Weeknight Cooking

What Makes the Perfect Grilled Cheese Sandwich?

A perfectly executed grilled cheese relies on a number of factors. Here's how to make a great one.

March  2, 2020
Photo by James Ransom

A perfectly executed grilled cheese sandwich relies on a number of factors, the most important being: textural contrast, cheese that melts, and avoiding burnt toast at all costs. Also, a lot of butter.

Here is the biggest problem with grilled cheese making: Sometimes your cheese does not melt as quickly as you'd like, so you either get hard, cold cheese surrounded by perfectly golden bread, or melted cheese hiding behind charred, black bread that you then have to scrape into the sink. There is no kitchen sound more shameful than this.

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But lucky you! I have a no-fail way to make grilled cheese sandwiches at home, and it yields both melty cheese and a buttery, golden exterior. It also allows you to serve multiple hot sandwiches at a time, which means if you want to have, say, a grilled cheese party, you don't have to draw straws to decide who gets to eat the only warm one.

How to Make a Perfect Grilled Cheese Sandwich in 5 Steps

1. Before you get started, set yourself up for success: Slice your bread, shred whatever cheese you'll be using, and bring your butter to room temperature. Preheat your oven to 350° F and preheat a heavy-bottomed skillet over medium heat.

Generously butter two thick slices of bread. I like crusty, chewy bread (like a sourdough or levain) without too many big holes, but if you grew up on Wonderbread and Kraft singles, well, I'm not going to stand in your way. You want an even smear of butter that covers the whole slice -- this makes for a crisp, golden, flavorful exterior. If your butter is unsalted, sprinkle a bit of salt over each buttered side.

How to Make the Perfect Grilled Cheese on Food52

2. Lay one piece of bread, butter-side down, in your hot pan. The butter should sizzle, but not angrily -- you don't want your pan so hot that it burns your bread in under two minutes. Top the bread with shredded cheese; I use a mix of Gruyère and cheddar. Use whatever cheeses you like, but remember that melty cheeses should dominate, and something sharp like cheddar will balance out all of the fat and general unctuousness happening here.

You can also customize your filling here: Try dashandbella's pickled jalapeños or sautéed mushrooms. Some people swear by a smear of mustard; I have never tried this, and maybe never will. (I'm lazy.)

How to Make the Perfect Grilled Cheese on Food52

3. Lay down your second piece of bread, buttered side up, and press down with a spatula. You don't want to flatten the sandwich completely, but a good press will help your cheese melt, your butter sear, and your bread smoosh in a pleasant way. 

How to Make a Grilled Cheese on Food52

4. After a minute or so, begin to check the color on your bottom slice. Once it's nice and brown, flip everything over, holding the sandwich together with your other hand to keep it from falling apart. Press down some more with your spatula, and cook until the bottom slice looks like the top slice.

The Perfect Grilled Cheese on Food52

5. Here's the kicker! Once you're happy with the color of your crust, finish your sandwich on a baking sheet in the oven. If you're making more than one, use the oven as a way to keep everything warm. Let your sandwiches bake for at least 5 minutes, or until their cheese is completely melted.

How to Make a Perfect Grilled Cheese on Food52

Slice in half, and enjoy immediately. Remember that tomato soup is never a bad idea. And you'll want some napkins at the ready.

Our Best Grilled Cheese Sandwich Recipes

1. Labneh Grilled Cheese

Molly Yeh's updated grilled cheese makes use of labneh, a creamy strained yogurt spread, as the base for white cheddar and Parmesan, plus za'atar and sumac for warmth.

Labneh Grilled Cheese

2. Mustardy Grilled Cheese

The mustard in this mustardy grilled cheese comes twofold: In the peppery mustard greens that fill the insides and add heft, and in the lip-smacking stoneground mustard that's spread on the bread, providing sharpness and a textural bite.

3. Tomato Soup & Saint-André Waffled Grilled Cheese Sandwiches

The bisque is to die for, but it's made even better thanks to the grilled cheese sandwiches that are buttered and pressed in a waffle iron. Thanks for the idea, Feed Me Dearly!

4. Spanakopita Grilled Cheese

This Greek-inspired grilled cheese sandwich is loaded with garlic, spinach, and feta for a fresh take on a comfort-food classic.

5. Fig & Bacon Grilled Cheese

Campbell Cheese & Grocery says that this is one of their signature sandwiches they sell at their shop. We're in love with a few things: the sweetness of the fig jam, the savoriness of the scallions, and the Comté (of course), which works great with the cultured butter. (Cultured butter has a slight tang to it and is a favorite choice for grilled cheese if you can find it.)

