- Americans eat more than 2 billion grilled cheese sandwiches each year.
- The availability of sliced bread and processed cheese slices led to the rise of the grilled cheese.
- But the simple dish can be elevated with other ingredients and the use of your food processor and air fryer.
When it comes to comfort food, few dishes can beat the grilled cheese sandwich.
But nudge yourself out of your comfort zone and you can transform the grilled cheese into an even more satisfying eating experience.
For sure, Americans love grilled cheese sandwiches as they are – consuming about 2.3 billion in the 12 months ending September 2022, according to market research company The NPD Group.
There’s plenty of room for kitchen experimentation because most of those – more than 2.1 billion of them – were prepared and eaten at home. Another 160 million were ordered at restaurants and retail food service outlets, NPD says.
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History of the grilled cheese sandwich
The recipe for what we consider as the modern grilled cheese sandwich was set into motion after J.L. Kraft & Bros. Co., which eventually became Kraft Foods, began making processed cheese after 1914, according to HowStuffWorks.com. Next came sliced Wonder Bread, which the Continental Baking Company began distributing in 1930, notes History.com.
During World War II, Navy cooks followed a government-issued cookbook and “broiled hundreds of ‘American cheese filling sandwiches’ in ship’s kitchens,” The Food Timeline says.
These were usually served as an open-faced sandwich. But after Kraft began selling Kraft Singles, individually wrapped processed cheese slices, cooks began putting a second slice of bread on top, HowStuffWorks.com says.
“This dish will always remain a classic. Incredibly comforting plus almost every culture has their own take on the pairing so it is a childhood classic to most,” Eden Grinshpan, host of Top Chef Canada, told USA TODAY. “Melted cheese and bread. Simple perfection.”
What’s special about the grilled cheese sandwich? A classic food made with love
For many, grilled cheese sandwiches dish up a memory of childhood, with a parent or grandparent often serving up melty goodness along with a bowl of soup – typically tomato.
“It’s a comfort food. It’s a simple meal,” said celebrity chef Carla Hall. “But if you don’t make it with love, it could be just as disastrous, like the bread is not lined up properly or the bread is burned and the cheese is cold.”
However, as an adult, we might want something “more interesting,” Hall said.
Changes can be as simple as using a different type of cheese or preparing the bread another way before putting it in the pan. You could also radically up your grilled cheese game by adding new ingredients or grilling your sandwiches in an entirely new way.
What’s the easiest way to improve my grilled cheese?
If you usually put some butter in the pan, try something else. Butter the outer side of both slices of bread evenly before putting them in the pan, so they have equal coverage.
The best way to evenly coat the bread? Brush melted butter on the slices, suggests America’s Test Kitchen.
An alternative approach: On the bread, spread mayonnaise, which is made with oil and eggs, and allows for more even grilling, Hall said. “The mayo isn’t going to burn. You are able to control the temperature better on your grilled cheese.” And it can be tastier, because mayonnaise “has flavor, acidity and salt,” she said.
You can even try using butter and mayonnaise. A Bon Appétit recipe entitled “Best-Ever Grilled Cheese” proposes melted butter in the pan and mayo spread on the sandwich exterior. “When mayo-slicked bread meets buttered pan, that’s when the magic truly begins,” writes senior food editor Alison Roman.
A hunger-inducing scene from the 2014 movie “Chef,” offers another tasty strategy. Jon Favreau – he wrote, directed, produced and acted in the film – as chef Carl Casper, makes a grilled cheese for his son. He butters both pieces of bread, squirts some olive oil into the pan then places each piece of bread, butter-side down, onto the oil and slides them around, combining the oil and butter.
Then he places slices of cheddar and some shavings of other cheese, including gruyere and parmesan on each piece of bread. As the cheese begins to melt, he lifts the slices to check on how brown they are. When they look good, he finally flips one half of the sandwich onto the other. (Having tried this recipe, I can attest to its quality.)
Want to try it yourself? On Netflix, you can see Favreau and “Chef” co-producer chef Roy Choi recreated the process on Season 1, Episode 1 of “The Chef Show.”
What’s the best bread for grilled cheese?
White bread is the classic choice. But there are many types of white bread. Many recipes, including the Bon Appetit offering, mention Pullman bread, which is a square-sided loaf, according to Bakerpedia.
