Make sure your bread and cheese are sliced.
Bread should be sliced no thicker than ½”. You want it thick enough to have structural integrity when flipping, but thin enough to allow heat through so the cheese gets all nice and melty.
Cheese should be sliced as thinly as possible, again to aid in melting. A thick hunk of cheese will be a lot harder to melt than several thin slices.
Also, make sure your butter (if using) is at room temperature—we want it nice and spreadable!
Doing all this prep beforehand will ensure you don’t go nuts or burn something once you turn on the heat. In cooking as in life, always set yourself up for success!
The butter or mayo serves a very important purpose here: they provide the fat that’s necessary to achieve a crispy browned crust on your bread. However, If you’re not a fan of either butter or mayo, then feel free to skip this step—you can crisp up the bread using just oil in the pan.
The mayo is admittedly an odd addition, but if you substitute the butter with it, it will add a nice bit of zing (that’s because mayo contains vinegar). If you are not a fan of mayo, skip it. Otherwise I encourage you to give it a shot, in the name of SCIENCE!
Okay, so assuming you are using either butter or mayo. Grab a knife, load it with a lump of the good stuff, and spread away!
You want good, even coverage, with no naked bits of bread peeking through. Any spots left uncovered will not get crispy. No need to glop it on, either.
Figure on about a half-tablespoon for each slice. Keep adding little bits until the whole bread is covered in a thin, even layer.
Butter has suffered a rather controversial history when it comes to health. First it was deemed a culprit in weight gain and heart disease, then it was cautiously given the green light again. The latest science tells us that butter actually is ok, as long as it’s eaten in moderation as part of a varied diet. It’s certainly healthier than margarine, which is basically a giant stick of heart-destroying trans fats.
As for mayonnaise, if you buy the real kind (and not, say, Miracle Whip), it is really just oil, eggs, and vinegar. Nothing to fear. Mayo is actually one of the celebrated Mother Sauces of classic French cuisine. Its only crime is that it has been transformed by the Industrial Food complex into a suspicious shelf-stable goop (but a delicious one, nonetheless).
Now let’s slap this whole kaboodle together!
Many instructions will tell you to do this in the pan itself, but I like to do this on the cutting board/plate for two reasons:
You will also be a lot calmer, because there isn’t a fire lit under your butt. I mean pan.
So put a slice of bread butter/mayo side down. Pile on the cheese (how much you use is up to you; I like to have 2-3 layers). Slap the other bread on top, butter/mayo side up.
Side note, yes, it feels funny, but do not make the mistake of putting the buttered/mayo’d sides on the inside. The fats won’t do us any good in there. Face them outward. If you forget, take it apart and redo—no harm done!
Now let’s review our goal: For a truly successful grilled cheese, you want the cheese to be melted all the way through, and the bread to form a crisp golden crust.
The critical element here is heat.
If the pan is way too hot (heat too high), your bread will scorch before the cheese starts melting.
On the other hand, if your pan is too cool (heat too low), the sandwich will take too long to cook (and we are desperately hungry, amiright?).
For me, the right temperature is on the low side of medium. I like to turn my stove down all the way, and then up every so slightly to get the ideal flame. Of course, you can also heat the pan faster using a bigger flame. If you do this, just remember to lower the flame afterwards to where you want it to be.
Now you can optionally add more oil to the pan. If you already buttered or mayo’d your bread, you can skip this step. Otherwise you can add your oil of choice (about a tablespoon). It can be olive oil, canola oil, butter, sunflower oil, anything. It’s up to you! Let that oil get nice and hot and spread it around the pan.
Now carefully transfer your sandwich to the pan with your spatula.
It should give off a nice sizzle to let you know the pan is hot. If not, increase the heat slightly.
Stick around and check occasionally to see if it’s golden brown. You don’t want it to burn. As soon as it looks nicely golden brown, flip that sammich.
Flipping tip: Do it with purpose! The faster you do the flipping motion, the more your sammich will stay together. Grilled cheese can sense hesitation.
If it falls apart, no worries. just nudge it back into place.
Now, if you didn’t go the bread-buttering route, the second side may need more oil. Bread can be thirsty and soak up all the oil from frying the first side. Check the pan and see if it looks kind of dry. If so, just lift up a corner of the bread and pour another tablespoon or so of oil underneath. Voila!
After a while, the bread should look just as golden as the first side. Turn off the heat and take it out of the pan.
According to Bon Appétit magazine, “After rigorous scientific testing, we’ve determined that sandwiches sliced in half on a diagonal actually taste better.” So there you have it.
It also creates those nice corners that are ideal for dipping into ketchup or tomato soup.
So slice through that sammich with the righteous sword of scientific rigor! Enjoy your deliciously melty grilled cheese!