Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Sidecar: The Best Grilled Cheese

I am a vegetarian who doesn't like lettuce, rarely likes salad, and loves to eat at diners. This means I know a lot about grilled cheese. I say the following with confidence:

The best grilled cheese is not made at home. Oh, go ahead and argue this -- your grandma made the best grilled cheese with tomato soup. Well, maybe so, but in general, really good grilled cheese (see definition below) is not made in personal kitchens. Why? For several reasons:

The best grilled cheese has a crispy outer crust and a soft, bready interior. This is achieved by searing bread on a hot, greasy grill, and it is achieved by cooks with access to melted butter, a brush, and absolutely no compunction about using it lavishly. Most home-cooks who make grilled cheese actually make something closer to a toasted cheese sandwich, by definition, where any color changes on the bread are a result of heat but not, sadly, the kind of frying that comes from a hot, greasy, diner-type flat grill.

The best grilled cheese has a gooey, thick, but not overpowering cheese center. There are two pitfalls that home cooks make here: not the right amount of cheese and not the right kind of cheese.

The right amount of cheese is key: Diners often get this right, while home cooks get this wrong, because diners have a pre-set amount of cheese that has to go in each sandwich -- and because institutionally purchased cheese is in different shapes than the cheese one buys for home use. Triangles are more common in diners than they are at home, where cheese is mostly bought in blocks or squares. So a diner chef can construct a cheese sandwich where the melting happens to the inside, thus enabling placing the edges of the corners closer to the actual corner of the bread. You get cheese in every bite! Try this at home with a square piece of cheese, and you get an unpleasant dead space where cheese doesn't lie. Grilled cheese fail. The average diner grilled cheese uses about 4 triangles, in some arrangement that makes a perfect square.

Beyond that, home cooks often do one of two things: following that same "oh that's too much butter!" walk of dietary shame, or perhaps out of a keen understanding of the cost of cheese, they skimp on cheese and/or try to make a sandwich with only one slice. Boo. In the other direction, when cooking for yourself, I think the tendency is to overestimate your love of cheese and go crazy. That sounds like a good idea, but then what you get is a cheese sandwich where the bread is only handles -- the crispy, buttery bread is overwhelmed by the gooey cheese (which will also, in large quantities, become difficult to chew and stick to the roof of the mouth in large, cooling clumps. Not ideal).

The right kind of cheese for a standard grilled cheese sandwich is American cheese. This is not to say that very, very good sandwiches can't be made with cheddar, with havarti, with muenster -- whatever. Those are certainly grilled cheese sandwiches. They just aren't standards. If you order a cheeseburger, and it comes out made with ground chicken -- you'd be surprised, right? Likewise, the standard cheese for grilled cheese is American. There's a reason for this: American cheese was basically constructed for exactly this purpose. It has a strong, specific yellow cheese flavor and it melts extremely well. It also stays melty for a long time after heating.

The nearest competitor for this, and probably the one used most at home, is cheddar cheese. Just because a cheese is yellow doesn't mean it can be used interchangeably! Cheddar cheese's specific melting properties actually don't make it an ideal cheese for this sandwich; it needs more heat, for longer, than American cheese does to melt, and once melted, it cools quickly into a chewy-textured mass that will, if left alone long enough, break apart. That does not make for a satisfying eating experience. Also? Cheddar cheese loses flavor when it's melted, because a lot of the fat in the cheese escapes as grease. Sure, some of it will escape into your bread (making it more likely to be soggy), but some of it will escape onto your plate or hands, and you'll be soon eating a chewy mass that lacks flavor surrounded by a soggy mess of bread. Yum? NO.

The best grilled cheese is on plain, white bread. I will fight to the death those that believe a good grilled cheese sandwich can be made on crusty whole-wheat bread. Toasting good quality wheat breads results in toasting the tiny nuts and wheat berries and seeds that lie within them, and that results in these painfully hard bits of burnt dotting the entire endeavor. When you bit into a grilled cheese sandwich, the crunch of the crust should give way, quickly, to a smooth, expected softness -- not a minefield of wheat shrapnel.

Likewise, any kind of flavored bread is a trick being played against the cheese. It's injecting flavors that may be good, but are not standard, and are certain to distract from the main event. The one exception I'll make to this is that a very mild sourdough can work -- butter, cheese, and heat will beat the sourness into a near-white bread taste, anyway.

Finally, put down the artisan bread and the Texas Toast. The thick crust of peasant loaves that's so lovely when sopping up olive oil is only going to turn into a wall of hard, mouth-cutting despair when grilled. Texas Toast seems like a good idea -- more bread for your buck! In reality, however, that toast requires you to cook it on both sides before it can be used in a sandwich (time-consuming), and it's a flat-out pain to cook because it prevents heat from reaching the cheese in a timely manner -- unless you smash the toast, which defeats the purpose entirely. Save a dollar, buy the store-brand white bread, and you'll make out fine.

So, now that we've established the basics, who does this well in Eugene? My champion (to date) is Buddy's Diner on Coburg. Yes, they break a rule and use sourdough, but it's generally Sourdough in Name Only once it's been hit with butter and melty American cheese. The sandwich here is always perfectly grilled, crunchy on the outside, so gooey on the inside that it makes strings when you pull the halves apart. With a side of crinkle-cut fries, this has long been one of my standard pick-me-up meals in Eugene.

Deb's on Franklin and the short-lived Big O Diner in that same space both made very good diner grilled cheese sandwiches, too, but neither of these places are still open for business. (The new place, The Green Olive, has grilled cheese on the menu, and I'd give it a seven out of 10 right now; I think they baited and switched my American order for cheddar on my first visit).

Many other places offer grilled cheese. I've had and enjoyed the Smoked Tillamook Cheddar grilled cheese at the upstairs EMU coffee shop a few times. It's a good variation, but make sure to order on anything but their berry-heavy wheat bread (and be prepared to wait up to 15 minutes for your order to be completed at lunch). Villard Street used to make (and still will, usually, on request) a grilled cheese sandwich with tomatoes and a hint of garlic that worked as a dinner entree as well as pub food. Yet when I want grilled cheese, real grilled cheese, that follows the rules and satisfies my specific, snooty craving, I go diner. And I don't regret it.

Anyone have good grilled cheese suggestions? I'm all ears.

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