Nowadays, it’s all about multitasking. If you can accomplish more with less — as in time, money, resources — you’ve got the goods for success. In the food world, that translates to quick, simple and relatively inexpensive fare that offers big impact.
What better meets that criteria than grilled cheese? Today, the childhood lunch has become all the rage, as much for its ability to be gussied up for gourmet palates as its ease on the pocketbook and time in the kitchen. Plus, it’s flexible.
"Almost anything goes," says Honolulu chef Lindsey Ozawa, an owner and operator of the popular Melt food truck, which serves up tantalizing variations of the grilled cheese sandwich. "Cheese goes well with most vegetables and some fruit. In terms of protein, you can add pretty much anything you want. Use whatever you have in your fridge.
"There aren’t too many rules."
That adaptability no doubt has contributed to the resurgence of grilled cheese. Purists who want to get nostalgic can whip up the humblest version with Wonder bread and Kraft slices. But from there, the sky’s the limit.
"With a combination of great cheeses that are now available and some artisan bread, you can eat gourmet in simple, traditional fashion," says cheese expert Laura Werlin, a James Beard award-winning author who’s written two grilled cheese cookbooks. The latest — "Grilled Cheese, Please!" — was released last month.
Werlin recommends apples, pears and asparagus as add-ins, as well as dark, leafy greens for bitter contrast and pickles to cut the richness. Even hazelnut butter would work.
"This is why I love grilled cheese," she says. "It’s a blank canvas for you to paint based on your own food preferences."
A successful grilled cheese sandwich comprises more than the sum of its flavors. Proper preparation plays a part as well.
First, there’s the bread. Ozawa recommends sturdy bread, saying Wonder bread and its ilk are too soft to hold up well.
"They can easily get smashed or ripped," he says. "Sturdier bread provides a nicer vehicle for the cheese and it’s not as greasy."
Werlin adds that bread should not be thicker than half an inch.
"Nothing’s worse than a bready grilled cheese sandwich," she says. "If a bread’s not super crisp, it’s not grilled cheese."
Both recommend buttering the bread, not the pan, for even distribution. Werlin likes salted butter, while Ozawa prefers whole butter, for better flavor. Other options for grilling are olive oil and mayonnaise.
As far as cheese goes, use "stretchy" versions to build the foundation of the filling. These include cheddar, Monterey Jack, havarti, Colby, mozzarella, fontina, Gouda and Gruyere. From there, both experts agree, almost any combo of cheese works, depending on the goal.
"If you want something special, add another kind of cheese that creates texture, like brie, which is creamy," Werlin says. "Or you can use a hard cheese, like Parmesan, by grating and mixing it with the butter. Spread it on the bread and it makes the surface crusty. It’s a textural and flavor combo."
Cheese should be grated for easy melting, which will prevent the bread from staying on the heat too long and burning.
Werlin recommends using 2 ounces, or about 3/4 cup, of cheese per sandwich. Ozawa says to stay away from preshredded versions.
"Buy them by the block and grate it yourself," he says. "The preshredded stuff has an anticaking agent on it, and the cheese won’t melt right. There’s no stringy consistency."
Using the highest quality cheese you can manage also makes a difference in the end product, Ozawa says.
Werlin says grilling in a nonstick pan offers best results, not only for cleaning but for even contact with the pan surface, which helps ensure a crispy sandwich. No matter what kind of pan you use, press the sandwich down with a spatula to make sure the entire surface is in contact with the pan, and flip twice.
As for heat, start with medium-high and slowly turn up a bit if necessary to prevent burnt bread.
Both experts call grilled cheese a classic comfort food.
"It’s so American. A lot of people grew up on this," Ozawa says. "For some, it’s about nostalgia."
Werlin thinks its resurgence in popularity is a sign of the times.
"We’re trending toward simpler, comfort food, with all the problems in the world and the economy," she says. "Grilled cheese is a quick and easy way to provide satisfaction way beyond the simplicity of creating it."