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

August 10, 2016

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

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.

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.

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

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Top Comment:
“Used mayo on the outside of the bread and made grilled cheese with red pepper jelly. Cut into quarters and served as a cocktail snack that evening. It was a hit with my guests. ”
— abbyarnold

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!

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?

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

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • catalinalacruz
  • KBH
  • EF
  • Kimberly Hile
    Kimberly Hile
  • Tanya Qc
    Tanya Qc
I'm an ex-economist, lifelong-Californian who moved to New York to work in food media in 2007, before returning to the land of Dutch Crunch bread and tri-tip barbecues in 2020. Dodgy career choices aside, I can't help but apply the rational tendencies of my former life to things like: recipe tweaking, digging up obscure facts about pizza, and deciding how many pastries to put in my purse for "later."


catalinalacruz October 12, 2016
Really a greasy sandwich to handle with cheese on the OUTSIDE. I prefer my cheese on the inside. Roasted poblano chile is a great addition also.
KBH September 9, 2016
THIS, on sourdough, plus grilled red peppers and a schmear of sour cream (inside)...yum!
EF August 17, 2016
Reichl ripped off this recipe from Kappacasein Dairy's food stall at Borough Market in London. She's even quoted on their website, so it is undeniable where the recipe came from.

I've always been skeptical of Reichl, ever since she revealed that she is, to some degree, a hack, way back in 1993, when she reviewed Le Cirque. When they didn't know she was the New York Times critic, the meal was sub-par. When they knew she was there, they fawned over her. So despite the fact that the average diner's meal was dreck, she gave the place three stars because they finally treated her well once they knew she was the NYT critic.
KBec August 17, 2016
Kimberly H. August 15, 2016
I just tried a recipe today that I read about somewhere, you cut an everything bagel in half and put cheese (I used jalapeno pimento cheese) on the seeded side of bagel and then put the two seeded sides together. So then you put butter on the smooth cut outsides and grill it. OMG, it was amazing. I did not come up with the recipe and don't remember who to credit but it is brilliant!
Kristen M. August 15, 2016
Hey Kimberly—maybe it was right here!
Tanya Q. August 15, 2016
you had me at the ingredients: 1/4 pound butter. Serves one.
Tanya Q. August 15, 2016
cheddar that is. although...
Ben F. August 14, 2016
that reminds me of this one ..
amazing with rosemary jam .... i've made it, now i'll have to try this one .. . love the cheese on the outside and the mayo ... amazing
Jean August 14, 2016
No need for all those presses and stuff. I have a small George Foreman grill 2 burger size and it makes a great sandwich as well. Also cooks 4 slices of bacon at a time and grease goes into drip tray. Dredge your bacon in flour before cooking. Makes it like my Grandma used to do. Hers was so special and now I know why. And did I mention that the grates come off the grill to actually get it to a sink of water and clean really good.
hollyash August 14, 2016
genius or ingenious I really don't want a recipe from the woman who single-handedly killed Gourmet Magazine...
Devorah August 15, 2016
Ruth Reichl did not kill Gourmet. Conde Nast killed Gourmet.
raker September 1, 2016
Brava. That's exactly how I feel about Reichl. She murdered Gourmet. Conde Nast simply buried the ugly, wretched, dead thing.
hollyash September 1, 2016
I have all of my gourmet magazines still, I rarely refer to the ones from 2000 on. It still makes me sad. Last time she ended up at my table I refused to wait on her.
abbyarnold August 14, 2016
I was in a city a couple of hours away the other day, and I bought a loaf of cheddar cheese swirl bread. When I got home, I grated some cheddar cheese and packed it onto the bread with a good amount of red pepper jelly. Used mayo on the outside of the bread and made grilled cheese with red pepper jelly. Cut into quarters and served as a cocktail snack that evening. It was a hit with my guests.
claudia L. August 14, 2016
Pepperidge Farm is making a cheddar cheese swirl bread now - makes sensational grilled cheese! Red pepper jelly is a favorite condiment for sandwiches - like with a turkey or chicken sandwich.
abbyarnold August 14, 2016
oooh, yum. Thanks Claudia!
Nikita August 14, 2016
@abbyarnold -- that sounds fantastic!
Charlene August 14, 2016
Am I the only one wondering if it's possible to pile 1/4 lb. grated cheese between 2 slices of bread? Okay, minus the amount used on the outside, but still....
claudia L. August 14, 2016
Grating means you can get away with using less cheese so a 1/4 lb. would be a lot...
claudia L. August 14, 2016
Like everything about this grilled cheese except hard for me to believe the average cook has good leeks on hand! But I love medleys of alliums -- in any salad - chives, scallions, red onion, yellow onion - whatever is on hand...gets tossed in the mix.
Steven W. August 14, 2016
I assume it's to taste, but for 1/4 pound grated cheese, how much mixed alliums? I shall defy my carb restricted diet and get a terrifically sturdy pumpernickel/Rye for this.
heleneosoyoos August 18, 2016
so 1/4 pound of cheese is too much but a "quarter pounder" hamburger is OK?
Jan August 14, 2016
I like using a hearty multigrain to add a nutty flavor and do in brown butter which adds to the flavor - no mayo for me. A combo of cheddar and provolone or simply a good Munster curls my happy toes. Will try onions now.
isw August 11, 2016
I do wish you would stop using the word "genius" to describe something which is simply a clever idea. Genius is a whole different category.
Devorah August 14, 2016
I think people sometimes use "genius" when the more fitting word is "ingenious". Genius = brilliant intelligence, ingenious = creatively inventive.
petalpusher August 14, 2016
isw....ah yes, a pet peeve of mine also! I'm ready to read a different description.
And thank you Devorah - for the explanation.
Steven W. August 14, 2016
Perhaps it is more of a label for this particular section of the web page? It's not the end of the world and I agree with Devorah's reply!
Winness August 14, 2016
I think using "ingenious" would take food descriptives in a new direction and pique my interest. "World-class," "the best ever," and other tired adjectives do not get my attention anymore.
claudia L. August 14, 2016
'Genius' is just Brit slang...not literal. Same as 'brilliant' which they use liberally. If you're funny, you're genius. If you have anything that makes you stand out - you're just genius. And, yes - short for 'ingenious'...
Leslie B. August 10, 2016
This is the method that the sandwich man in Borough Market, London makes, and that Ruth ate and raved about....... I am sure somewhere she gives credit to him for this recipe.....
Tanya Q. August 15, 2016
here. here.
EF August 17, 2016
I posted this same comment just now, having not seen yours. Absolutely a rip off of Kappacasein at Borough Market. She's a hack.
KBec August 17, 2016
Yes, EF, but you say with bitterness. LB said it politely.
EF August 17, 2016
Not bitter, just calling a spade a spade.
heleneosoyoos August 18, 2016
hear! Hear!
josefernandez August 10, 2016
Instead of mayo, I like to use french butter on the outside to crisp it up. Also, another key to good sandwiches (as much as I like to use my cast iron pan to make sandwiches), a press is so much better and easier. I picked up this cheap and cheerful press not long ago and couldn't believe I didn't use it for the longest time.
claudia L. August 14, 2016
Mayo definitely works for me on grilled cheese - doubles the dairy creaminess...cheese melts into...I use on inside. Nothing against using on the outside, just haven't bothered. Yet. Oh - and have cast iron press for the need for fancy panini press - good skillet, hand press works like a dream!
NuMystic August 14, 2016
The point of the mayo on the outside isn't creaminess, it's crispness. Think about it. Mayo is primarily egg and oil so with just a swipe of the knife, and no mess, you're able to emulate an egg dipped piece of bread frying on an oiled pan.