Fig & Bacon Grilled Cheese

6. Ruth Reichl’s Diva of a Grilled Cheese

"Ruth Reichl has been publicly aligning herself with grilled cheese for a long time," writes Genius Recipes columnist Kristen Miglore. This recipe uses the mayo trick: that is, a smear of mayonnaise on the outsides of the bread (instead of butter), which crisps up golden and delicious on the griddle. But don't worry: There's butter, too, inside the sandwich.

Photos by James Ransom

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Join The Sandwich Universe co-hosts (and longtime BFFs) Molly Baz and Declan Bond as they dive deep into beloved, iconic sandwiches.

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • phip
  • Ellebeth
  • jpriddy
  • Robert Allocca
    Robert Allocca
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Marian Bull

Written by: Marian Bull



phip May 25, 2020
This is a great explanation of how to make a classic grilled cheese sandwich.
My husband is from Italy where at all the cafes and bars they serve “toast”. A toast is usually two slices of thin white bread, a thin slice of white cheese and a thin slice of cooked ham. They are grilled in a press and are usually good. My husband thinks our grilled cheese sandwiches in the USA are greasy. He doesn’t like the butter that we spread on the outside. Between you and me I think he ate his first grilled cheese in diners and probably got grossed out by the taste of the foul butter substitute often found in such spots. I digress. So I found out that you can make a great grilled cheese without any buttered bread. The cheese will exude a little fat into the bread as it melts. Keep your heat low. I use cast iron. Simple as “toast”.
Ellebeth March 5, 2020
I may get some hate for this but here it is: I thinly spread butter crust to crust on both sides of frozen (yes, frozen!) bread and fill with whatever cheeses I have on hand. This gets placed in a cold skillet (yep, again with the cold) and the heat goes on low. Cook it low and slow. The bread gets golden and toasty without being greasy and the cheese is all melty, gooey goodness. The first time I made grilled cheese for my friend who has worked in restaurants for 30+ years, she said it was one of the best! In the end, it's all about whatever breads, cheeses and methods work best for you (+love).
jpriddy March 5, 2020
Fig jam and at least two kinds of cheese, ideally one of them blue. Or tarragon dijon mustard with cheddar and another cheese. Avocado oil mayo on the outside.
jpriddy March 5, 2020
And cast iron all the way, lidded during the first half because I am impatient and want to eat it soon!
Eric K. March 5, 2020
Robert A. November 27, 2016
Here's my version. Spread Mayo on the INSIDE of the bread, add cheese. Spread lots of butter on both sides and add to a cast-iron pan. Use any cheese or combination you like.
Barb November 27, 2016
All good ideas, but if you haven't actually tried using mayo instead of butter, try it! It's even better than bacon grease (as suggested) to make the bread golden and crisp.
Mar P. May 18, 2019
And if you sprinkle parmesan cheese over the outside mayonnaise it will be heaven.
Smaug August 4, 2015
I personally like my grilled cheese well pressed, I use a cast iron griddle and put a heavy skillet (with a piece of foil between) on top. Bread with large holes that go through can usually be patched with small pieces of crust. I can't say that I've ever seen any difficulty getting them to come out right, seems like one of the simplest dishes out there to me.
Allison M. January 6, 2016
Smarmy. If you don't want a recipe for a great grilled cheese, leave
Smaug March 2, 2020
I don't know what your problem is, but good luck with it. Someone doubtless has a drug for it.
Mickey July 14, 2014
Wow, I'm hearing a little bit of hostility from some ...it's OK people! This is a great site to share the joys and secrets of cooking great meals, not a bash forum. We all do our best, no one's perfect, and we each of us have different tastes and preferences. If the bread's too burned for you, just don't eat it. Cook it your own way. Or not at all. With or without nutmeg, although I'm gonna try that next time, and the mayo too! And with some must-have freshly sliced organic tomato to slip in there after grilling. Yum
Smaug March 2, 2020
My mother used to use mayonnaise rather than butter on the outside. In her later years, grilled cheese sandwiches were her primary source of nutrition.
Jodie R. April 5, 2014
Zeldie, what you believe is your business only. You may be in the minority in the kitchen though as far as cast iron and carbon steel pans go. Cast iron is not only non-stick naturally when properly seasoned and cared for, but is beneficial to your health as it adds iron into your diet. Well cared for cast iron IS clean, but not scrubbed. Carbon steel on the other hand gets better with age also when cared for properly, and that is not scrubbing it within an inch of it's life. The grease and oils cooked onto carbon steel baking pans over the years puts a nice patina on the pans that is also somewhat non-stick and much better for you than the so called coated non-stick pans that people buy. I am sorry you are anal about scrubbed pots & pans, you miss a lot in life that way dear. Also, do not judge other people by the look of their cookware. I have been using cast iron pots, pans and baking pans and carbon steel baking sheets and pans for over 50 yrs and my carbon steel pans are now black with a very nice patina. I finally got my husband who does the dishes in our house to treat my cast iron pans with reverence by giving him fried eggs with the yolks broken. He asked why and I told him it was because he had scrubbed my egg pan and not reseasoned it. He now knows how to clean all the pans and he even rubs them down with a kitchen towel that has a bit of lard on it and sets them in a warm oven when he does the dishes. Have a wonderful weekend.
zeldie April 5, 2014
Grilled cheese looks great but do not like the very used skillets and cookie sheets shown in these photos. Yes, I know a cast iron skillet is better with wear and tear but I believe in scrubbed and cleaned pots, pans, skillets, cookie sheets and everything else in my kitchen. At least a piece of parchment paper on the cookie sheet.
Dr.Insomnia November 27, 2016
LOL. You've never set foot in a restaurant kitchen, apparently. The pots and pans, especially, are usually covered with a thick layer of carbon (which is basically all that's on those cookie sheets). When it gets thick enough to be bothersome (like keeping you from getting a good sear) whomever is low man on the totem pole in the kitchen has to scrape the carbon off, but it doesn't hurt a thing to leave it there until it gets thick enough. It's not dirty, it's basically inert.

