Ode to My Pantry: Grilled Cheese

Learning to feed yourself can be one of the most terrifying things. Am I about to give myself food poisoning? If I eat this too often will I end up with scurvy? How can I get the most nutritional bang for my buck? Why does this still taste like ass?

With Ode to My Pantry, learn to navigate a grocery store without having a meltdown in aisle three. Give a man a fish and feed him for a day, teach a queer to cook and stave off malnutrition for another semester.

Grilled

I wowk so vewy hawd aww day wong.
I stawt to dweam of you befowe I get home.
Gwiwwed Cheese…
I hope you’we weady.
‘Cause we got a date.
I just can’t wait to get home and put you on my pwate.
Gwiwwed Cheese… Sandwich…

Even though Elmer Fudd isn’t known for his intelligence, sometimes he’s spot on. Hot buttered bread isn’t my go-to fantasy, but grilled cheese is my go-to comfort food. What’s more satisfying than bread, cheese, butter and the relatively stress-free memories of being eight? Nothing! A grilled cheese sandwich is the perfect melted cheese delivery device since it highlights cheese’s meltability in a manner that minimizes mess.

Not all cheeses are created equal. Some will melt in the palm of your hand whereas others will all but ignore your advances. What ensures that your cheese gets runny and gooey when it hits the griddle instead of frigid and uncooperative? Proteins. The act of melting is a complex dance between casein proteins, fat, water and calcium which requires a shitton of organization for everything to work. You just have to coax the cheese to play nice.

Since they’re both awesome, let’s pretend that A-Camp is cheese.

If A-Camp Occurred in Wisconsin

If A-Camp Occurred in Wisconsin

This would make A-Campers casein proteins. Given that you have a shitload of proteins coming together from all over the world, you need to make sure that things stay semi-organized for camp to run properly. When everyone gets to the campsite, instead of simply bumping around and sleeping outside, they’ll be assigned to cabins (micelles) with other proteins. The cabin doors (fat globules) will stay closed at night, preventing the different cabins from interacting. But hey, it’s fine! Because their counselors (calcium) will be fucking awesome and make sure they have a great time bonding with their protein cabin mates.

When camp activities are announced (heating), it takes a bit of time for all of the cabins to open their doors (fat globules to melt) and the campers to leave. If there are more casein campers (drier cheeses), there will have to be more announcements (up the heat) to get everyone moving. But eventually everyone is participating, the proteins from different cabins are mingling, everyone’s getting platonically friendly and your sandwich tastes fucking cheesy and delicious.

I just assume the counselor get to wear crowns, someone will have to correct me if i'm wrong.

I just assume the counselors get to wear crowns, someone will have to correct me if I’m wrong.

When it comes to acid curdled cheese, acid causes the calcium counselors to disappear and all of a sudden the campers look way more attractive than the organized activities. So when it’s time to melt, the proteins are already locked in a watertight embrace, meaning that no amount of warming, heating or scolding will convince them to separate for you or your sandwich. You can still warm up your feta or grill your halloumi, but you won’t get the same molten satisfaction.

DSC_0368

Halloumi, the Fondue Party Pooper.

When it comes to finding a cheese suitable for sammiches, make sure they contain water. Soft-ripened cheeses like brie are made for melting, whereas cheddar, emmentaler, gouda and gruyère will require a little more patience. To ensure that your sandwich is simply toasted and not burnt, grate your cheese and bring all of your ingredients up to room temperature so your sandwich doesn’t have to spend too much time in the pan. There’s nothing more disappointing than a burnt bread and hard cheese.

DSC_0365

Don’t worry, I taste like success.

(Gwiwwed Cheese)
I wove more than any othew.
I think I’m gonna make anothew.

Now that you know why your grilled cheese acts like it does, how can you take it from kindergarten snack to adorably nostalgic dinner date?

Tomatoes on Everything. Tomatoes and grilled cheese have a lot more in common than simply being delicious. Tomatoes and cheese are chock full of glutamates, the chemical responsible for savoriness, so every slice of tomato will make your sandwich taste a bit cheesier. You’ll need to use bright red specimens to get the most glutamate bang for your buck. If they’re out of season, you can still cash in on umami by pairing your sandwich with salsa or the ubiquitous tomato soup.

Use a Compound Butter. If the name sounds intimidating, don’t worry, you’ve made some before. Remember the countless times you’ve blended garlic into butter for garlic bread? Surprise! You were making a compound butter (or beurre composé if you really want to be pretentious)! Slather said garlic butter onto your bread before you toss it into the pan to make your sandwich stand out. Miso butter also works well for grilled cheese. Use your garlic butter blending skills to whip together your own herbal or spiced concoctions.

Stab It. Even though Wonderbread and other sandwich breads give me waves of nostalgia, I much prefer hearty breads with shittons of holes.  You might think that a surface inundated with holes would severely compromise your sandwich as a cheese delivery device, but think again. Even though cheese is really good at melting, it’s even better at crisping up. As you continue heating your cheese, the remaining water will boil off, leaving the protein to bind together and firm up. So go ahead and stab your bread to create tiny, tasty cheese pockets.  Once your sandwich is done toasting, give it a bit of a rest to let the cheese firm up a bit.

Make It Melt More. American cheese and cheese products generally disturb me, but they do one thing well: melt. It’s hard to ignore how gosh darned easily a Kraft Single spreads across your toast or nachos, even when the flavour (and ingredients) are questionable. Although there are currently plenty of less-than-cheese iterations, the initial processed cheeses were essentially slices of stabilized, emulsified cheese sauce. This pseudo-phase between solid and liquid requires a brief thermal hop from slice to puddling fondue perfection. If you really want to get that same meltability, make your own slices by blending cheese, beer and a little bit of sodium citrate to hold it all together. The emulsifier will keep all of the proteins happily isolated so you don’t have to worry about separation.

