The greatness of grilled cheese

The greatness of grilled cheese

Last week I posted a poll on my Instagram account. I asked my followers what is your favourite – a grilled cheese sandwich or cheese fondue? I wanted to find out people’s preferences as this week it’s National Cheese Fondue Day (11 April) immediately followed by National Grilled Cheese Sandwich Day (12 April). The overwhelming winner was grilled cheese with a whopping 86% of the vote, so I wanted to delve a bit deeper into this delicious dish. 

History of the grilled cheese sandwich

The idea of cheese melted between bread actually originated in France in the early 1910s with the Croque Monsieur. The recipe uses a sweeter style of bread like brioche, traditionally with Gruyère, Emmental or Comté cheese and ham. Add an egg and it becomes a Croque Madame. However many other countries have since created their own version of bread and melted cheese. In Britain we call this dish a cheese toastie and they were traditionally made in the oven. In the Catalonia region of northeastern Spain, grilled ham and cheese sandwiches are known as bikinis. The Welsh rarebit is a toasted slice of bread, topped with cheese sauce and baked under the grill. Other ingredients, including Worcestershire sauce, mustard or ale, are sometimes added. 

The grilled cheese sandwich was made popular in America during the Great Depression – when people were eating open-faced grilled sandwiches with cheese as a cheap but filling dish. The extra slice of bread was added during this time to provide a more complete meal. 

During World War II, the grilled cheese was the staple diet of American soldiers, and government-issued cookbooks also contained a recipe for an “American cheese filling sandwich”. 

A few food-related inventions also helped to propel the grilled cheese to new heights. One is the single loaf bread-slicing machine, invented by American jeweller Otto Rohwedder in 1927. The other was the invention of processed cheese by Kraft Foods in 1950. They created the Kraft Single, an individually wrapped slice of processed cheese that had a longer shelf life and held together well when it was melted. It quickly became it the cheese of choice for grilled cheese sandwiches. 

A grilled cheese is great on its own, but it goes really well with another classic dish – tomato soup. No one is really sure when these two dishes were paired together but it might have something to do with the fact that they are both relatively cheap meals to make. I’ve included a simple recipe for my version of homemade tomato soup below. 

National Grilled Cheese Sandwich Day on 12 April is mainly observed in America. In fact they love grilled cheese so much that the whole of April is dedicated to the sandwich. And if that wasn’t enough they also observe National Cheese Toast Day on 15 September. Here in the UK, we have National Cheese Toastie Day on 27 October. I am happy to embrace grilled cheese sandwiches on any day as I find them such a delicious and comforting dish.

The building blocks of a great grilled cheese

You can go super simple or extravagant with the grilled cheese, nothing is really off limits. But here are a few things to consider when you construct your sandwich. 

Bread – you want something that’s got enough structure that it will hold all that ooey gooey cheese together. I don’t like the bread to be sliced so thickly that you struggle to fit it in your mouth. Sourdough bread seems to have become a popular option for the grilled cheese but classic white sliced bread is another firm favourite. I personally like tiger bread as I’m a big fan of the flavour of the mottled crust. 

Fat – the other thing to consider is what fat to coat the outside of the bread with so that it toasts well in the pan or toastie machine. Some people opt for oil, butter, mayo or a combination. Personally I’m a butter fan, as I find it gives it gives the grilled cheese a better flavour and crunch. But some people prefer oil or mayo to make sure the exterior of the sandwich doesn’t burn. 

Cheese – there are no real rules here other than a mixture of different cheeses is a good option. You can use soft, hard, blue, goat, cow, ewe – there’s nothing off limits here. I like to grate or crumble the cheese first before adding it to the bread, to ensure it melts evenly. Sliced cheese is also a great option and there are many different varieties of sliced cheese available in the supermarkets now. I like sliced provolone because it’s creamy and melts well but Swiss, Gruyère or Emmental would work well. Stretchy cheeses like Mozzarella will give you a nice cheese pull. 

Accompaniments – some traditionalists may shirk adding anything else to their grilled cheese, but I think certain additions can really elevate the sandwich. My personal favourites include:

  • Kimchi – the spicy and pickled notes provide a lovely contrast to the cheese. Goes well with harder cheeses, like Cheddar or Red Leicester. 
  • Pickled red onions – add a vinegary sharp tang to cut through the richness of the cheese. This goes well with a nice creamy goat’s cheese.  
  • Caramelised onions – I love the sweet and savoury notes of onions that have been sweated down in a pan with oil, butter, sugar, salt and pepper until sticky and unctuous. Works well with blue cheeses in particular.  
  • A fruit jam or jelly – blackberry or grape is really tasty. This is great with soft white moulded cheese like Brie or Camembert. 
  • ‘Nduja – there’s not much that can’t be improved by the addition of this spicy spreadable salami.  

Serving suggestion – homemade tomato soup

5 tbsps olive oil
1-2 medium brown onion, finely chopped 
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped 
500g good quality tomatoes, roughly chopped and any tough cores removed
1 bay leaf
1 sprig of thyme, leaves picked from the stems 
400g can of good quality chopped tomatoes
1 tbsp tomato purée
1 litre of veg or chicken stock
1 tsp salt 
2 tsp sugar
Freshly ground black pepper
To finish – single cream; olive oil; basil leaves; sunflower or pumpkin seeds


Add 3 tablespoons of olive oil to a large heavy-based saucepan over a medium heat. When the oil starts to shimmer, add the chopped onion and turn the heat down slightly. Cook for about 5 minutes, stirring regularly to make sure the onions don’t burn. Add the chopped garlic and cook for a further 2 minutes. 

Then add your chopped fresh tomatoes, bay leaf, thyme leaves and cook for another 5 minutes, allowing the tomatoes to break down a little and release their juices. Add the tinned tomatoes, tomato purée, stock, salt, sugar and plenty of black pepper. Cook for 15-20 minutes until the soup has reduced slightly. Add 2 tablespoons of olive oil and blitz the soup with a stick blender until smooth. Taste for seasoning and adjust if needed. 

Serve the soup alongside your grilled cheese, with a swirl of single cream or more olive oil. Or you could sprinkle the soup with some chopped basil leaves or sunflower and pumpkin seeds to finish. 

Drinks pairings

You’ve got a lot of options when it comes to the perfect pairing. I usually have grilled cheese at lunchtime with a cup of my favourite brew – Yorkshire tea. However if you’re looking for something a little fancier, then a glass of your favourite fizz is the perfect drink to cut through the richness of the cheese – I like a Crémant de Loire.

Classic white wine pairings include a dry Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay or Riesling. Light to medium bodied red wines are a good option because you don’t want anything too heavy with such a rich dish. A Merlot or Pinot Noir would work well. 

With beer, it can depend on the cheese you’ve picked to go in your grilled cheese, but you can’t go wrong with an IPA or amber ale. 

Whatever you pair with a grilled cheese it is easy to see why this toasted sandwich has gained such an iconic status. Sometimes, with recipes, simplicity is key and there is no greater example of this than the grilled cheese sandwich.

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