Pastry chefs will usually use parchment or Silpats or something else, but that's to keep things from sticking and to keep their shape, not because it would hurt to cook them on a little carbon.
Stephanie March 12, 2014
We've gotten into "painting" the bread with olive oil, salt and pepper, using a pastry brush. It lets you get the oil everywhere that might touch the pan, and adds some nice taste to the outside.
penny K. March 5, 2014
I have ten grandchildren and I am famous for my grilled cheese sandwiches. I've been making it exactly as you did but the only thing I add to mine is very thinly sliced red onion. People who don't like onions, love it in the sandwich, it really does something amazing to the flavor. Sourdough is the best, and when the cheese is grated, it melts more evenly.
Marian B. March 5, 2014
Those are some seriously lucky grandchildren. I'll have to try the red onion addition!
ndalpe September 17, 2014
Hi Penny,
I totally agree with you on the thin onion slice. I usually cook my grilled cheese with caramelized red shallot and garlic. Also, i found that a few apple dice in the caramelized onion goes very well with cheese, especially cheddar...my two cents ;)
Jodie R. March 4, 2014
Love the recipe, but am wondering why you grate the cheese. I use Kerry Gold's Dubliner cheese on my grilled cheese sammies with either a real sour sourdough bread or a dark rye bread I make myself in my bread machine. I don't grate the cheese, I slice it and put a couple of slices of cheese something a bit less and 1/4" thick, side by side on the bread. I would think that grating the cheese would make it almost impossible to turn the sandwich without burning yourself for having to hold on to it so tightly. The sliced cheese melts real good when you put the cast iron lid on the cast iron griddle after you turn the sandwich and turn the heat down just a smidge and let it toast and melt away. I make a nice tomato bisque soup to go with as my husband prefers creamed tomato soup and I like the bits of tomato in the cream. A sprinkling of Penzeys Florida seasoned pepper on the soup at serving, or even just their Extra Bold Peppercorns freshly cracked on top is the perfect touch to soup and sandwich(we dunk sandwich into soup at our house).
Marian B. March 5, 2014
You definitely don't have to grate the cheese, but I find it melts more easily that way! Thanks for the tip about covering the pan -- I'll have to give that a try.
Chuck F. January 25, 2014
remember to preheat your pan,very important!! try substituting mayonnaise in place of butter on the outside of your sandwich, it really works. now do what my father did and sprinkle on some worcestershire sauce, and serve with red pepper tomato soup, and voila!!! mighty fine eating.
helen M. December 8, 2013
My husband begs for grilled cheese sandwiches made with buttered bread and cheddar, as you suggest, but here's the kicker......he adds currant jelly and Dijon mustard. Swears it is his favorite....for me, it's just cheese and tomato.
Dr.Insomnia November 24, 2013
I've found that our waffle griddle, which can be flipped to flat griddle irons for sandwiches, makes a perfect grilled cheese. The surrounding heat ensures melted cheese, and the iron presses the grilled cheese panini-like.

