If you were to scroll down to the bottom of the post to my bio, you'd see a portrait of a champion grilled cheese burner.
Maybe it's just grilled cheese incompetence or (more likely) impatience, but I will burn a sandwich at least 66% of the time I pull out the white bread and grated cheese. It's a shame, too, because January is prime grilled cheese season. What with temperatures still (ugh) dipping below freezing on the reg, I'm firmly entrenched in comfort food mode. I want to eat meals that include soups, bread, butter and cheese all day long.
My failures are happening despite the internet's attempt, back in 2010 (or so) to save me. It was then that food writers started to "discover" a new grilled cheese trick: using mayonnaise instead of butter to fry grilled cheese. New York chef Gabrielle Hamilton helped to popularize this method, which spread like relative wildfire across blogs and newspaper food sections alike. Mayonnaise, it was said, would produce a crisper crust with less burning and more melty cheese goodness.
But now, with the wisdom that time brings, let's revisit this grilled cheese trick. Is mayonnaise really better than butter? What are the benefits and drawbacks to each method? Is there room for an even more perfect technique?
Butter brings flavor
The biggest benefit butter is flavor, dairy-rich and ever-so-slightly salty. (You are using salted butter for grilled cheese, right?) Butter is the best way to cover up any, let's say, plasticky flavors from melty American cheese, and it complements the nutty notes of sharp cheddar. And the gently browned butter fused to the exterior of the bread is obviously delicious.
Butter-fried grilled cheese is also a great way to show off your temperature-control skills. In order to get that perfectly browned and crisp exterior in conjunction with melty, strechy cheese, you'll need to keep a close eye on the sandwich, and adjust the heat as needed, to keep all those tasty milk solids in the butter from burning. If you can make the perfect buttery grilled cheese every time, you're a better cook than me.
This brings us to the biggest benefit of slathering your bread with mayonnaise before frying — it simply doesn't burn as easily.
The ingredients in storebought mayonnaise have a higher smoke point than butter, which means your grilled cheese lunch is more foolproof. You can cook the sandwich over (slightly) higher heat for a crisper exterior and fluffier interior. Yep, you read that correctly: a fluffier interior. Often, the low-and-slow cooking method required with butter will dry out the bread too much, especially if you're using a fancier bread with fewer bread conditioners and stabilizers.
That ultra-crisp crust is due to more than just a more carefree cooking temperature. All true mayonnaises contain eggs, which, with their added protein, contribute to even more golden brown deliciousness.
Another bonus? Mayonnaise is also way easier to spread across your bread. Unless you keep a stick of butter at room temperature at all times, (um, me), you'll have to wait for butter to soften or to zap in the microwave before getting to the good part of assembling and cooking your sandwich.
An even more delicious compromise?
Still, we concede that the flavor of browned mayonnaise will never really beat butter. If you need the best of both worlds — who doesn't? — use both. Spread mayo over the outside of the sandwich and then add a small tab of butter to the skillet before you drop in the sammy. Add more butter when you flip for best results. Yep, you'll need to keep an eye on the sandwich as it cooks, but when you're looking for perfection, you really won't mind a tiny bit more work, right?
Put your favorite technique to the test with these recipes:
Southern Kitchen's Perfect Grilled Cheese
Fontina and Fig Chutney Grilled Cheese Bites
Grilled Blue Cheese & Proscuitto Sandwich
Photo (Grilled Cheese Bites): Lisa Lotts
Photo (Unsliced Grilled Cheese): Mack Male/Flickr (license)
Photo (Soup and Grilled Cheese): Ramona King