A grilled cheese sandwich is the first thing a lot of people learn to cook. It was the first thing I learned to cook. I’d shave off a few slices from the ubiquitous big orange block of Velveeta in our fridge, slather Roman Meal bread with Promise margarine, and make the best meal nine-year-old me could ever want.
Maybe you didn’t grow up grilling processed cheese on squishy sandwich bread. Or maybe you know plenty well how to make grilled cheese, but you want to up your game. Great news—this grilled cheese party is open (and useful) to all experience levels!
THE CHEESE MATTERS
The first big tip? I don’t recommend Velveeta. Those sandwiches of my childhood stood out in my memory as the ne plus ultra of grilled cheeses, until I replicated one as an adult and found it impossibly insipid.
Oooozy melted cheese is our goal. Hard cheeses like parmesan don’t get very oozy when they melt, and soft cheeses like ricotta are too high in moisture. What cheeses work best? Melting cheeses, of course. Such as:
- Monterey jack
A cheese that’s too flavor-packed can overwhelm the sandwich. My cheesemaker friend, who has weekly Grilled Cheese Thursdays at her creamery’s tasting room, handles this by blending a few cheeses together for grilled cheese: about 30 percent something exceptional and expensive to 70 percent workaday (for example, one ounce aged farmhouse cheddar paired with two ounces mass-market cheddar).
Real talk: I make utterly satisfactory grilled cheese sandwiches with mass-market orange cheddar. Ultimately, if you are hungry, the cheese you happen to have in the fridge is plenty good enough.
GRATED OR SLICED?
Grated cheese melts more evenly, plus it allows more even bread coverage. That means you can pack more cheese on every bite! And if you are blending a few cheeses, you can mix grated cheeses together better.
Don’t feel like messing around with a cheese grater? Fine, skip it. You’ll still wind up with a grilled cheese sandwich. But you’ll miss out on those little shreds that slip out of the sandwich and slowly crisp up in the pan. You know what I’m talking about—the cheese crispies. I love those! Do you?
HOW MUCH CHEESE IS ENOUGH?
This is a very personal issue. It’s possible to overdo it, but no one wants a skimpy grilled cheese, either. There’s plenty of space in the middle ground.
Two ounces of cheese (about 2/3 cup grated) per sandwich is a good rule of thumb, but a better rule of thumb is to eyeball it. Three ounces (about 1 cup grated) gives you a more decadent grilled cheese. It’s your call!
Either way, grate as much cheese as you need to pile loosely on both slices of bread. A good, fluffy handful should do it.
THE BEST BREAD FOR GRILLED CHEESE
Have you ever gone to the store thinking, “I need to get bread specifically for making grilled cheese sandwiches?” I sure haven’t! Grilled cheese sandwiches happen in my house not because of meal planning, but lack of it. That’s what’s so great about them!
Sliced sandwich bread is classic. Crusty artisanal bread is great, too. Bread that has a very open, lacy interior lets too much cheese ooze through, and bread that’s exceptionally dense makes for a leaden sandwich. Bread that’s neither dense nor airy is what you want.
- Multigrain, white, or whole-wheat sandwich bread
- Sturdy sourdough loaves
- Crusty loaves of country-style artisan bread
- Brioche loaves
- Marble rye
Now, that we have the type of bread figured out, let’s talk about the best slice for the job. The thicker the bread slices, the longer it will take for the cheese to melt. And the bread will wind up detracting from the cheese, which is not the point!
Bread sliced over half an inch thick will impede optimal cheese melting. For perfect grilled cheese every time opt for slices between 1/4-inch and 1/2-inch thick.
Have I made grilled cheese on hot dog buns before? Yes. Are they ideal? No, far from it. But you get the picture. Sometimes a sandwich isn’t a work of art. It’s just food. Do what works for you!
MAYO OR BUTTER? WHEN AND HOW?
My cheesemonger friend (yes, her again) got me onto using mayonnaise instead of butter.
It’s always spreadable, it gives you a fabulous golden-brown crust that’s not as apt to burn as butter, and it offers just a little zip.
My favorite brands are Hellmann’s/Best Foods and Duke’s. I haven’t tried Miracle Whip (which isn’t really mayonnaise, BTW), but I figure it’s too sweet to work well here. You can also make your own mayo—it’s actually just as easy as making a grilled cheese!
Give mayonnaise a shot! Use the same amount as you would butter.
If you are 100 percent Team Butter, I understand. You can either butter the bread directly or melt a pat of butter in the pan. I prefer to butter the bread directly, but let’s say your butter is straight from the fridge and rock-hard. In that case, melt it in the pan.
One of my colleagues here at Simply Recipes swears by this approach and uses it in his Italian Grilled Cheese Sandwiches.
THE BEST PAN FOR GRILLED CHEESE
The pan is just as important, if not more so, than the bread and cheese. A flimsy skillet will grill your sandwich unevenly. A skillet that’s too small makes it hard to maneuver the sandwich.
For one sandwich at a time, I like a 10-inch cast-iron skillet.
Grilled cheese sandwiches don’t really stick to the pan, so if you don’t have a nonstick pan, it’s fine. I prefer a cast-iron pan.
ONE OR TWO AT A TIME?
