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0 Comments | Dec 30, 2009

On The Societal and Metaphysical Importance of the Grilled Cheese Sandwich

grilledcheesePreamble – How on Earth Did We Get Here?

I suggested to an associate recently that it is possible to write a respectable essay on virtually any subject one can imagine, no matter how abstruse or quotidian. I then made the tragic tactical error of inviting him to select any topic at all, in response to which I would strive to craft a collection of cogent thoughts, and possibly even some advice. He, opting for the banal, challenged me to expound upon the making of a grilled cheese sandwich. So let’s get this over with, shall we?

The Essay Proper

I will preface this treatise by confessing, right from the get-go[1], that I am no cook. I survive largely on restaurant food[2], take-out, and the occasional freezer-to-microwave entrée, the latter only so long as no preparation whatsoever is required aside from removing the item from its container. Case in point: I find it unacceptably laborious to have to remove the round sheet of cardboard from beneath a frozen pizza[3] before placing it into the oven[4]. There exist as well freezer-to-oven dishes (lasagna, casseroles, etc.) whose manufacturers have the temerity to recommend that the contents be stirred at some point in mid-cooking. All of which is a roundabout way of getting back to my principal topic, grilled cheese preparation, and which digression I offer simply as counterpoint to the fact that I take no small amount of pride in the preparation of a palatable if unexceptional grilled cheese sandwich.

Before getting into the nuances of preparing a grilled cheese[5], it is illuminating to briefly review a few interesting and less-well-known facts about this classic[6] American dietary staple—facts which are, perhaps surprisingly, expounded upon in some detail on a dedicated Wikipedia page that someone[7] felt compelled to create. For example, the cheese sandwich in general, and the grilled cheese in particular, got its start only as recently as the nineteen twenties with the introduction of widely available sliced bread and processed cheese. Even more surprisingly, there is, in fact, an annual grilled cheese invitational cook-off that takes place in Los Angeles during which numerous trophies are awarded for grilled cheese excellence of one sort or another, presumably in multiple categories, though what these might be is never made clear. And most recently a grilled cheese sandwich made international news with the discovery of one purportedly containing an image of the Virgin Mary, an item which subsequently sold on eBay for something like $28,000[8].

So what then are the essential components of this American gustatory icon? They are but two—cheese and bread. You will find throughout this treatise that I am a bit of purist about the whole thing, even a borderline snob, if one can equate snobbery with such a pedestrian food. Inasmuch as the Germans allow but four ingredients in any concoction that bears the sobriquet of beer[9], the purists among grilled cheese aficionados will brook nothing but the bread and the cheese. And it is the cheese, both literally and figuratively, that holds the entire affair together. This is, by the way, intended in no way to ignore or in any way besmirch the importance of the cooking medium—oil, butter, etc.—except to say that it does not, for the purposes of this analysis at any rate, comprise an ingredient any more than do the wheat in the bread or the curds in the cheese. Said medium is, however, of the utmost import, and, as it happens, the source of much debate within the grilled cheese community. But we will return to that later. Let us reflect first upon the single critical element of the sandwich, that which, after all, makes it a grilled cheese, to wit, the cheese.

It is indeed a sobering experience to stand before the cheese section in a large suburban grocery store. With such a positively oppressive variety from which to choose[10], it is striking how difficult it can be to locate this most basic of ingredients. But wedged[11] in there somewhere between the Gouda, Gruyere, Brie, Port Salut and Camembert, you should, if you persevere, be able to locate a package of that purest of cheeses, and the only variety acceptable for this application, American cheese[12].  At which point a word of strong caution is required. Perhaps the only thing more striking than the vast selection of cheeses from which to choose, is the almost as vast array of cheese-like substances that are comprised of such an unholy collection of petroleum by-products and Christ-knows-what-all else that they should be banned not only from the cheese section, but from all possibility of human consumption. I refer to those egregiously common, perpetually on-sale, and invariably prominently-featured unnaturally-glowing-orange packages of pre-sliced, individually-wrapped, gelatinous flotsam known as “cheese-food-product,” a cancerous amalgam of such uncheesy substances that even the feloniously permissive U. S. Food and Drug Administration doesn’t allow them to call it cheese. Sadly, it is into this category that almost everything that passes today for American cheese falls, most especially anything marketed by a major “dairy” producer like Kraft or Borden. These products, and their bastard relatives Cheez-Whiz™ and Velveeta™, bear so extraordinarily little resemblance to actual cheese that they should be purchased for no use aside from caulking or certain arcane forms of auto repair. Under no circumstances should they be consumed by humans, not even to hide one’s pet’s pills inside of. I am continually amazed at the level of tenacity required to unearth a package labeled simply “American Cheese” and nothing else. Nevertheless, that is the first uncompromising hurdle one must be willing to overcome in order to construct a true grilled cheese sandwich in the way that God and our forefathers intended[13].

