Wednesday, January 9, 2013

My Homemade Grilled Cheese Sandwich

Anyone older than ten should be able to throw together a grilled cheese sandwich. It's the ultimate survival food - although it is quick, easy, and made from basic ingredients found in even most college boys' apartments, it's also a warm food that requires actual cooking. Crispy, light but soul-satisfyingly rich, this universal crowd-pleaser definitely has more credibility and stick-to-the-ribs goodness than the room temperature PB&J.

So what separates a truly great grilled cheese from the many run-of-the-mill wannabes that litter the galaxy every day? It all comes down to three essential elements:

1. Quality Ingredients

Yes, you can slap together two slabs of cheap white bread around a single slice of fake American cheese and conjure up a decent snack. But to experience all that a grilled cheese has to offer, use the best options available.

  • Normally, I'm a wheat bread kinda girl, but when it comes to grilled cheese, I prefer a thick, white tangy loaf with lots of air holes. A sourdough is sublime; a baguette or thick French loaf will do the trick nicely. 
  • Tillamook medium cheddar cheese is the best. Accept no substitutes. 
  • Spread every molecule of the bread's surface area with real butter. It not only tastes better, but it cooks a crisper sandwich. 
Give the starring roles in your sandwich to the most colorful characters you can find.


2. Quick cook time

Over the years, I've experimented with a variety of cooking technique - a basic skillet on the stove top, a baking sheet under the broiler, or my trusty cast iron skillet on top of the stove or in the oven. There are pros and cons to all of these strategies, but my method of favor is the electric skillet. 

I plug in the skillet and set it to heating right away. I start with a temperature of about 400 degrees F, and let it get good and hot while I prep my ingredients. I want that pan to be red hot before I layer in the bottom slice of bread. I give that first slice a minute or two to start toasting before I layer in the cheese and the top slice of bread. 

Knowing when to flip the sandwich over, and when to turn the heat down to 350 degrees F are matters of both instinct and experience. My general rule of thumb is this: when in doubt, keep the heat as high as you dare, and flip sooner rather than later. But you must learn to feel the force.

3.Quirky pairings

When it comes to making my basic sandwich, I'm a grilled cheese purist. Generally speaking, I don't like to muddle up the simple flavors by adding other ingredients. There is a school of thought that advocates for adding ham, avocado, pickles, pizza sauce, or who knows what all to the sandwich, and while I appreciate the spirit, I'm not into that.

Instead, I like to pair my grilled cheese with other menu items that set off the mellow cheese and crunchy bread. 

Tart apple slices
Carrot sticks
Dried cranberries
Fresh strawberries
A chocolate milkshake

The idea is to choose something different in flavor and texture that will balance the sandwich and bring out the best that it can be.

* * * * *

The humble grilled cheese may have been invented a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, but with these three simple ideas in mind, you too can cook up a sandwich that will truly be out of this world.

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