Genius Recipes

Gabrielle Hamilton's Grilled Cheese Sandwiches

By • July 9, 2014 • 41 Comments

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Every week -- often with your help -- Food52's Executive Editor Kristen Miglore is unearthing recipes that are nothing short of genius.

Today: The secret to crispier, faster, better grilled cheese sandwiches.

Grilled Cheese Sandwiches

A grilled cheese sandwich is a perfect union of bread, butter, and melty cheese -- so why would you ever want to turn your back on one of its key ingredients? Especially if that ingredient is butter?

Lots of reasons, as I learned from Gabrielle Hamilton, chef and owner of Prune. Even diehard lovers of the buttery version (I am one) will find something new and valuable out of smearing their bread with mayo instead. As she says in this CHOW video, "This is the greatest cooking medium of all time for a grilled cheese sandwich."

Mayo won't burn as easily as butter does, which -- just like that -- solves the biggest challenge of grilled cheese: how to get the insides to heat through before the outside blackens.

More: Throw a dinner party for your cheesy sandwiches (with tomato soup).

With a standard, buttered grilled cheese, you have to cook it low and slow, keep the pan covered to capture the heat, and peek compulsively to make sure it's not starting to smoke -- or involve an oven. But if you rely on mayo instead, you don't have to stress -- its smoke point is higher than butter's, so it's much less likely to turn on you.

Grilled Cheese Sandwiches

You can also have grilled cheese sooner. You don't have to wait for butter to soften, or tear or smush your bread in haste -- even downy slices of brioche or Pullman won't be damaged when you slip over them with a knifeful of mayo, which is blessedly soft at any temperature.

But these are matters of convenience and reliability; what's most important are the results, which are not like any grilled cheese that butter could make. The oil and egg in mayonnaise brown and crisp more evenly and lavishly than butter, creating a glossy crunch from edge to edge.

Grilled Cheese Sandwiches

Hamilton's recipe -- like so much of the honest, happy food she serves at her restaurant Prune -- is a comforting balance of high and low: extra-sharp cheddar spilling out of good bread, plus mayo in a jar.

She's also known to serve sardines and Triscuits on the same menu as chicken liver mousse with Cognac jelly, and to drop Knorr bouillon cubes in the vegetable soup she makes for Christmas Eve. She serves that soup with expensive Champagne -- not a bad idea here either.

Grilled Cheese Sandwiches

Gabrielle Hamilton's Grilled Cheese Sandwiches

From Gabrielle Hamilton of Prune Restaurant, via CHOW

Makes 10 sandwiches

20 (1/2-inch-thick) slices rustic bread (from about 1 1/2 loaves)
1 cup mayonnaise
1 pound shredded extra-sharp cheddar cheese

See the full recipe (and save and print it) here.

Got a genius recipe to share -- from a classic cookbook, an online source, or anywhere, really? Please send it my way (and tell me what's so smart about it) at [email protected]. Thanks to Food52er Kukharka for this one!

The Genius Recipes cookbook is here! (Well, almost.) The book is a mix of greatest hits from the column and unpublished new favorites -- all told, over 100 recipes that will change the way you think about cooking. It'll be on shelves in April, but you can pre-order your copy now.

Photos by Mark Weinberg

Tags: genius, grilled cheese, comfort food, how-to & diy, everyday cooking, vegetarian, kids, mayonnaise, Gabrielle Hamilton, Prune restaurant, sandwiches

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Comments (41)


3 months ago Regine

I am going to try this with my wonderful, magical, genius "Cooks Illustrated Almost No-Knead Rustic Bread."


3 months ago Mary Chelton

I've been using mayo like this for awhile now & even the mayo haters have to admit it's pretty good! Now keep your minds open for this one...COCONUT OIL! Especially good if you add a little chutney to the cheddar or play up the flavor in other ways. Try it!


9 months ago spiffypaws

Have made this twice since reading....EXCELLENT!!


9 months ago Marie Watt

I've never tried using mayo instead of butter, but it sounds interesting. I do like thinly sliced dill pickle in my grilled cheese though - yum!


9 months ago April Hershberger

I haven't tried the mayo, but we store our butter at room temp so it doesn't tear the bread. My husband loves it when I make his grilled cheese with Old Bay on it, sprinkle on the butter before you put it in the pan and you get a nice crusty flavor.


9 months ago Sweetpatata

I'm willing to try this, but truly, I feel I'd be messing with perfection.


9 months ago Dorothy Bennick

Mayo can also be used instead of milk in scrambled eggs...very fluffy...also homemade mayo is the best.