There is next the matter of the bread. Given that, both volumetrically and weight-wise, the bread comprises something like ninety-five percent of the entire sandwich, its importance to the undertaking cannot be overstated. Given, however, my former intransigence on the topic of cheese, it may now surprise to hear that I am prepared to accept a respectable bit of leeway in this department, so long as certain fundamental boundaries are not crossed. Any reasonably respectable sliced white bread will suffice, so long as it is structurally up to the demands of the preparation process. I posit this requirement because there are a good number of pressing, flipping and other mechanically demanding histrionics required in order to properly cook the sandwich (more on this later), which, to my way of thinking, rules out the flimsier, highly processed products such as Wonder Bread™[14], etc. And while there are, as with cheese, countless bread varieties from which  to choose, for this purest of applications, I eschew all manner of whole wheats, sour doughs, ryes and pumpernickels in favor of basic white bread. It is also useful to stick with standard-thickness slicing rather than the extra-thick varieties, for process-related reasons that will be explained shortly. As a general, if somewhat overly-prescriptive, rule of thumb, strive for a combination of slice thickness and consistency that will allow you to hold a slice by one corner without the plane of the bread bending more than ten to fifteen degrees from the horizontal.

Which then brings us to the cooking medium. Pretty much without exception, grilled cheeses are cooked in a frying pan or griddle[15] through the simple expedient of applying a sufficient degree of heat to simultaneously brown the bread and melt the cheese, an outcome, which while sounding trivial, is in fact, fraught with challenge if one is pursuing perfection. There are really only two choices when deciding on the cooking medium, viz. oil or butter[16]. And it is at this point that I depart from nearly all of my friends and relatives who have offered opinions on the matter. I am, and always have been, a cooking-oil acolyte, and once the howls of derision have died down, I am prepared to defend my position on this touchy matter. It is simply that, as an overall cooking neophyte, I find it extremely challenging to prepare anything that involves butter and the application of heat, that does not in the end result in cinders. I have seen and tasted buttered grilled cheeses that were a culinary wonder, but I confess that the precise combination of heat and timing required to realize such an outcome eludes me at every attempt. It has been my experience that the margin of error between perfection and disaster is vastly greater with cooking oil than with butter[17], which, upon reflection, means that basically I am sacrificing a small measure of perfection for a greater degree of consistency and predictability. To those of you who cook with skill and confidence, this may sound like a bit of a cop-out, and I suppose a deserved one. I accept your disdain and stick by my position. And it is, by the way, worth noting as well that the oil-cooked grilled cheese, for what it’s worth, is a singularly less fatty/caloric product[18], which is not to say that health concerns should hold any sway in this discussion, but still.

And so we have arrived, after much circuitous but altogether necessary gustatory detail, at the assembly and cooking, the manufacture if you will, of the grilled cheese. It is useful to recall at this stage the principal outcomes to be strived for as a consequence of this exercise, viz. thoroughly melted cheese and perfectly toasted bread, the two integrated in a manner that is harmonious yet humble.  It is, after all, the perfect adhesion of the bread through the expedient of melted but still structurally sound cheese, that separates the grilled cheese from every other sandwich, the vast majority of which comprise far greater number and variety of ingredients, and which as a consequence, fall apart at the slightest provocation. The grilled cheese, on the other hand, is become, through the perfect assembly and cooking process, an integral whole, a meta-sandwich if you will, the unity of which is unequaled[19] among sandwiches or indeed food products of any other kind.