For me, it’s easier to use a 10-inch skillet and grill just one or two sandwiches at once. Unless you have an amazing stovetop with giant burners, it’s difficult to have even heat distribution across a very large skillet, leaving your sandwiches with pale (or burned) patches.
Need to make a bunch of grilled cheese sandwiches all at once? Try it in the oven:
- Put bread slices butter/mayo-side-down on a sheet pan, place cheese over each bread slice, and bake in a preheated 425°F oven until the cheese is bubbly.
- Then close the sandwiches and bake until toasty, about 5 minutes longer.
The sandwiches won’t be quite the same, being baked rather than grilled, but they’ll all be ready to serve at once.
THE OPEN FACE TECHNIQUE
For years, I assembled the sandwich and then grilled it. But recently I came across a new technique I like a lot better. Let’s call it: Open-face grilling.
Open-face grilling allows the cheese to melt more thoroughly. The tradeoff is you can only make one sandwich at a time. But if it’s perfection you want, this is your method.
- Put both slices of bread in the skillet butter-side-down
- Arrange half the cheese over each slice. Once it’s halfway melted, invert one slice onto the other.
- Press down lightly with a spatula (this “marries” the sandwich and gives it a toastier, more compact structure).
- Finish grilling as needed until the cheese is melted and both sides of the bread are golden brown.
Open-face grilling makes it easy to insert accouterments like tomato slices or chutney midway through grilling. The partially melted cheese bonds to the filling and keeps it from sliding around.
If you prefer a technique that allows you to grill two sandwiches at once, our very own Elise Bauer (Simply Recipes founder and grilled cheese fanatic) has a splendid tutorial on her assembly method.
HOW HOT SHOULD YOUR SKILLET BE?
High heat will burn the exterior of your bread before your cheese gets a chance to melt. Moderate heat is the way to go.
Here’s a timeline:
- Put your heavy skillet on the stovetop
- Turn the burner on medium-low or medium (everyone’s stove is a little different)
- As the skillet heats, prep your cheese (grating or slicing)
- Butter the bread
- Lay the sandwich in the skillet—by this time, the temperature is perfect
If you are grilling sandwiches one at a time, you may find you need to turn the heat down a little as you do your second sandwich. The pan seems to hit a sweet spot around sandwich number two.
WAYS TO DRESS UP YOUR GRILLED CHEESE
I am no purist, and I put all kinds of stuff on my grilled cheese. Just don’t overstuff it, or all the goodies will slip out. What goodies, you say? Some suggestions:
- Cooked greens: kale, mustard greens, or spinach (squeeze some excess moisture out first)
- Fruits and Vegetables: roasted red pepper, thin slices of apple or pear, tomato slices
- Mango Chutney, cranberry sauce or romesco sauce
- A few slices of lunchmeat (ham, salami, bologna—heat in the pan first, if you like)
WHAT TO SERVE WITH GRILLED CHEESE?
NEED SOME GRILLED CHEESE INSPIRATION? TRY THESE!
- Grilled Cheese Sandwich with Sauerkraut on Rye
- Grilled Cheese Sandwich with Mozzarella, Red Peppers, and Arugula
- Easy Croque-Madame
- Grilled Cheese Sandwich with Bacon and Pear
- Green, Eggs, and Ham Grilled Cheese Sandwich
- Smoked Salmon and Gruyere Grilled Cheese Sandwich
- Turkey Grilled Cheese Sandwich with Pickled Onions
How to Make a Grilled Cheese Sandwich
- 3 ounces (about 2/3 to 1 cup) shredded cheddar, swiss, jack, or fontina cheese
- 2 slices sandwich bread, preferably 1/2-inch thick
- 2 teaspoons mayonnaise or butter
1 Preheat the pan and grate the cheese: Put a heavy-bottomed medium skillet over medium-low to medium heat (everyone’s stove is a little different). As the skillet heats, grate the cheese. If you are using more than one kind of cheese, toss them together in a bowl until nicely combined.
2 Mayo or butter the bread: Spread one side of each slice of bread evenly with mayonnaise or butter. Lay the slices butter-side-down in the preheated skillet.
3 Add the cheese and let it melt: Distribute the cheese evenly over both slices of bread. If you have a lid for your skillet, put it on; this will help the cheese melt more evenly.
Now, stay put! The second you walk away is the second your sandwich will burn. Look for the cheese to begin melting. The time it takes will depend on your stove, your skillet, and the cheese you are using. Lower-moisture cheeses like aged cheddar will take longer to melt. It could take 2 minutes, or up to 5 minutes. You don’t want the cheese to be totally melted—just halfway melted.
4 Close the sandwich and finish grilling: (If you want to add a filling, like sliced tomato, add it now.) Close the sandwich and continue grilling, flipping the sandwich with a turner as needed, until both sides are golden brown, another 2-3 minutes per side.
Usually, the second side takes less time than the first. Press down on the sandwich gently but firmly with your turner to compact it a little, but don’t smoosh it. You may need to turn the heat down to medium-low to keep the bread from charring.
Peek in the sandwich to see if the cheese is fully melted. If the bread is grilled to your liking but the cheese needs more time, turn the heat down and grill it a few minutes longer.
5 Serve the sandwich: Cut the sandwich the way you like best (I like cutting on the diagonal, creating four pointy corners to dip in tomato soup) and let it cool a minute or so before eating, unless you like burning your mouth on molten cheese. Serve immediately.
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