Perfect Grilled Cheese Sandwiches: What’s the Secret?
Proust can have his madeline — for most average Americans, it’s the perfect grilled cheese sandwich that can set off a whole chain-reaction of nostalgia. I can actually make my toes curl with the warm memories of my mom’s kitchen on a chilly day, dipping a fresh sandwich into a wide bowl of tomato soup.
Small wonder, then, that the real thing so rarely lives up to the memory. I mean, sure, I can fry up a sandwich for two hungry toddlers — I do it on an almost daily basis — and it’s always tasty. But why can’t I re-create the utter joy of a perfect grilled cheese sandwich?
To answer this burning (er, grilling) question, I talked to the big cheese of grilled cheese sandwiches. No, seriously: Dave Dahni’s not only the CEO and chef of The Grilled Cheese Truck in Los Angeles, his return address lists him — I kid you not — as “The Big Cheese.”
How could I not trust his advice on this, the most solemn of lunch-related topics?
Let me tell you, Dahni knows his stuff. The way a pale geek with a light saber can hold forth for hours on the subject of whether Han Solo shot first, Dahni will unpack the smallest details that can affect the experience of eating a grilled cheese from his truck — which is why his customers routinely battle three-hour lines for a taste of his toothsome, al dente wares. He wouldn’t divulge all his secrets, but he gave me a lot, secure in the notion that nobody can quite do what he does.
“Grilled cheese is such a personal sandwich,” he says. “Everyone has that go-to sandwich in their heads. That’s one of the reasons I have 15 different additions available on the truck. When someone wants something, I’m not going to tell him he’s wrong; I say, go for what you like.” That being said, he has a few irrefutable rules:
1. Butter the sandwich, not the pan. “When you put butter in a grill pan,” he says, “it separates into solids versus fats, and you end up with a greasier sandwich. If you put it right on the bread, it doesn’t have a chance to do that.”
2. Dahni also works with a whipped mix of mayonnaise and butter — he wouldn’t give me the exact proportion, but he did reveal that it’s somewhere between a 50-50 and 75-25, heavy on the butter. “The mayonnaise raises the smoking temperature of the butter so you can keep it on the griddle longer and at a higher heat without burning it,” he says. The result? A crunchier bite that’s still soft on the inside. (Hot tip: mix garlic, chipotle, or herbs into that butter. Right?!)
3. Good bread. “You wouldn’t expect a great wine from a bad grape,” Dahni says, and it’s the same with bread. “Over-processed bread gives you a gooey sandwich. I like a good artisanal bread, a ciabatta or something similar without a lot of holes in it.” He stays away from sweeter breads, because the sugar makes it burn; if he’s going to use something like a brioche in a dessert-y melt, “I don’t butter the bread. That’ll just make it soggy. I can’t give you the chemical breakdown that explains exactly why, but just — trust me on this.”
4. Good cheese. ”Don’t start with something wrapped in plastic and expect gourmet results,” the Big Cheese says. Of course, your mom might have used Kraft slices and Wonder bread, but “even if you go back and buy those brands, they aren’t made the way they were when you were a kid,” he points out. What’s more, your palate has developed since you were 8 (hopefully). “What I like to do is take childhood memories and update them for an adult palate,” he says. “Even with my mom’s recipes, when I look at them, I think, ‘this is how I’d do it now.’”
What’s more, adjust your cooking to the type of cheese you’re using. Dahni’s standard rule is a 350˚F griddle. If you’re using a harder cheese, such as a gruyere, you should lower the temperature (say, to 325˚F), so it has time to melt. A softer cheese, like Brie, will become runny if you cook it too long, so start with a higher temperature (say, 360˚F) so that it can melt more quickly.
5. “Across the board, don’t fall for the idea that more is better,” Dahni says. Correct proportion is key, especially when you go adding complicated ingredients like mac and cheese (seriously!) or bacon (I know!). Stick with a standard-sized slice of bread, no more than two slices of cheese, and everything will have a chance to cook evenly.
Add-ins are, of course, a delicate decision. Describing the thought process that led him to invent the Taco Melt and the Lasagne Melt, Dahni said that he is inspired first by what flavors go together. Anything that has cheese on it is a possible launching pad — if it’s got cheese, he’ll try grilling it.
There was just one more question I had: Why am I unable to imagine grilled cheese without tomato soup? The answer was: science. Sorta. “The high-acid component of the soup cuts the fat of the creamy cheese,” he says. Same with ketchup, into which I dip my grilled cheese if I don’t have soup — in fact, the salty-sweetness makes for an even zingier taste sensation.
Welp, I know what I’m making for lunch today: sharp cheddar on challah. Post your favorite grilled-cheese version below!
What goes great with grilled cheese?
Tomato soup, of course — check out our 8 best tomato soup recipes!