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Ruth Reichl’s Grilled Cheese is Genius, and Completely Out of Control

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Ruth Reichl has been publicly aligning herself with grilled cheese for a long time. And we really should have paid attention sooner.

Ruth Reichl’s Diva of a Grilled Cheese
Ruth Reichl’s Diva of a Grilled Cheese

Even before her days at the helm of Gourmet were over, in 2009 she was endorsing slivers of her grilled cheese as a party appetizer on PBS’s A Moveable Feast. Then in 2010, she wrote a definitive guide with some kooky ideas for since-departed Gilt Taste.

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Evidence of both of these versions has all but disappeared from the internet, but—lucky for us—she finally immortalized her recipe in her latest book, My Kitchen Year. If you read any reviews of the book last year, you’ve probably heard about her signature sandwich (or even watched her make it in Toronto)—it's called "The Diva of Grilled Cheese" and it’s the recipe everyone seems to gravitate toward, for good reason.

This grilled cheese is genius, and also completely out of control. Here's how:

First, Reichl grates up a bunch of cheese for even melting—simple enough, right? But then she goes her own way and mixes in many members of the onion family. A transcript from that episode of A Moveable Feast back in 2009 has her saying, “We're going to start with leeks, scallions, red onions, shallots, garlic, sweet onions, and white onions.” Start with!

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Photo by James Ransom

All these raw, crunchy, oniony bits seem treacherous: If the constant challenge of grilled cheese is getting the internal cheese to melt thoroughly before the bread burns, how is that same just-melted cheese supposed to cook a bunch of onions, too? Even Brooks Headley, an otherwise daring chef, sautéed them anyway. Of the sandwiches, he declared, "None left over."

But you truly don’t need to cook the alliums, as long as you cut them finely. They'll steam and soften in the melting cheese, losing their crunch but keeping some of their aggressive freshness and funk. (Though as Headley proved, if you don’t want any of that, sautéing is always an option.)

Photo by James Ransom

Cheese and onion mountain attained, Reichl then smears the outsides of the bread with mayonnaise, which—thanks to Gabrielle Hamilton—we already know leads to sandwiches that are crispier, more evenly golden, and less likely to burn than butter does.

But Reichl, the madwoman, adds a shaggy layer of grated cheese on top of the mayo too, which melts and fuses into a crispy cheddar crust when it hits the griddle, much like a cheese tuile or frico. It's a totally different, deeper, toastier cheese flavor and texture than the gooey party unleashed inside.

Photo by James Ransom

It should be noted that she also, for no clear reason—other than, maybe, better cheese retention?—adds a swipe of butter to the insides of the bread, too. But at this point, why not?

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Ruth Reichl’s Diva of a Grilled Cheese

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Makes 1 sandwich
  • Any combination of shallot, leek, scallions, onion (any color)
  • 1 clove garlic
  • 1/4 pound cheddar cheese, divided
  • Butter
  • 2 slices thickly sliced, sturdy sourdough bread
  • Mayonnaise

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]. Thank you to our own Books Editor & Stylist Ali Slagle for this one, even though she didn't really think I'd be crazy enough to go for it.

Photos by James Ransom