The Ultimate Guide to Grilled Cheese

There’s nothing quite like a grilled cheese sandwich, bread golden and toasty-brown with warm, gooey melted cheese inside. This iconic American food can be a simple snack, part of a healthy meal, or a way to experiment with your favorite wedges and other ingredients. (Heads up: If you’re interested in cooking certain cheeses on the grill, check out our guide to grilling with cheese.) 

Here’s our guide to this iconic food, including the best grilled cheese recipe and grilled cheese tips to make your next grilled cheese sandwich your best yet. 

What Is the Origin of Grilled Cheese?

melted raclette being scraped onto bread

Try this recipe at home with Spring Brook Farm's Reading Raclette.

Humans have combined toasted bread with cheese since, well, the existence of bread and cheese—for example, fondue and raclette

No one knows who exactly did it first, but the version most Americans probably think of—cheese melted between slices of bread toasted in a pan with butter or another cooking fat—arose with the development of sliced bread in the early 20th century. The sandwich really took off with the advent of Kraft processed cheese singles in the 1940s.

What You Need to Make Grilled Cheese

grater for grilled cheese

The beauty of a grilled cheese sandwich is that it’s super easy to make with basic ingredients and tools you probably already have in your kitchen. Here’s everything you need to make a great grilled cheese. 

Kitchen Tools

A frying pan or griddle, a spatula (also known as a flipper or turner), a small knife or cheese grater, and a heat source are all you really need to make a grilled cheese sandwich at home. 

Of course, if you want to up your grilled cheese game, there’s more advanced equipment, like sandwich presses, grill presses, and pie irons (which let you make grilled cheese over a campfire). Get the full rundown in our guide to grilled cheese tools. 

What Is the Best Bread for Grilled Cheese?

The ever-versatile grilled cheese can be made with just about any bread you desire. 

Make a classic diner-style grilled cheese sandwich with sliced white bread. Go gourmet with a rustic artisan sourdough. You can make your grilled cheese healthy with hearty whole wheat or multigrain bread, slice up some airy, buttery brioche, or repurpose a stale baguette or ciabatta loaf into something toasty and tasty. 

The main thing you want to keep in mind is that your slices should be sturdy without being so thick that the exterior burns in the pan before the cheese inside can melt all the way. You can also match your cheese and optional add-ins to your bread style (think Brie and fig preserves on baguette or fresh mozzarella, tomatoes, and basil on focaccia). We broke down 11 types of bread that make great grilled cheese

What Is the Best Cheese for Grilled Cheese?

Just about any cheese will shine in your grilled cheese as long as it melts well—after all, this sandwich is really about hot, melty cheese! 

Unfortunately, that means some favorite cheeses—mostly very hard and aged, like Parmesan, or young, un-meltable cheeses like queso panela, paneer, and halloumi, don’t fit the bill here. But the vast majority of cheeses in the middle of that spectrum can work in a grilled cheese, and robust aged cheeses that might not melt as well can be combined with younger, milder cheeses that do melt well to get the perfect combination of flavor and stretch. 

From fresh cheeses like chevre or mozzarella to aged cheeses like Gruyere to soft, crumbly blues, you can use a wide variety of cheese types in your grilled cheese sandwich. Here’s our guide to the 10 cheeses that will take your grilled cheese to the next level

What Can You Add to Grilled Cheese?

There’s something pure and uniquely delicious about a grilled cheese made with just cheese and bread. But when it comes to gourmet grilled cheese, you can use a plethora of different ingredients to switch things up. Here’s a rundown of the best condiments and add-ins for grilled cheese.

A good rule of thumb to follow is: If you serve it on a cheese board, you can incorporate it into a grilled cheese sandwich. That means fruit preserves like jam, fresh fruit, pickles, olives, cured meats like ham or prosciutto, mustards, and even spicy Turkish pepper paste are fair game. 

To make your grilled cheese healthier and more of a meal, you can incorporate fresh veggies and herbs, like a handful of arugula, thin slices of fennel, or a chiffonade of fresh basil. Grilled cheese is also a great way to repurpose cooked veggies—think last night’s garlicky kale, sliced roasted butternut squash, roasted mushrooms, or caramelized onions. You can even incorporate unique produce like summer squash blossoms into a grilled cheese. 

