It’s a simple equation. Bread + butter + cheese = happiness. The grilled cheese sandwich is one of the most popular and easiest sandwiches of all time—kids love them, undergrads live off of them, and foodies obsess over gourmet versions of them. So what’s the big deal? How did toast and cheese first become perfect lovers? The Greatist team dove between the slices to investigate how the grilled cheese rose to fame (what with gooey cheese wedges blowing up Pinterest boards, and restaurants devoted to making the cheesy fixture) and how to make the best one.
A Brief History of the Glorious Grilled Cheese
Variations of cheese and bread (both staples of many international diets) have existed for centuries, but toasting the duo is a fairly modern phenomenon. An open-faced version of the grilled cheese gained popularity in 1920s America, right along with the rise of inexpensive processed bread and cheese. In the U.S., it was first called a “toasted cheese” or “melted cheese” sandwich. Grilled cheese became a staple as a simple way to get some protein, fat, and carbs all in one bite. International versions have existed for years, including “toast,” from Israel, “kasarli tost,” from Turkey, and “toasties,” from Britain. Other, meatier versions also exist, like the French “croque monsieur,” the Dutch “tosti kaas,” and Scottish “roasted cheese.”
The sandwich, then called a “cheese dream,” gained even more popularity during the Great Depression as rations grew slim. But grilled cheese has gone from functional staple to luxe dinner item thanks to a little help from Kraft singles, which debuted in 1949, and helped promote grilled cheese as a nostalgic, childhood treat.
The Sandwich Now
Americans consume more than two billion grilled cheese sandwiches a year. That’s a whole lot of sandwiches. It’s undoubtedly delicious, however, the grilled cheese isn’t always the healthiest meal option. Cheese and bread can top the dangerfood list, and a big pat of butter doesn’t help much either. So how do we welcome the grilled cheese back into our hearts and tummies? Read on:
How to Make the Healthiest Grilled Cheese
Now that we’ve got your mouth watering, we’re going to break down the grilled cheese essentials and how to make this easy, inexpensive (except for maybe this one), and satisfying sandwich a better way.
Grilled cheese usually calls for two slices of white bread, which are low in nutritional value. Try whole-wheat or whole grain bread to add filling fiber to the equation.
While American cheese sounds patriotic and melts easily, it has comparably less punch than other varieties. Choose sharper cheese like an aged cheddar. The cheese’s natural kick will let you use less in the sandwich while getting the same amount of flavor. Using less cheese will cut fat and calories, but thankfully a little cheese isn’t all bad—it’s a good source of calcium, and can have nine grams of protein per ounce.
Recently, a group of scientists came up with what they deem the best way to melt cheese on toast. The answer: Place 50 grams sliced hard cheese on a slice of white bread (10 mm thick) 18 cm from a heat source (set at 115 degrees Celcius) and cook for four minutes. Before getting frustrated with all the chemistry (as well as the metric system), know this—the cheese element of a grilled cheese will likely taste pretty great so long as you don't burn it. Skip the fat-free stuff. No fat means the cheese won’t melt easily. And if you’ve got a block of cheese instead of thin slices, try grating it for even coverage.
If sharp cheddar doesn’t suit your fancy, there are other flavorful cheeses that are perfect for a grilled cheese sandwich.
- Gruyere: This nutty, sometimes sweet cheese has almost nine grams of protein for an ounce and double the calcium of other cheeses. As far as flavor goes, a little goes a long way.
- Brie: This rich cheese has less sodium that many other cheeses, and is soft and spreadable.
- Goat: Available in soft and hard varieties, this cheese is tangy and often comes in different flavor varieties like herbed, with fruit, or honey. It’s got about 1/3 less calories and 1/3 the fat per ounce compared to cow’s milk cheese. It’s also safe for many people with lactose intolerance.
- Mozzarella: This cheese melts nicely, but it is milder than other cheeses. Part-skim mozz has got half the fat as most other cheeses and can still melt well, but shy away from non-fat versions that won’t melt down as easily.
While grilled cheese is often paired with tomato soup, it’s easy to sneak some healthy stuff right in the sandwich itself. Fill other goodies in between the slices, like thinly sliced tomato, avocado, apple, pear, or spinach.
Instead of frying a grilled cheese in a pan of melted butter, try a panini maker or lightly spray a sauté pan with heart-healthy olive oil. If you’ve simply got to have a little buttery flavor, melt down a pat and brush it on the bread. If using a pan, warm it on medium low, to prevent burning. Place the bread in the pan (butter or oil side down). Immediately add cheese and other fillings. Top with a second slice of bread (butter or oil side facing out). Cover with a lid to help melt the cheese and cook for about two minutes. Flip and cook on the other side for a minute, or until golden brown. If you’d like to make it without oil or butter, try wrapping the sandwich in foil and popping it in the toaster oven. Pro tip: Pressing it on a Panini will produce a more dense, less fluffy sandwich.
Fun Variations Sick of cheddar, tired of American? Tomatoes too predictable? We’ve looked up some fun and equally tasty grilled cheese pairings you might not have seen coming. Try out one of these grown up (not to mention healthier) versions:
- Swiss Cheese and Sliced Pear
- Goat Cheese and Roasted Red Peppers
- Brie and Fig Jam
- Tomato and Avocado
- Havarti and Apple
Illustration by Shannon Orcutt