9 months ago rob weaver

grill the interior sides of the bread, flip the slices over adding the cheese and finish the exterior as you normally would.


10 months ago Moriaelini

My mom used to used miracle whip instead of mayo. I hated that too. Makes the cheese all slidey in the sandwich and there is no melted cheese/bread symbiosis. *huff* :)


10 months ago catalinalacruz

Was the cheese "all slidey" because your mom put the miracle whip on the inside of the sandwich? Grilled cheese sandwiches usually have butter spread on the outside of the sandwich, not the inside. Try it with the mayo on the outside surface (replacing the butter), and you will be pleasantly surprised. Great "cheese/bread symbiosis" that way, too.


10 months ago Bevi

My dad made grilled cheese sandwiches this way for our hotel guests, some 60 years ago. He would serve them with fresh tomatoes from the farm up the road from us, and his own dill pickles. No wear, no tear on the bread.


10 months ago Lynn

Started doing this not long ago and it really is delicious. Once you spread on the mayo, sprinkle with a little grated parmesan and cracked black pepper.


10 months ago KateMac

This is how my mom taught me when I was little and I've never even tried making grilled sammies with butter. Mayo is definitely the way to go, although I've always gotten the sideways glances when cooking it for other people. I don't care, I love it! This summer, it's been lots of tomato and cheese grills for snacks.


10 months ago Tonaka

Done this my whole life! Thx mom:)


10 months ago phip

Good Idea.
My Italian husband does not like butter all that well and finds grilled cheese an inferior cousin to his smashed panini. Which I also love. We agree to disagree about certain things but as I am the one who prepares the meals I have taken to making the damn things without any fat what so ever and though not as deliciously decadent as a good grilled cheese it is always good. Even without the smashing. The thing with the smashing/pressing is that it does squeeze some of the fat from the cheese (butter fat Caro) into the grilling bread. Good, with this version I'll use the olive oil mayonnaise that I make for special occasion grilled cheese sandwiches.

N.B. On another note about alternative fillings. Spinach, zucchini, or asparagus mashed into a good ricotta and grated cheddar, salt, pepper and a hint of nutmeg make really a delicious filler for a not so basic gilled cheese.


10 months ago sneha

Clarified butter also works well. It doesn't burn as easily as the sticks, if you prefer not to use mayo. But I can't wait to try it out this way!


10 months ago miznic

I would like to second/third/fourth, etc - the idea of using mayo in place of butter. Have converted several family members with that. So yummy!


10 months ago Kerri

I found a great mustard for the inside, Koops Arizona Heat. It's a little sweet with a kick. I've used it with a Swiss Lorraine griller and a Muenster griller. I like to use heavier breads like rye or a heartier wheat grain. Melty goodness all around!


10 months ago Lisa

Is just plain cheddar the best cheese for this? With all the melty goodness out there, is there no better choice/combination?


10 months ago amysarah

I think there are lots of great cheeses for grilled cheese - but I wouldn't knock a really good quality cheddar. Also, various combos of Fontina, Gruyere or Swiss, Monterey Jack, Muenster, addition to Cheddar. For me, it usually just depends on what odds & ends of cheese I have on hand.


10 months ago W Dreiske Arnold

I have to admit, I've been cheating on making my grilled cheese for years, but I cheat by first dumping the cheese directly into the pan and frying it. Then once it's a big melted mess, the cheese slides right out and I sandwich it between the bread, which goes right back into the frying pan (now well oiled with cheese grease) and cook until the cheese if fully soaked into the bread and the bread is nice and toasty.


10 months ago Lainie

You are decadent.


10 months ago AntoniaJames

AntoniaJames is a trusted source on Bread/Baking.

Excellent idea, W D Arnold. Definitely going to try that, next time I make grilled cheese.


9 months ago Sweetpatata

A lovely kind of decadent, though.(yummy!)


3 months ago cynthia | two red bowls

This is utter genius, W Dreiske Arnold.


10 months ago Moriaelini

Much as I like mayo for some things, I am firmly anti-mayo (or *shudder* miracle whip) on a grilled cheese. I feel the cheese and bread must reach a kind of symbiosis and mayo prevents this. Now a little thinly sliced onion, tomato or bacon is perfectly acceptable. :)


10 months ago Moriaelini

I forgot to add that I like to use flavored butter to cook mine in sometimes. Garlic & herb butter crust on the outside of a grilled cheese and tomato is delicious. I will even make lightly toasted garlic toast, then add tomato slices and top with cheese. Broil for a couple minutes for a lovely open faced sandwich.