No longer relegated to the children’s menu, grilled cheese has become a creative category onto itself, with varieties that range from the nostalgic American cheese-on-white to premium ingredient-stuffed and fusion-inspired. Grilled cheese is also an equal-opportunity sandwich: it appears on menus found in diners to five-star restaurants nationwide. It’s a simple concept but one that can transcend expectations with a little creativity and skill.
With limitless combination possibilities of breads, cheeses, meats, vegetables, spreads, and condiments, seasonal and specialty grilled cheeses should definitely be part of your repertoire. Keeping current with new ways to prepare this perennial favorite will help you maximize the benefits of this ongoing trend.
Building Blocks to a Better Sandwich
The Bread: Consider varieties that will hold up during cooking and that add to the overall concept of your sandwich. Multigrain, sourdough, Pullman white, pumpernickel, ciabatta, and Texas toast are all excellent choices and marry well with good melters like Gruyère, fontina, provolone, and Brie. Consider using other high-quality bread like focaccia that’s thinner and guarantees a crunchier bite. Ask your Maines Territory Manager about our signature bread brands we have available. Add elements to bread such as truffle or herb-infused butter for a flavorful, crisp finish or sprinkle cheese on the bread’s exterior for extra crunch and added flavor. Or, brush it with mayo before grilling. You can also enhance the flavor of your bread and sandwich by experimenting with different culinary techniques, such as cooking it in duck fat.
The Cheese: As the star of the show, your cheese has only one requirement: it must melt. Stay away from crumbly or hard cheese,
which will simply get hot without melting; or worse, sweat and make your sandwich soggy. Try smoked varieties or complementary combinations such as fontina and Camembert. Celebrity chef Bobby Flay’s signature grilled cheese showcases Brie and goat cheese that fuse together and complement each other well. Flavor, texture, and gooiness should be top of mind as you select a variety that works best for your sandwich.
The Protein: Though it’s not an ingredient of the original grilled cheese recipe, protein adds a grown up element to the sandwich. Offer an array of proteins like roast beef, turkey, chicken, pepperoni, bacon, chorizo, kielbasa, Italian sausage, or smoked sausage. Crab meat, pulled short rib, and glazed bacon are more upscale options that can pair nicely with a variety of spreads and sauces. Brisket is a booming protein right now and will add complementary flavors to smokier cheeses, also providing a great way to cross-utilize leftover meat.
The Rest: Here’s where a chef can really shine. And the best part is: there are no rules. A brilliant sandwich can consist solely of carefully selected and prepared cheese and bread, or can include the addition of herbs, jams or relishes, pickles, fruit, compotes, or sauces. Also think about trendy ethnic ingredients, such as a Mexican grilled cheese with chorizo, jalapeños, pickled onions, and pepper Jack on ciabatta bread.Or an Indian-inspired version using Cheddar on grilled naan with coriander, mango chutney, and fresh mint.
If you decide to go the customization route, give your customers a choice of bread, cheeses, and protein, then offer premium items
available for an upcharge.
Vegetarian Options: tempeh, tofu, seitan, veggie or bean burgers, portobella mushroom caps, jackfruit, fried green tomatoes
Vegetables and Fruits: spinach, arugula, rapini, tomatoes, onions, avocado, peppers, apples, pears, melon, plums
Spreads: sriracha, spicy mustard, aioli, jam, preserves, chutney, harissa, pesto
Herbs: fresh basil, mint, cilantro, dill
Extras: pickles, sauerkraut, caramelized onions, sautéed mushrooms, capers, olives, truffles, sun-dried tomatoes
Pairing with Beer and Wine
Beyond the sandwich itself, go a step further by choosing beer and wine pairings with an eye toward capitalizing on the specific cheeses you’re using and present them as complementary menu selections. Creamy, mild cheeses like Brie and Monterey Jack are enhanced with a crisp, citrusy Sauvignon Blanc or an oaky Chardonnay. Smoky and earthy cheeses like Gruyère and Gouda can stand up to a more robust red, such as a Cabernet or Merlot. Lighter reds like Pinot Noir or Beaujolais and fruity whites like Viognier or Gewürztraminer pair well with Jarlsberg, Manchego, Havarti, and Cheddar. Pungent and salty cheeses tend to do best when not competing for flavor dominance and find complementary tones in sweeter wines like Riesling, Sauternes, sherry, and tawny port. Think about what you’d offer if you were serving wine with a cheese plate.
When choosing beers as accompaniments, use the following rule of thumb: salty loves sweet and creamy craves bitter. Think about hoppy beers for bitterness like IPAs, Hefeweizen, Belgian whites, and bocks. Malty, sweet beers to consider include lager, amber ale, stout, and porter.
Then and Now
When you add meat to a grilled cheese, it then becomes a patty melt. The patty melt’s origins can be traced to southern California’s Tiny Naylor’s restaurants, where grilled onions were added to cheeseburgers on rye, then the whole thing was fried à la a grilled cheese. Today, still following in grilled cheese’s footsteps, the humble Patty Melt has become a more dressed-up, grown-up sandwich that creative chefs can experiment with and personalize.
Try different types of meat such as poultry, spicy ground meat like chorizo, or premium cuts of beef. Instead of grilling onions, try caramelizing them, or use an onion compote. Experiment with cheeses that melt well and complement your meat choice. Make a patty melt thoroughly modern with the addition of a spicy sauce, pickled vegetables, bacon, or an exotic relish. Don’t stray too far from the basic bread/meat/cheese/onion combination, but do loosen up the rules on the four base ingredients by adding something special or unexpected – the possibilities are endless.