Other breads to try? Country white, hearty wheat, oatmeal or – a favorite of Hall’s – pumpernickel. “I love how toasty and crunchy it gets,” she said.
Grinshpan adds, “I use fluffy bread like fresh sourdough, challah or, a personal fave, fluffy pita.” She has a recipe in her book Eating Out Loud: Bold Middle Eastern Flavors for All Day Every Day, in which you stuff a buttered pita with a mixture of Gouda, sesame seeds, nigella seeds.
She and husband Ido “have really fond childhood memories of eating cheesy toasts in Israel,” Grinshpan said. “Here, I fancied it up a bit with some nigella and sesame seeds and finished it with a little honey for some of that sweet-salty goodness. But if you wanted to scrap all that and just go for cheese in a pita? No one’s gonna be mad at a grilled cheese.”
Uh, what about cheese?
Finally, we get to the cheese. Here, the classic choice is American cheese, with Food Network’s Classic American Grilled Cheese including one slice each of white and yellow American cheese.
When you want to branch out from there, America’s Test Kitchen recommends 3 ounces of mild cheddar or a combination of cheeses including sharper cheddar and Monterey Jack. These can be grated and mixed.
Don’t want to shred your cheese? Chase Brightwell, associate editor for America’s Test Kitchen Reviews, suggests using a Y-shaped vegetable peeler.
How to not burn your grilled cheese sandwiches
Experiment with cooking your grilled cheese on low to medium-low to medium heat.
“As for when to turn the sandwich, the longer you take, the more developed and crispy the exterior will be; low to medium-low heat is what’s wanted,” the America’s Test Kitchen recipe advises.
How to use a food processor for grilled cheese
For the recipe “Grown-Up Grilled Cheese,” from Cook’s Illustrated, a magazine published by America’s Test Kitchen, use your food processor to combine some Robiola cheese (a year-old or less), Brie, dry white wine and chipotles in adobo sauce in your food processor to make a paste.
Spread that on oatmeal sandwich bread then the outer bread slice is slathered with an unsalted butter and Dijon mustard combination.
Many of Hall’s grilled cheese sandwich recipes, found in her book Cooking With Love: Comfort Food That Hugs You, use a food processor. For the “Broccoli Pesto and Cheddar Grilled Cheese” sandwich, you combine broccoli florets, garlic cloves, pine nuts, parsley and Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, lemon zest and juice, salt and olive oil. Then spread the pesto on one side of the bread, place some cheddar on top of that. Then cook.
How to make grilled cheese in an air fryer
Hall learned a new trick during the pandemic: The air fryer can do miracles with a grilled cheese.
She tried it with an over-the-top creation called Taco Grilled Cheese, which includes pre-prepped taco meat, the sandwiches dipped in an egg mixture and then processor-pureed tortilla chips.
The sandwich can be cooked over medium heat on a pan, but she suggests trying your air fryer.
“You put it on the rack and then you set it to do 300-325 (degrees) and it’s ready in about seven minutes. It depends on your air fryer,” Hall said. “But the great thing is it is toasted all the way around. And I love that you get that crunch of your bread and it’s all melted because the heat is circulating. … And if you are having it with soup, it’s a great dunker.”
Of course, when you think of fantastical recipes, celebrity chef Guy Fieri comes to mind. For a totally different type of grilled cheese – and one you could try cooking over a camp fire – Guy Fieri has concocted Sausage, Mac ‘n’ Cheese Grilled Cheese Camping Sandwiches. These require some preparation, too, including cooking some Italian sausage, and some macaroni and cheese made with shredded American, cheddar, smoked gouda and provolone cheese.
You place King’s Hawaiian sliced sweet bread in the sandwich toaster, add a slice of provolone, some mac and cheese, some sausage and another slice of bread. Then cook over the fire or your burner. The recipe could be done in an air fryer, too, or a panini maker as Nicole Gallucci, senior editor at Mashable, used when Fieri coached her over Zoom.
“A classic grilled cheese is delicious but sometimes even the classics deserve a little bit of extra attention,” Fieri said in a statement to USA TODAY. “My Grilled Cheese Camping Sandwiches will definitely up your grilled cheese game. Four super melty cheeses, sausage and some homemade mac n cheese all toasted up golden brown in a Camp Chef sandwich press … Now we’re talkin’ next level!”
Follow Mike Snider on Twitter: @mikesnider.