Sunday, August 5, 2012

How to Make the Perfect Grilled Cheese

I don't have the greatest memory. Birthdays? Forget it. The big snow storm of 2008? Clueless. What I did yesterday? Give me a minute. But when it comes to food memories, I can spew out more details than anyone cares to hear.

For example, in 1998 my mother, sister and I were in England during a 6-week European adventure. In addition to visiting the Beatrix Potter museum in the Lake District and the home of James Herriot (author of "All Creatures Great and Small"), our to-do list included a proper afternoon tea in London.

I'll never forget it. My mom was up front ordering while my sis and I grabbed a table. Nearby, a little 5 or 6 year old English boy, outfitted in knee-high socks and dress shorts, was looking us up and down. He was sitting on a bench swinging his little legs when, apropos of nothing, he proudly announced in the most adorable British accent, "I'm having the toasted cheese." I will always think of this when I eat a grilled cheese sandwich.

Grilled cheese is a simple comfort food that both children and adults enjoy immensely. While the dish is uncomplicated, it's surprising how many competent cooks admit having a hard time getting it right. Most often this means charred bread. The good news is that scraping the blackened bits off with a knife is a thing of the past. With the correct technique and a little patience, you can serve up perfect, glorious grilled cheese sandwiches every single time.

The number one rule is that the heat needs to be lower than you think. The whole point is to end up with a golden, buttery exterior and an oozy, melted interior, a process that simply cannot be rushed. Number 3 (a solid medium-low) on the stove dial is just right. 

Secondly, I find that putting a weight on top allows for even heating and ensures that the cheese melts properly. I use a simple piece of aluminum foil and an empty pot.

Like I said, it's all about the technique. Here's how I do it:

Heat a cast iron skillet over medium-low heat. In the meantime, assemble your sandwiches using good bread, sliced cheeses and any other fixins' that strike your fancy. For the sandwiches pictured here, I used raw Cheddar, summer tomatoes and basil from the garden. Swirl some butter in the bottom of the skillet. Place the sandwiches in the pan, cover loosely with a piece of aluminum foil and top with a pot that's large enough to press the sandwiches evenly (a baking dish would also work). Let the grilled cheese cook until the bottoms are perfectly golden brown, 4-6 minutes. When you lift each sandwich to flip, swirl a little more butter underneath (don't be skimpy). After flipping the sandwiches, there's no need to continue covering and weighing them down. Cook on the other side until golden, about 3 minutes.

Unless you'd like to cut them, you can now ditch your knife since no scraping will be required.