Happy National Grilled Cheese Day! I am excited to report back in this series of cookbook showdowns which could easily be called, ‘Things My Toddler will Eat.” It would also be a very short series, so let’s skip that.
But, the grilled cheese! Deliciously crispy on the outside and gooey on the inside. It is a staple food to have with warm tomato soup, at the end of a long day when all that is good in this world seems to be fading away. It has been a staple food in the U.S. since 1920, when grilled cheese resurfaced on the tables of Americans everywhere during the Great Depression because of the lowered prices of bread and the growing popularity of processed cheese.
With something that has been around for more than a century, you would think a recipe would be easy to find. It turns out, it is not. It is just two slices of bread with cheese in between, and butter on top, how hard could it be? Apparently very. That is why I think it makes for a very good contender for this showdown. I looked through multiple cookbooks, some of the classics, to see if a recipe would surface. The roasted chicken sitting in my fridge from Edna Lewis’s The Taste of Country Kitchen, and the fried chicken sandwich from Nigella Lawson’s Cook, Eat, Repeat show otherwise.
That is when I realized I was looking in the wrong place. Grilled cheese has always been associated with comfort food, food that nourishes the soul. It has gourmet tendencies, for sure, but it is a food you mostly eat fast, burning the roof of your mouth in the process. After changing my approach, I came upon the three below.
Anatomy of a Grilled Cheese
The grilled cheese is deceptively hard to make. Leave it unattended for two seconds and it chars very fast, but watch it for too long and the butter never turns brown.
In Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, Samin Nosrat presents a gorgeous illustration of grilled cheese to inaugurate the element of heat and the role it plays in cooking. She describes the anatomy of grilled cheese as follows:
- Brown but not burned toast
- Evenly melted cheese, but not runny
- Crispy on the outside, chewy on the inside
I am happy to report that this anatomy is unanimously agreed upon by the grilled cheese community. With something that follows such a small grocery list, the matter boils down to technique. How fast you flip that sandwich, the setting on your stove, etc.
But then, you may be asking, why does it make a good contender for a showdown? Why not find a central source that gives as much detail as possible about the process and call it a day? Here’s where it gets interesting. You can actually add items to your grilled cheese with multiple flavors and textures to turn it from a pre-dinner snack to a complete dinner. Each of the items you try to add comes with its own melting temperatures, flavor profiles, and variety of cheeses it compliments. This is what the three recipes below accomplish. So if you have got your stove on medium-low, let the games begin!
- Your choice of bread definitely matters. I used a sourdough initially but switched to traditional to whole wheat slices. I recommend deciding based on the cheese you use. Sourdough, as the name suggest, is tangy in taste, so mellow cheeses that balance that flavor, like mozzarella, work best.
- Your choice of cheeses and the combination you make with them matters. Don’t combine sharp cheddar with parmesan, because you will be left with a sharp flavor (unless that is what you prefer), and so forth.
- Cooking on an electric stove is abysmal. I recommend medium-low setting on all electric stoves. I promise you, your bread will char too fast.
- No cookbook will tell you this, at least not the ones below, but freshly ground black pepper and a pinch of red chili flakes on the bread while the butter is melting will go a long way.
Contestant No. 1: Classic Breakfast Grilled Cheese
Grilled Cheese Kitchen by Heidi Gibson
This cookbook is exactly as wonderful as it sounds. It contains a combination of 39 grilled cheese recipes, along with many others such as mac and cheese, and various soups. The author is the winner of seven (!) grilled cheese championships and co-owns the restaurant the American Grilled Cheese Kitchen in San Francisco (right in my backyard!). For the purposes of this showdown, I wanted to stick to the most basic recipe, which was — to little surprise — the first one, but still with a twist.
The egg! The egg was the magic ingredient in this one. I will say this right off the bat, taking pictures of grilled cheese is not the easiest. My sandwich kept slipping because of the melted cheese, which I guess is a victory of a different kind. This was a delightful, easy-to-follow recipe and is truly a hearty sandwich. I would recommend a light side like chips on the side (I recommend that for everything), since the sandwich is so filling. It pairs Monterey Jack cheese with mild cheddar, and I was pleased with the combination.
Contestant No. 2: Grilled Cheese Trio
Cooking with Love by Carla Hall
From the co-host of ABC’s The Chew, Carla Hall, this book brings forth 125 fantastic recipes that tell her own story and of that of food that brings her joy and comfort. Her grilled cheese recipe is preceded by her telling us about how she always keeps these ingredients in store after a long day, and I think it is lovely.
The variety of pestos mentioned in this one was a gifted touch. I went with the sun-dried tomato pesto, and it was sublime. She gives you the instructions to prepare each pesto from scratch, but I just brought my favorite store pesto and sun-dried tomatoes and can affirm that it was delicious. Timing on this one is definitely crucial, because charring the toast will meddle with the pesto flavors. The author also pairs each pesto with its own cheese. Mine was paired with mozzarella, and I concur that it is a great combo.
Contestant No. 3: Pimiento Spread and Tomato Grilled Cheese
Son of a Southern Chef by Lazarus Lynch
This is a cookbook with bold colors and beautiful stories. Lynch has always had Caribbean and Southern food on his mind, and ran a soul food restaurant in Queens that specialized in comfort food. His cookbook is very much about him exploring his artistic sensibility and finding your heritage through food.
I am not going to lie, this was a complex recipe. The pimiento spread, while delicious, was time-consuming to make. There was a lot of warming of mayonnaise involved, which is not offensive to me, but personally atrocious to some. It made the flavor profile intense in a greasy sort of way in my opinion, but was definitely a different take. I intend to try this in the future with a cream cheese spread instead. The combination of cheddar cheese and Pepper Jack cheese was just right.
And the Winner is…
The winner for me was Grilled Cheese Trio from Cooking with Love by Carla Hall. It manages to be innovative while staying true to the idea of grilled cheese: it is easy to make and easy to eat. The variety of pestos she incorporates expands the ways you can play with the flavor, and the technique is magnificently explained. She also mentions the cardinal rule of eating a grilled cheese: eat it immediately!
For me, grilled cheese has always been a comfort food. My daughter’s nanny and my very good friend would make one for me too before leaving on days when she saw I was struggling. Every time I make one I think of her and how that little act of kindness gave this struggling mom so much courage. I hope you get to make a story like that on your own.