It’s one of those “drive on a parkway, park on a driveway” things: grilled cheese sandwiches are seldom actually grilled, at least by home cooks. After all, the only grill most of us have at home is our barbeque, and we’re unlikely to heat that up to make sandwiches. We call them “grilled cheese” because that’s what our moms, long ago, told us they were called. I guess you could call them pan-broiled cheese sandwiches to be more accurate, but like lots of more accurate terms, that doesn’t have the same ring.
Grilled cheese sandwiches are simple, but not easy. At least, they won’t be easy in your first few attempts. The whole trick is to get the bread brown and crisp while melting the cheese inside, since the textures are the only thing that make it any more fun than plain bread and cheese.
People have tried to get around this in various ways — toasting the bread first in the toaster, then building the sandwich and putting the whole thing very briefly in the microwave to melt the cheese; baking the sandwiches instead of frying; using a panini grill, a waffle iron, or even a clothes iron. If nothing else, you can put cheese on toast or bread and broil it as an open-faced sandwich, very similar to grilled cheese and a lot less tricky.
But there’s nothing quite like a well-made grilled cheese sandwich. So how do you make one? This is what works for me.
Slice the cheese very thin. If you’re using the kind of cheese that comes in pre-wrapped slices, well, at least it’ll probably melt easily.
Use a heavy pan, like a cast iron skillet.
Put in enough fat to just coat the pan, but remember you’re not deep frying the sandwich. (Though that’s certainly an interesting idea.)
Use vegetable oil, or a mixture of butter and oil. Butter alone can’t take such high heat.
Heat the pan with the fat, at medium high heat, for about a minute before you put in the sandwich.
If you add other ingredients to the filling, go easy on the moist ones like tomato. Crispy stuff like bacon works better. One entry in the 2009 Grilled Cheese Invitational used deep fried spaghetti; the sandwich was called the Spaghetti Western.
If the smoke alarm goes off, carefully add a little more oil.
Finally, if it’s just not working, take it off the heat and eat it anyway. It’ll still taste pretty good, and there’s always next time.