jalapeño bacon sandwich (that’s homemade jalapeño bacon, cilantro Cheddar, and tempura tomatillos between slices of sourdough slathered in lemon aioli, to be exact). “You can impart even more flavor by glazing bacon with honey mustard or something as simple as ketchup and it takes on a whole different character,” says Santos. (Drool over these other celebrity chef sandwich ideas.)
How you build the sandwich is obviously critical, but the way you cook it is equally important if you’re striving for grilled cheese perfection. Don’t use anything except butter (lots of butter!) on the outside of your bread and place the sandwich in a non-stick pan on medium heat. You may have heard that a lid will help the cheese melt, but that’s a major no-no. “It creates steam and will sog your bread out,” says Santos. When both sides of the sandwich are golden brown, transfer it from the pan to a cookie sheet and pop it in a preheated oven to achieve that coveted melt. “Get that oven blazing hot and let it bake for about 10 minutes. It won’t brown anymore or burn and the inside will get all gooey for you,” he says.
And whatever you do, don’t walk away. “As simple as a grilled cheese is, it’s something you have to pay attention to,” he says. “All food is better with a little love and care, and grilled cheese especially so.”