Do You Need Butter to Make Grilled Cheese?

Finally, there’s the matter of lubing up the outer sides of your bread to get that sandwich toasty in the pan. Many people grew up using butter for this purpose, and you can absolutely make a tasty grilled cheese with butter or olive oil. 

But over the past few years, a secret, chefs-only ingredient for making grilled cheese with a crispy, perfectly golden-brown exterior on both sides has been leaked to home cooks. That’s right: we’re talking about using mayo on grilled cheese. 

Rather than adding moisture to the interior, as it does when added to a cold sandwich, greasing your bread with a thin layer of mayo gives the best result while lowering the risk of burning the bread, which is substantially higher if you use butter. The proteins from the eggs plus the oil in mayo create the perfect crunch and color. 

How Do You Make a Grilled Cheese Sandwich?

Step 1: Grate or cut thin slices of cheese and prep any add-ins so they’re ready to go before you start cooking. 

Step 2: Set your frying pan over medium-low heat (you can crank it up later if needed) and let it warm up. 

Step 3: Spread a thin layer of butter or mayo on one side of the bottom slice of bread. Place this piece face-down in the pan so that the butter or mayo-covered side is in contact with the pan.

Step 4: Arrange your cheese on the top side of the bread in the pan, then carefully top it with any add-ins. Take care not to add too much non-cheese stuff to the sandwich, as this will slow the melting process. 

Step 5: Spread a thin layer of butter or mayo on the second slice of bread, then place it face up on top of the bread, cheese, and optional add-ins in the pan.

Step 6:  Let the sandwich cook until the bottom slice is browned to your liking and the cheese has begun to melt. 

Step 7: Carefully flip the sandwich using a spatula or turner. Repeat Step 6 with the other side. 

Step 8: When your sandwich is done, remove it from the heat, plate it, and cut it in half (we prefer triangles, but you do you). Add any condiments or seasonings, like salt and pepper, hot sauce, or other creative ideas. 

Step 9: Serve and enjoy immediately. 

When Do You Flip a Grilled Cheese?

Simply use your spatula, lift up a corner, and take a peek at the bottom slice of bread to see how well things are coming along as your grilled cheese cooks. If you smell burning or the pan starts smoking, that’s a sign things have gone a little too far (you can try to salvage things by scraping off the char with a butter knife). 

When it’s browned to your liking, your grilled cheese sandwich is ready to flip. Simply repeat this step with the other side, making sure to check between the slices of bread to ensure your cheese is melted before pulling the sandwich off the heat. 

How to Serve Grilled Cheese

grilled cheese and tomato soup

When your grilled cheese sandwich is cooked to perfection, you can absolutely eat it straight up. Some people add condiments like ketchup, while others might enjoy diner style, with a dill pickle on the side. 

A grilled cheese also makes an excellent accompaniment to a fresh, green salad with a zippy vinaigrette to cut through the richness of the cheese. And of course, grilled cheese with soup—tomato soup in particular—is a classic pairing for this iconic American sandwich.

Why Do We Eat Grilled Cheese With Tomato Soup?

Because it’s delicious, of course—but there is a real, historical reason behind this combination, aside from the way the bright yet rich soup and melty, buttery sandwich complement each other. 

After World War II, nutrition standards for school children were updated to include more nutrients per meal, which meant that a grilled cheese sandwich had to be served with an accompanying side dish. 

Canned tomato soup, with its Vitamin C content, long shelf life, and affordability, checked those dietary boxes, and a generation fell in love with this tasty combination. We love a classic cheddar-based grilled cheese dunked in a bowl of tomato soup or an artisan grilled cheese with cooling tomato-watermelon gazpacho in the summertime. 

What’s your favorite way to make grilled cheese? Tag us @cheesegrotto on Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter and let us know! 

Alexandra Jones is a writer, cheesemonger, and food educator who has been working with farmers and artisans in Pennsylvania for the past eight years. She has written for publications like Food & Wine, USA Today, The Counter, Civil Eats, Thrillist, and the Philadelphia Inquirer and is one-third of the team behind Collective Creamery, a women-powered artisan cheese subscription based in southeast Pennsylvania. Alexandra leads cheese tastings and teaches cheesemaking classes in and around Philadelphia, and we are honored to have her on our team.

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