We Tried 7 Ways to Make a Grilled Cheese and the Winner Was Abundantly Clear

published Apr 16, 2022
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Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

For me, there’s no food more nostalgic than a classic grilled cheese sandwich. The combination of melty cheese and crispy, buttery bread instantly stirs up blissful memories. The sandwich was (and remains) a go-to for easy lunches in my household, preferably paired with roasted tomato soup, or really just about any delicious soup.

When it comes to cooking grilled cheese, I instinctively reach for butter, as do many other home cooks. But is butter really the best? To find out, I experimented with many different fats to see which one created the ultimate grilled cheese — crispy, salty, melty, gooey, and cheesy. Here’s how it all went down.

So, What Is the Best Way to Make a Grilled Cheese?

My pursuit the best cooking fat for making grilled cheese resulted in a very tight race. I discovered benefits to several different methods. In the end, the best cooking fat for making grilled cheese is actually two fats combined: butter and mayonnaise. Read on to find out why this combination works so well and to learn more about other methods you might want to try. 

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

A Few Notes About Methodology 

Grilled Cheese Prep: In an effort to focus on how each of the cooking fats performed, I standardized all of the other elements. I used the same brand of pre-sliced white sandwich bread, the same kind of prepackaged yellow American cheese, the same stainless steel skillet, the same metal spatula, and the same cooking temperature (medium-low) for making each sandwich. I also used the same total amount of cooking fat — one tablespoon — per sandwich. For example, if it was just one ingredient, like softened butter, I used one tablespoon total. If the method involved both butter and olive oil, I used 1/2 tablespoon of each. 

Method: To make each grilled cheese, I heated the skillet to medium-low, spread (or brushed) 1/2 tablespoon of the cooking fat on one side of a slice of bread, and put it into the hot skillet, fat-side down. I immediately put two slices of cheese on it, and popped a lid on the skillet. Meanwhile, I spread the other 1/2 tablespoon of cooking fat on one side of another slice of bread. Once the cheese started to melt (after about three or four minutes), I removed the lid, placed the second slice of bread on the cheese, fat-side up, and immediately flipped the sandwich with a spatula. I continued cooking the grilled cheese uncovered until the cheese was completely melted and the bread was golden brown, about two to three minutes. 

Rating: Methods were rated primarily on the crispiness of the bread and the meltiness of the cheese. Other significant determinants of each of the ratings included whether or not the bread burned, and of course, the overall flavor, with the goal being a rich, toasty, slightly salty flavor that allowed the taste of the cheese to shine through.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

Grilled Cheese Cooking Method: Mayonnaise

Rating: 5/10

About this method: Many cooks online have begun advocating cooking a grilled cheese in mayo rather than butter, so I had to put this to the test.  To make this grilled cheese, I followed the method described above, using 1/2 tablespoon of mayonnaise spread directly on each side the bread (for a total of 1 tablespoon).  

Results: This was, without a doubt, the most disappointing method of the bunch. It’s worth noting that I actually love mayonnaise, which made this failure even more of a bummer. The flavor of the grilled cheese was kind of blah (surprising since I like a grilled cheese with mayo inside), the bread was barely crisp, and it had the most lackluster browning of all the methods.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

Grilled Cheese Method: Butter 

Rating: 6.5/10

About this method: I stuck to the basics with this method. I followed the steps described above, spreading one side of each slice of bread with 1/2 tablespoon of softened unsalted butter. 

Results: This method is arguably the most common for making grilled cheese — and it’s the way I’ve always cooked grilled cheese myself. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t amazing either. The butter made the bread brown before the cheese had a chance to melt, and I actually set my smoke alarm off making the sandwich. Granted, my alarm may be sensitive, but I could definitely see wisps of smoke coming from the pan before I removed the lid. This wasn’t super surprising, though, since butter on its own tends to burn easily. All in all, this method produced a sandwich that tasted good, but I had to deduct points for the overcooked bread and the smoky situation. 

