Pulling apart the two halves of a fresh-off-the-griddle grilled cheese is acutely satisfying. It’s crispy, gooey and perfectly simple.
But how to achieve that mouth-watering moment is of some debate—just about everybody has an opinion on the perfect recipe and the ideal frying technique for the sandwich. It ranges from the classicists who stick to white bread browned with butter and a melty orange, Kraft Singles center to the avant-garde who experiment with specialty cheeses and add-ins like mushrooms and fried eggs.
“I think the things that make a grilled cheese sandwich so good are that it’s warm, crispy, gooey and savory primarily,” says James Beard Award-nominated chef Andrew Zimmerman of Sepia and its sister restaurant Proxi. His go-to “grilled cheese sandwich is sort of a late-night, come home from work thing.”
Though Zimmerman’s perfect grilled cheese is as instantly recognizable as the classic, he does like to add a surprising little taste of his English upbringing.
Read on to find out how the Chicago chef ups his grilled cheese game, and so can you.
Though white bread is often the standard for grilled cheese, Zimmerman chooses a loaf with a bit more structure and “character.”
“I like a seeded multi-grain bread because it’s got enough texture and interest, but it’s not over the top,” he says. Any honey wheat or seeded wheat bread readily available will do. “I think if you go for an artisan bakery bread, one of the risks that you run is having the actual crust, once it’s toasted, be too aggressively hard and ultimately tear your mouth up in a way that nobody wants.”
If you’re into baking your own bread and want to try a recipe that’s well-suited for grilled cheese, Zimmerman recommends a homemade whole wheat bread made in a loaf tin with some added flaxseed or millet. “The easiest one would be some sort of standard whole wheat pullman-style or standard loaf-style bread,” he says. “You can save your sourdough starter for something else.”
Next comes the fat you use to toast the bread. He prefers using a butter that’s been softened to room temperature.
“One of the reasons why softened butter is preferable to just melting butter in a pan [and then adding bread to it] is that you can guarantee that you’re going to have even coverage and even goldenness and even crispiness,” says Zimmerman.
However, if you forget to set a stick of butter out in time for it to thaw or you’re just trying to satisfy a sudden onset grilled cheese craving, he contends that mayonnaise works just as well, as long as it’s also covering the bread from crust to crust. “It’s just different fat and it’s got good flavor,” he says.
There are endless types and combinations of cheese you can use to get maximum gooeyness and an enviable cheese pull. However, Zimmerman prefers to keep this part simple and straightforward as well. Instead of the classic American Singles, he prefers an aged white cheddar “that’s not gratuitously expensive and too artisanal.”
“In some ways it’s actually against your best interest if it’s a super-premium artisanal dry aged cheddar because it’s just going to be too crumbly,” he says. Instead, look for an extra-sharp aged white cheddar that’s not too pricey, but will have a bit of tang and texture.
“I like a little bit of cheese that has escaped the bread and then is caramelized into little crispy bits on the side—that’s good,” he says. “If that’s something that you really want to maximize, then you should grate the cheese because more will fall out around the edges. I generally don’t do that because I don’t want to clean the grater, honestly.”
Though Zimmerman opts for upgrading the bread and cheese he uses, he doesn’t like to stuff a grilled cheese with extra ingredients. He says that slices of ham, pieces of tomato or many of the other common additions change the sandwich too drastically. But he does make one exception: Branston Pickle.
“Half of my family is from England and they like to make grilled cheese sandwiches or just cheese sandwiches,” he says. “They put something called Branston Pickle on cheese sandwiches in the U.K.”
But this isn’t anything like the dill or bread and butter pickles Americans sometimes add to grilled cheeses. With bits of diced vegetables, like rutabaga and cauliflower, in a spiced vinegar, tomato and applesauce, Branston Pickle is now available at most well-stocked grocery stores in the U.S.
“Frankly it’s more like a chutney,” says Zimmerman. He “strategically” spreads it on his grilled cheese, so that some bites will have a lot and others just a hint. “It brings a little sweet into this otherwise very savory, salty sandwich.”