But if I don't feel like pulling out the waffle iron (e.g., for one sandwich) I simply put the a lid on the cast iron skillet after I flip the sandwich. It basically combines the oven step with the grilling step.
Dr.Insomnia November 24, 2013
Pro-tip: if you recently cooked a few strips of bacon in your cast iron, you can skip the butter step and enjoy a truly delicious grilled cheese.
Jeany November 10, 2013
I never use butter, I make my own ghee and use that to make my grilled cheese. It toasts without burning, and it's easy to use sparingly and still get a fully rich and satisfactory result. I find that the grilling process is much more forgiving, i.e., less likely to burn; I get the crispy, crunch outside and fully melted cheese. There's no flavor compromise, and much less danger that I'll have to deal with grease running down my hands.

My favorite grilled cheese is Rudi's organic honey wheat with pepper jack cheese, spread with Crofter's Morello cherry jam.
lapadia November 10, 2013
Love the ghee idea. Love a buttery flavor w/o the grease running down my hands :)
lapadia November 10, 2013
I like grilling the bread on both sides; grill two slices of bread in salted butter, flip them over, and with the browned sides facing up, add the cheese to one slice and close the sandwich so that the cheese is sandwiched in between the browned surfaces. This gives the cheese a head start to melting as well as an extra buttery taste. Next, butter the outside (untoasted sides) of the sandwich, place back into the skillet and proceed with Marian’s step 3.
Dawn C. June 27, 2019
That sounds AMAZEBALLS! I'm going to try
that next time.
Jodi B. March 5, 2020
Great idea..... cant wait to try that.
fhp November 10, 2013
BTW: My Italian husband doesn't like butter, especially cooked or fried buyer. So I have started making grilled cheese without buttering the levain first and it always turns out fine. His favorite cheese mixture is sheep's ricotta and parmigiano. I also add some cheddar sometimes. Then there is also chopped fresh boiled spinach (well rung) mixed with a fork into the ricotta and parmigiano and a little grated nutmeg. He thinks is the crazy good. Try it.
PS: Are you all really serious about the bit of burn on the toast?
No one has to eat it.
lapadia November 10, 2013
An interesting grilled cheese filling, fhp; I make a similar filling to layer with my lasagna, love the nutmeg! When you toast the sandwich do you use some olive oil?
Barbara E. November 6, 2013
For Judith and Sharron, I've just rechecked the grilled cheese photos, and the burned section (black, on the left part of the left half of the sandwich) is definitely on the grilled cheese sandwich, not French toast. I don't even see a photo of French toast on this page, just photos of the grilled cheese sandwich in several stages of preparation. All you have to do is look at the bottom photo and you'll see black on the left of the left half of the sandwich. No need to criticize me -- I didn't burn the bread.
AntoniaJames November 6, 2013
Some people really like their bread, toast, etc. super dark (i.e., burned to the rest of us). I've found it interesting that the bakeries here charging the most for hearth baked breads often sell them with entire bottom crusts (and most of the rest of it) that are black or nearly black. To each his or her own, I suppose. ;o)
I_Fortuna November 10, 2013
There is no conclusive evidence that burnt food causes illness. There are different reports and here is one from the International Food Information Council. http://www.foodsafetynews.com/2012/01/panel-acrylamide-in-food-unlikely-to-pose-health-risk/#.Un_MiPmTiSo
Broader studies and education on the subject is needed.
And, "We found that, if we took one individual study that finds a link with cancer, it was very often difficult to repeat that in other studies," said Schoenfeld. "People need to know whether a study linking a food to cancer risk is backed up before jumping to conclusions."
From: http://www.theguardian.com/science/2012/dec/01/cancer-food-scares
Personally we have been eatting it since the beginning of time so I am still not sure of the benefits or lack of. I hope to follow "everything in moderation" as my grandmother taught. She lived into her 90's, raised Angus beef and ate a lot of meat including BBQ'd. She also drank an Old Fashion in the evening and did not smoke.
Dr.Insomnia November 24, 2013
The burnt foods causing cancer derives primarily from mouse studies. Richard Wrangham, an anthropologist who has advocated that cooking arose in concert with the evolution of the human species, argues that the strong appeal of burnt and charred food to us may suggest that we have evolved mechanisms for coping with the bad chemicals in "burnt" food, as there was a benefit in eating food that had fewer parasites. In other words, humans may have evolved a feature that renders mouse models useless for testing the harm of burnt food.

But I would argue that our dislike for things that are too burnt could suggest that there is still some drawback to eating too much of it. A little char on your dinner is not going to kill you.
Janet X. November 4, 2013
I like to cover the sandwich with a small pan lid (smaller than the frying pan I'm using, and a bit larger than the sandwich) while I cook the first half. This helps the cheese to melt more quickly, making the sandwich easier to flip.
AntoniaJames November 6, 2013
I do that, too, Janet. Oh, it makes me so hungry just to think about it. ;o)