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

Grilled Cheese Method: Olive Oil

Rating: 7/10

About this method: While olive oil is common in a lot of kitchens, it’s not what most people reach for when cooking grilled cheese. One of the main draws for using olive oil is that it helps with browning but doesn’t burn as easily as butter.

Results: The browning on this grilled cheese was great! The olive oil helped give both sides of the bread a lovely amount of crispiness, the cheese melted nicely, and there was a faint olive oil taste, but it wasn’t overpowering. Although the flavor was great, it was a bit one dimensional, and therefore this wasn’t the most interesting of all the sandwiches.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

Grilled Cheese Method: Bacon Fat

Rating: 7.5/10

About this method: Bacon fat is a great bonus that comes along with a pan full of crispy, delicious bacon. Many cooks stash the flavorful fat for cooking up eggs or veggies, but I thought, why not try it for grilled cheese?

To do so, I simply laid bacon on a rack set over a rimmed baking sheet and baked it at 425˚ F for about 20 minutes. (You can also cook bacon on the stove in a skillet, but I am less likely to set off my temperamental smoke alarm with I cook it in the oven!) I simply poured the rendered fat from the baking sheet into a bowl and let it cool until it solidified.

When it was time to make the grilled cheese, I spread the bacon fat onto the bread and proceeded as described above for the other methods, letting the sandwich cook until the cheese was melted and the bread was golden brown.

Results: This method was tasty! The bacon fat made the bread nice and toasty and golden, and it didn’t burn at all. Additionally, the salty, smoky bacon fat adds a little extra flavor to the bread, which is great.

The only possible downside to this method is that it does require making bacon. So, as an added test, I made a sandwich with jarred pork fat (aka lard), and while that sandwich was fine, it lacked the salty, smoky goodness of the one cooked in bacon grease.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

Grilled Cheese Method: Coconut Oil

Rating: 8/10

About this method: While you rarely see a grilled cheese recipe that calls for cooking in coconut oil, I was curious to try this fat, especially because, like butter, it’s solid at room temperature. To test it, I spread refined coconut oil onto the bread with a butter knife, and followed the same cooking method as the other sandwiches.

Results: This method shocked me — in the best possible way. The coconut oil created the most beautiful browning on the bread. Additionally, the cheese melted very nicely and there wasn’t even a faint taste of coconut. Like the olive oil, the coconut oil performed well and made for a very photogenic sandwich, but the flavor was lacking a little something extra. It didn’t taste coconutty, but it didn’t taste really rich and salty either.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

Grilled Cheese Method: Olive Oil & Butter

Rating: 9/10

About this method:  Using a combination of olive oil and butter is one of the many amazing tips from Ina Garten I’ve picked up over the years. Ina encourages using a mix of butter and olive oil because butter adds a rich flavor to dishes while the olive oil helps prevent the butter from burning. I applied this same logic to the traditional grilled cheese and was eager to see how it would turn out. I first brushed the bread with olive oil and then spread the softened butter on with a butter knife, then followed the cooking method outlined above. 

Results: Let’s just say Ina has never let me down! This combination was truly great on many fronts. The bread browned excellently without burning, and there was no smoking from the pan. The cheese melted amazingly and was nearly oozing from the sides — that’s a good thing, by the way. And the mixture of olive oil and butter had a delicious flavor with just the right amount of richness and saltiness.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

Grilled Cheese Method: Butter & Mayonnaise 

Rating: 10/10

About this method: Many proponents, including Bon Appétit, The Modern Proper, and Tasty, claim that this combination of fats makes for the most delicious grilled cheese, so I had to put it to the test. To try it out, I spread one side of each slice of bread with equal parts softened butter and mayonnaise, and then followed the same process I used for the rest of the sandwiches.

Results: The rumors are true. This grilled cheese had the best of everything. The bread was perfectly browned, but it didn’t brown too quickly, so the cheese had time to melt beautifully. The flavor was delicious and multidimensional — the mayonnaise wasn’t too “mayo-y,” but it gave the bread a nice richness. The butter flavor came through well and didn’t taste scorched. Overall, this combo made for a truly fantastic sandwich — it’s definitely my new go-to.