Making the Perfect Grilled Cheese

The trick to making the perfect grilled cheese is simple: γνῶθι σεαυτόν. The Oracle in The Matrix had a sign above her door with (confusingly) the Latin translation: temet nosce. Know thyself. In its original context, the aphorism did not ask one to look inward and ask the question, “Who am I?” It wasn’t a question, after all. Instead, it implored the reader to find his or her own path–to know the destination before taking the journey. Applying this principle to grilled cheese is easy and can save you a lot of aggravation down the road. And one of the beautiful things about grilled cheeses is that, like pizza, there are many, many combinations from which to choose.

First off, you need to pick the right bread. Some people like a lot of bread, and may go with a focaccia or ciabatta, but some people may not like bread very much at all, and for that, there is a beautiful solution: quesadillas! And for the gluten-allergic or simply picky, there are myriad options out there. They may be harder to find, but they’re out there.

Next, you have to figure out how you want the bread to cook, and this can be a bit more tricky. Some people like their grilled cheeses cooked so that they’re very firm and crunchy. For this, the trick is dehydrating the bread by making sure the pan is dry. The bread may not brown evenly, but you’ll know it’s ready to turn over when you stick the spatula under it and hear a rasping sound like sandpaper. Some people like crispiness, but not the gum-cutting hardness of the previous method. For this, butter the bread. The more butter, the longer you have to cook it before browning and crispiness, but the tastier it will be. Some people, though even like a little bit of sogginess, which you obtain by frying the sandwich in oil or rendered fat.

Next, and perhaps most important, is the cheese. Typically, you’re going to find that most grilled cheeses made for mass consumption will be made with either American or cheddar, and sometimes jack cheese. Privately, though, people make grilled cheeses with just about any kind of cheese. Most people will use only one kind of cheese per sandwich, but some may put two, three, or even four–sometimes even five!–cheeses in one sandwich. The danger in mixing is that all cheeses might not get enough representation. It requires a thoughtful approach to sandwich building, but it can and has been done.

But wait! There’s more! You can even throw in little extras. For example, grilled cheese and ham is one of the most popular variants out there. But you can get as creative as you want. Bacon, tomato, avocado, onions, spinach, pesto, truffles (if you’re feeling decadent)–all of these and more are good. In fact, there aren’t, with probably a few obvious exceptions, any objectively bad extra ingredients. It’s a matter of taste.

Now that you’ve cooked your sandwich, enjoy it. It’s a simple food with endless potential.

Creating your grilled cheese was easy, but sharing it can be hard. Pretty much everyone loves grilled cheese, but it’s hard to find someone who will like it the way you make it. Most people can come to a compromise. “You can put avocado in it, but just cook it a little crispier, OK?” I think we’ve all heard that one at one point. But sometimes you just can’t find any middle ground. Pork products can really make a grilled cheese interesting, but some people can’t or won’t eat pork.

The option, then is to make two different sandwiches, which is fine–totally doable–and it won’t necessarily ruin the meal. It raises an important issue, though: the notion that you aren’t really sharing the same meal, and that you have to keep your pork to yourself. On one hand, great, more pork for me. On the other, not being able to share something you like is kind of a bummer. This goes for any aspect of the grilled cheese, and even how often you want one, so it’s important to choose carefully the people you eat with.

So, know yourself. Know your grilled cheese. Cook on!

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