Pan heat will, of necessity, be a function of the earlier-discussed decision concerning oil vs. butter, the former allowing for a wider range of temperatures and consequently a wider margin of error. I am a firm believer in the assembly of the sandwich in the pan, as opposed to putting it all together on a plate and then transporting it into the pan. The reasons for this somewhat counter-intuitive notion are several and will be discussed forthwith. Once the pan is thoroughly oiled/buttered, and only once the desired temperature has been fully attained[20], the first piece of bread is placed in the pan and giving a bit of searing pressure with a suitable spatula, thus impregnating the lower surface with a small bit of the cooking medium. This single piece of bread is allowed to brown for a few moments while the cheese is separated out and other incidental preparations are being made. Once the single piece is properly browned, it is flipped in the pan, presenting the browned side to the top. The reason for this uncommonly-practiced nuance of preparation is that the now fully-heated/browned internal surface will far more effectively melt the cheese than would the only-slightly-above-room-temperature side[21] [22]. This practice effectively means that three of the four sides of the bread will be browned, which, while having no demonstrable effect on the flavor of the sandwich, will ensure a far faster and more even cheese melting than would otherwise be the case, an ancillary benefit of which is a greatly reduced likelihood of the sandwich coming apart during the sometimes challenging process of flipping it in the pan (the cheese by this point having been almost completely adhered to at least one side of the inner sandwich. Worth noting at this point is the possibility of taking this approach to its logical extreme, which while typically unnecessary, does admit a certain stylistic purity that is not unattractive, i.e. browning both pieces of bread on one side and then flipping them both immediately prior to application of the cheese, thus resulting in all four bread surfaces being browned, both interior and exterior, and ensuring perfectly even and rapid melting and adhesion.

The placement of the cheese slices on the bread is largely a matter of personal aesthetics. However, experts more often than not come down against the idea of rotating the slices forty-five degrees relative to the bread for two reasons, a) the resulting small isosceles triangles of cheese exposed beyond the four bread-slice edges are at great risk for sagging onto the pan surface, resulting in burned cheese[23], and b) the decreased percentage[24] of bread surface actually adhered by cheese marginally affects structural integrity, and results as well, depending on how one eats the sandwich, in corner bites that in fact contain no cheese at all. Alternatively, placing the slices congruent relative to the bread, with a slightly parallel offset between the first and second slices[25], allows for maximum bread coverage and minimization of the foregoing difficulties.

Once the sandwich is properly browned and removed from the pan, there arises one final aesthetic consideration that is largely overlooked excepting amongst only the most dedicated aficionados of the craft, viz the decision as to how to slice the sandwich. The traditionalist will opt for the simple central-parallel cut, whereas the aesthete will frequently go for the diagonal cut. And only rarely will one encounter a hybrid of the two, i.e. a diagonal cut that bifurcates the sandwich along a line subtending points one quarter of the way along opposing sides[26]. There is an opportunity to make a statement with this selection, though what that statement is remains unclear.


Having explored in some depth the ingredients and preparation of the perfect grilled cheese, I feel as well the need to address the plethora of alternative ingredients that some feel compelled to add to this already flawless object. The most popular of these seems to be the tomato, a single slice of which, somewhere along the line, appears to have become an acceptable addition to the grilled cheese ingredient list[27]. Various meats (most notably thin-sliced ham) have also made this transition. In every instance, these additions should be thought of as abominations, whose effect on the finished grilled cheese, quite simply, is to render the sandwich something other than a grilled cheese, in much the same way that adding geometrically symmetrical figures to a Jackson Pollack painting or anything curved to a work by Piet Mondrian would render these works something other than what they originally were. Which is not to say that there is anything inherently wrong with a toasted ham and cheese sandwich—simply that it is not a grilled cheese.

And finally, there arises as well the curious (and until recently what I felt certain was apocryphal) concept of cooking a grilled cheese with an iron, i.e. one meant for the pressing of clothing. I say “recently” because I was coaxed by a friend into actually attempting this operation not long ago, and I can personally vouch for the possibility of accomplishing it, though with what I can only describe (mustering more kindness than is warranted) as unsatisfactory results. It may be that I simply didn’t have the proper sort of iron[28] or that I was insufficiently versed in the technique. But, in the event, while the sandwich could plausibly be said to have been “cooked,” doing so required so much pressure that it ended up totally crushed and bearing more resemblance to a large quesadilla[29] than a sandwich of any normally recognizable sort.

The general idea is that one wraps the preassembled sandwich in tin foil[30] and then applies a suitable amount of pressure to transmit the iron’s heat into the sandwich. As I said, an unsatisfactorily slow process with an even more unsatisfactory final result. Try it at your own peril.

[1] I concede as well that I have no earthly clue as to the etymology of the phrase “from the get-go,” its frequent use in recent English writing and conversation notwithstanding. The term likely originates from one of several ancient warring races or tribes, e.g. Crusaders, Visigoths, etc, all rather highly regarded for their “getting and going.” One wonders if there are equivalents of this colloquialism in other languages.

[2] And attending leftovers.

[3] Something I have forgotten to do on a couple of occasions with interesting consequences that are beyond the scope of this essay.

[4] One of the very few items I will actually go to the trouble of using a conventional oven for, another related one being the reheating of leftover take-out pizza, which crust becomes vulcanized and inedible in a microwave, a topic worthy of its own essay at some future date.

