5 Best Cheeses for Grilled Cheese
As tomato season makes way for tomato soup season, we turn our attention to tomato soup’s favorite culinary companion: grilled cheese.
Bread and melted cheese are foundational components of meals throughout the world, from Welsh rarebit to French croque madames, Swiss fondue and Georgian khachapuri, not to mention the universally beloved pizza.
Grilled cheese as we know it in the United States, arguably the perfect combination of cheese melted between two griddled slices of bread, has been around since the Great Depression. It was the popularity of such sandwiches, in fact, that gave rise to the industrial production of American cheese singles, a processed cheese product designed for easy assembly and a high degree of meltability.
When it comes to choosing the best cheese for a top-notch grilled cheese sandwich, meltability is indeed a key consideration, and due to variations in production techniques, certain cheeses melt better than others. Flavor, however, is another factor when it comes to making a great grilled cheese, one that is often overlooked. With both meltability and flavor in mind, here are the five best cheeses to use for your next grilled cheese.
From pizza to mozzarella sticks, we already know what mozzarella is capable of when it comes to epic cheese pulls. Mozzarella cheese is a style of fresh Italian cheese known as “pasta filata,” meaning “stretched curd,” which is the key to mozzarella’s extreme meltability. Unlike other fresh cheeses such as chèvre or feta, mozzarella curds are heated and pulled to create mozzarella’s signature bulb shape. It's because of this heating and stretching of the curds that enables mozzarella to stretch when heat is applied again. In short, mozzarella has muscle memory for stretching. Because it doesn’t get aged like other cheese types, mozzarella has a fresh, milky flavor, perfect as a blank slate for adding a variety of flavorful components to your grilled cheese sandwiches.
Pro Tip: Consider a blend of cheeses for making grilled cheese sandwiches. Any cheese can melt successfully when combined with a top-tier melter such as the cheeses on this list.
Bloomy rind cheeses such as brie are young, small-format cheeses that ripen quickly, typically in a matter of weeks, before they become available for purchase. Brie is one of the most popular and readily available examples of a bloomy rind cheese. These types of cheese continue to ripen for several weeks from the outside in, developing a creamline — the recognizable gooey layer between the delicate outer rind and the sturdier, internal paste. The longer a bloomy rind cheese ripens, the oozier the creamline becomes, and therein lies its perfection for grilled cheese. It's basically already melting before you even apply heat!
Bloomy rind cheeses can range from rich and buttery to earthy and vegetal, so you can choose accordingly based on your personal flavor preferences.
Related reading: 5 Major Cheese Styles Every Chef Should Know
If you’ve ever watched videos of cheese being scraped directly from a wheel of cheese onto an awaiting plate of potatoes and ham, then you already know that Alpine-style cheeses, such as those listed above, are prized for their meltability. (Raclette actually comes from the French verb “racler” which means “to scrape.”) These are also the cheeses used for fondues and French onion soups, so it follows that they are also some of the best options for gooey grilled cheese sandwiches.
Like the aforementioned mozzarella, the meltability of these Alpine cheeses also comes from being heat-treated during their production process. Curds are gently heated after formation so that they are homogenous during the aging process. When heat finds them again, that melting muscle memory allows them to stretch beautifully.
What’s more, these are some of the boldest, most flavorful cheeses making them ideal for packing a punch in your grilled cheese. Alpine cheeses are typically made from raw milk and are only produced in the summer months of the year when cows are allowed to free graze on high Alpine pastures. The resulting flavors can be beefy, herbaceous and even oniony. Want to take your sandwich to the next level? Add caramelized onions to make French onion soup in grilled cheese form.
Pro tip: Always grate your cheese fresh from whole pieces when making grilled cheese. Pre-grated cheeses often have preservatives to prevent clumping in the bag, which can interfere with the melting process.
Gouda’s calling card is that its curds are rinsed after being formed to drain off any excess whey, resulting in a cheese with less available lactic acid and therefore a sweeter flavor profile. While aged gouda starts to get crumbly and granular with age, gouda comes in a wide variety of flavors and ages, and young gouda still has the creaminess and meltability that makes it desirable for grilled cheese sandwiches.
The sweetness of gouda lends itself well to blending with other cheeses for complex flavors, including crafting grilled cheeses with dessert-like qualities. Chocolate and cheese anyone?
Related recipe: Ultimate Grilled Cheese Sandwich
Yes, that American cheese. While the phrase “American cheese” is moving further away from being only associated with processed, individually wrapped singles, there’s still a case to be made for a cheese product whose sole purpose in life is to melt gracefully. American cheese is not typically made with actual cheese cultures, but a processed combination of actual cheese, additional dairy, salt and emulsifiers.
You may notice that cheddar cheese didn’t make this list, the reason being that the process of making cheddar — especially high-quality, traditional cheddar — results in a cheese that is better for crumbling and snacking than melting, but American cheese often brings the cheddar element into the equation while maintaining the gooeyness you want for the signature grilled cheese pull-apart moment.
Be on the lookout for a new movement in American cheese, where brands such as New School Quality American Cheese are bringing a more flavor-forward, artisanal approach to the humble category.