That said I think it's a bit redundant in this case. I've been grating cheddar and/or parmesan cheese on the outside for quite some time and it makes it SO crunchy once caramelized that I can't imagine the mayo brings anything extra to the party.

The whole mayo "revolution" was about sandwiches with only cheese on the inside. For those I guarantee mayo outside is going to yield a crispier sandwich than any using just butter or oil on it's own.
Tanya Q. August 15, 2016
was all excited about the press, and then tried to buy in canada. 85$. eesh.
claudia L. August 16, 2016
Well, yes. I guess I have opted for creaminess over mayo on the inside for me - for the everyday. Now if it's a once in a while treat, I might go for mayo on the outside - do it up as with this recipe. More and more we are seeing these over the top 'heart attack on a plate' concoctions and it gets a tad scary...calorie-wise.
BerryBaby August 10, 2016
Grilled cheese on sour dough is the best! Not sure about the onions, not a huge fan. Grilled cheese to me is just cheese on good sour dough.
Steven W. August 14, 2016
I'll guess many people will want to use something other than cheddar, too. That's the beauty of food---there is something for everyone to use, or not to create what THEY want.
Nikita August 14, 2016
@berrybaby, agreed. I don't want all those alliums messing up my cheese. And yes, I would also include another kind of cheese besides cheddar.
KBec August 17, 2016
We all know about grilled cheese with cheese and bread only, this is a different take, and a more interesting one to me as your version is sometimes bland. Cheese on the outside is a great idea for my taste buds. SW says it best.