A wedge of cheese between two slices of sandwich loaf, tossed in a warm pan: it seems simple and not terribly exciting. But the humble grilled cheese sandwich can be so much more.
Tips before you start
• Spread soft butter thinly on the outside of both slices of bread, and if you have a few crumbles of cheese left over from slicing or grating your chosen cheese, press them into the buttered bread– then you’ll get bits of caramelised cheese crust on your sandwich.
• If you have one, use a ridged griddle pan – the ridges create some interest in feel and texture, and a variation in levels of caramelisation.
• Generally, grill your sandwich over medium heat, so that the outside can get nice and crisp and golden while the cheese gets a chance to melt. But if you’re using particularly hard, difficult-to melt cheese, lower the heat. And if you’re using very ripe or soft cheese that might melt very quickly and start oozing too much, use a higher heat.
• Make sure your bread is nice and firm, or sliced thickly enough, so that you can easily flip the sandwich without it falling apart.
• If your bread slices are very thick and your cheese doesn’t melt properly, you can slide the sandwich into a hot oven for about five minutes to complete the cheese melting process.
• For most grilled cheese sandwich, remember to season – cheese is salty, but a fine sprinkle of salt and a few grinds of fresh black pepper make it pop.
• Try not to use bread with additions like raisins, olives, nuts, and so on – those bits are likely to burn quickly while the sandwich is being grilled.
• Cheese – some good cheese options are cheddar, brie, camembert, fontina, gruyère, emmenthal, chevin, gorgonzola, and cream cheese.
• Bread – sourdough, buttermilk rye (or other soft rye), whole-wheat, seed loaf, challah and kitka, brioche, croissant, pita, ciabatta and baguette all work well, as do country-style loaves.
• Condiments and other fillings – people have been known to put essentially anything between two slices of bread with some cheese. Here are just some of the contenders: mayonnaise, mustard, horseradish sauce, sweet roasted garlic, caramelised onions, chutney, piccalilli, relish, salsa, preserves, jams, jellies, pickles, atchar, kimchi, peanut butter or other nut butters, hummus, hot sauce, tomato sauce, tomato, onion, apple, raisins, Nutella, raspberries, roasted peaches, grilled or roasted Mediterranean vegetables, olives, capers, tapenade, olive jam, sundried tomatoes, and even chocolate.
Your palate and cravings should dictate which combinations you decide to try out, but here are some ideas to get you started:
• Brie, Nutella and sliced banana on challah or kitka.
• Fontina, sundried tomatoes and tapenade on ciabatta.
• Gruyère, thinly sliced apple and snipped sage leaves on baguette.
• Mild cheddar, hummus, avocado and hot sauce on seed loaf.
• Gorgonzola and chopped dark chocolate on brioche.
• Camembert and strawberry preserve on croissant.
• Cream cheese, grated cheddar and jalapeno slices on sourdough.
• Chevin, caramelised onion and roasted peach on sourdough.
• Emmenthal, sauerkraut and mayonnaise on buttermilk rye.
• Fontina, honey and basil on ciabatta.
• Feta, marinated aubergine and rocket on pita.
• Aged cheddar and mango atchar on whole-wheat.
Not for the faint of heart
If you want to make the most decadent grilled cheese sandwich imaginable, how about deep-frying instead of grilling? Prepare your favourite cheese sandwich as usual and refrigerate it for an hour so it all melds nicely while you prepare three shallow bowls: one filled with flour, one with beaten egg, and one with dry white breadcrumbs. Pour about two centimetres of oil into a high-sided pan and place the pan over medium-high heat. Dip the sandwich in the egg, then breadcrumbs, and dust if off. Dip in the flour, then again the egg and breadcrumbs. Lower the sandwich into the hot oil, and cook for a few minutes until golden brown before flipping over and cooking for a further few minutes. Remove from the oil with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towel.
By Emma-Kate Coultas (née Liebenberg)
Photographs (from top): Chefdruck, Muohace DC, Stu Spivack, Kelly Bone, Angeldye