[5] The inclusion of the word “sandwich” being from this point forward implicit.

[6] Which label I assign without fear of hyperbole, the grilled cheese having earned its spot in the pantheon of American foods right up there with the hot dog, the hamburger, and, perhaps ironically, the French fry.

[7] Perhaps multiple someones…

[8] You don’t see any ecclesiastical wieners on eBay, now do you?

[9] Water, hops, barley and yeast, as dictated in the German Beer Purity Law or Reinheitsgebot, enacted in 1516, rescinded in 1987, but said rescission largely ignored by brewers. There is no analogous grilled cheese purity law to my knowledge on the books in any country.

[10] The Kroger in my town dedicates twenty-four linear feet of its dairy section to prepackaged cheeses and cheese-related products, and this does not include the specially-cut fresh cheeses available in the deli.

[11] All puns intended unless otherwise noted.

[12] I favor those packages in which the slices are not individually wrapped. I’m not even certain why, except for a nagging belief that the cheese benefits in some intangible way from touching other cheese rather than plastic.

[13] Ignoring for a moment, in the name of hyperbole, my earlier comments about the nineteen twenties.

[14] Besides which I for one have always had a bit of a problem with a bread that is of such low structural integrity (being a consequence, I think, of its extremely high air-to-dough ratio, though I am no food scientist and the recipe is a closely-held trade secret) that an entire slice (crust excepted) can, with minimal effort, be compressed to the size of a raisin. It also turns out that for obscure biochemical reasons I do not profess to understand, Wonder Bread™ is a singularly poor conductor of heat, a deficiency whose import will be clear shortly.

[15] The name itself notwithstanding, I am not aware of any practical way in which a grilled cheese sandwich can, in fact, be cooked by grilling.

[16] It is beyond the scope of this treatment to explore the countless varieties of each of these products at our disposal, except to observe that, as with cheese, and bread, the linear shelf space dedicated to butter and cooking oil in the average grocery store staggers the imagination.

[17] Doubtless due, in large part, to the significant difference in smoke points between the two substances: 302 F. for butter vs. 468 F. for canola oil.

[18] There is a great deal of extant literature on the relative merits of the various cooking oil varieties (which are copious), with the general differences being in the content of saturated fats and trans fats, with canola receiving generally high (i.e. good) marks in both of these categories, as compared to, say, palm or nut-based oils. It is especially noteworthy to compare butter’s 66% saturated fat value with the 6% average value associated with canola oil.

[19] Not to wax overly philosophical about this, but the perfect grilled cheese is, in its unity, cohesion and geometrical symmetry (yet to be discussed) analogous to more than a few less tangible examples drawn from ontological and teleological studies, in particular those that explore the combination of numerous discrete items or ideas into a single flawless whole.

[20] The pan should not be still rising in temperature as the cooking is beginning, else control problems could ensue.

[21] Check this for yourself the next time you make a grilled cheese. The difference in temperature between the fully browned pan-facing side of the bread and the uncooked upward-facing side is quite extreme (the latter frequently having risen barely above room temperature), owing to the aforementioned poor thermal conductivity of bread and relatively quick browning time.

[22] Another extremely subtle argument for this approach is that the previously-mentioned searing will have flattened slightly the cooked surface of the bread, resulting in demonstrably higher surface area (viz a viz the uncooked side) and thus greater cheese-melting efficiency.

[23] And hence more difficult pan clean-up.

[24] I haven’t gone to the trouble of actually doing the math on this, but it would be a fairly basic geometrical calculation to determine the actual percentage of cheeseless bread.

[25] Note the assumption of two slices of cheese in this analysis. Certain provision is made for sandwiches containing more cheese, so long as the concomitant challenges are recognized, most notably the greater melting time required.

[26] Certain advanced practitioners, typically parents of young children, will also occasionally undertake multiple cuts of a single grilled cheese, but such techniques are beyond the scope of this analysis.

[27] Affecting not only the sandwich’s taste, but resulting as well in a large round wet section on one or both sides of the sandwich.

[28] Which is not to suggest that there may exist an iron that is in some way uniquely optimized to this task, which would, in turn, call into question its efficacy at ironing actual clothing.

[29] Which Tex-Mex aficionados will tell you is a very similar product in any event, the bread being substituted for by a tortilla, but aside from this both chemically and gustatorily indistinguishable.

[30] The point here, best I can tell, being the avoidance of butter or oil ending up in or on one’s iron.

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