Embrace Its Sandwich Structure. Given that it is a sandwich, you can fit other ingredients those bread slices besides cheese. Pesto? Caramelized onions? Pickles? You’re only limited by your imagination and your fridge. When in doubt add bacon or a few drops of liquid smoke if you’re off the pork. You could always up the ante by having cheese inside and outside with a croque monsieur or go full out with an egg hat for a croque madame.

Do you have any tips or tricks for a better grilled cheese? Or a better cheese-melting analogy?

Avatar of Kristen

Hailing from Vancouver, Kristen's still trying to figure out how to survive Montreal's Real Legitimate Canadian Winter. So far she's discovered that warm socks, giant toques and Tabby kittens all play a role in her survival. Her ultimate goal is to rank higher than KStew in the "Kristen + Autostraddle" Google Search competition.

Kristen has written 140 articles for us.

42 Comments

  1. Thumb up 2

    Please log in to vote

    Heck yeah, I love a grilled cheese toastie!! but I am fussy when it come to cheese, I am mature cheddar girl – I always grate it when toasting the bread, otherwise melt it in apan before slapping it between a couple of slices of tiger bread. I do like a spreading of Marmite in my toasted cheese sarnie too!

  2. Thumb up 2

    Please log in to vote

    My favourite grilled cheese version lately is with dijon mustard. Also good is horseradish. And of course jalapeños because they make everything delicious.

    Totally never thought of doing garlic butter though, yum!

    • Thumb up 2

      Please log in to vote

      My family is very German and my grandma used to make my brother and I grind our own horseradish to put on our rye bread and our sausages so I love good horseradish and I put it on just about everything (including my grilled cheese).

  3. Thumb up 2

    Please log in to vote

    Fontina, apple & honey
    You’re welcome

    I also recommend the adventurous try making their own maple-onion confit to pair with a nice double gloucester. I go hard with grilled cheese. My panini press is basically my girlfriend.

  4. Thumb up 6

    Please log in to vote

    Yayyyyyyy food science!

    My magic trick for grilled cheese is to use mayo on the bread.
    It makes your sandy crispier, it’s easier to spread and it’s much harder to burn (for old stoves/forgetful people).
    It doesn’t taste like mayo, but it’s easy to mix stuff into it if you’re scared of mayo. I sometimes mix hot sauce in.

  5. Thumb up 3

    Please log in to vote

    If everyone at camp were casein, I would be very sick all the time, but this is the best cheese metaphor I have ever seen. Kristen continues to be awesome.

    For the dairy free, Daiya is perfect for tuna melts, quesadillas, and nachos, so I expect it would be pretty excellent for grilled cheese.

  6. Thumb up 1

    Please log in to vote

    I remember the first time I had grilled cheese. It was in my college’s cafeteria and I tried it shortly after arriving in the US for the first time. I distinctly remember thinking that grilled cheese must be one of America’s greatest food inventions. Who would have thought something so simple could taste soooo good? Why did my people never think have grilled bread with melted cheese inside it? Then I later discovered that some people make it with tomatoes. Oh. my. fucking. God.

    —-
    http://SoNotStraight.com

    • Thumb up 1

      Please log in to vote

      Yesss Avocado! My 22nd year of life was full of 3am grilled cheese sandwiches every weekend of the summer. It is one of the 10 things I learned to cook before moving out and half of that list also contains cheese. favorite food forever!

  7. Thumb up 2

    Please log in to vote

    Vegan straddlers, this totally works with Earth Balance and Daiya!!! My go-to sammich is a grilled “cheese” with fresh avocado, tomato, and basil and after reading this article I had to make one. I agree, the bread-poking technique is genius, and you can season Earth Balance the same as butter….win! Thank you, Kristin for the knowledge I didn’t know I didn’t have about grilled cheese!

    • Thumb up 2

      Please log in to vote

      ps in a really surprising twist, my favorite grilled cheese sandwiches (aside from the ones my girlfriend makes for me on sunday mornings) are served at think coffee in nyc. i discovered them when i was at nyu and used to hang out at think for forever doing homework in a space that was not my apartment…you wouldn’t think a hipstery coffee shop on nyu campus would serve THE BEST GRILLED CHEESE SANDWICHES EVER, but they do. get the regular with pesto, trust me. sometimes i take the long way home just so i can get a grilled cheese from think.

      my nyc runner ups for best grilled cheese are little muenster on the LES and the milk truck which occasionally parks in bryant park during my lunch hour.

      mmmmmmmmmmmmm. that is all.

      • Thumb up 1

        Please log in to vote

        Oh Oh Oh!

        The Queen’s Kickshaw is a grilled cheese shop on Broadway and 40th in Astoria! It’s right off the Broadway stop on the Q and their sandwiches are paired with soups or salads and they have a TON of craft beer as well!

        If you’re in NYC I recommend this place!

        My favorite is the Gouda sandwich with guava jam, jalapenos, and black bean hummus on brioche.

        I miss Astoria! :(

      • Thumb up 0

        Please log in to vote

        I don’t have the breadth of grilled cheese experience you have, but the 5 Point Café in Seattle will make you a griller with your choice of cheese plus any of the ingredients from their “build your own omelette” menu on it, if you ask. I only ate there once, but I can testify that if you’re hungry, tipsy, and heavily sleep deprived from a weekend of gigging at a street music festival, you may be irresistibly compelled to murmur “I love you, I love you” to your grilled cheese with avocado and tomato as you eat it.

Contribute to the conversation...

You must be logged in to post a comment.