When is a Grilled Cheese Sandwich No Longer a Grilled Cheese Sandwich

What ingredients are allowed in a grilled cheese sandwich? Ready, set, DEBATE!

A close up of a grilled sandwich. The top bread has even grill marks. Below it is a slice of tomato, a leaf of lettuce, two folded slices of ham and then melted cheese. The words "What's allowed in a grilled cheese sandwich" are overlayed onto the image.

What defines a grilled cheese sandwich? Is it limited to bread, cheese and butter? Or can you add an ingredient or two and still keep the sandwich’s integrity? I know, it’s a pressing question, ranking right up there with, “What’s the meaning of life?” (which we all know is 42!) but when does a grilled cheese stop being a grilled cheese and become a hot sandwich?

We’ll start with a quick history lesson. People have always enjoyed the greatness of a grilled cheese. It’s been around in some form since ancient times. The version we all love and eat was introduced in America during the 1920s. It became a staple during the Depression because it was a cheap meal.

You, of course, can add anything you want to a sandwich, but there are some generally accepted guidelines that define a grilled cheese.

First, it must have two pieces of bread. And it must contain cheese. You pick the type of bread and cheese, so that gives you room for lots of creativity. It must be cooked until the cheese is melted and the bread is golden brown. The sandwich is always best served hot.

Can you add other ingredients? Sure you can. I love some tomato slices or a bit of bacon in my grilled cheese. How about adding some nice corned beef. And oh, I love sauerkraut with corned beef. Let’s do that! Oh wait….that’s not a grilled cheese. That’s a Reuben!

See, the thing is, you can add stuff to a grilled cheese but at some point it goes from grilled cheese to panini, or it becomes another kind of sandwich entirely. The key to a grilled cheese is that the cheese should be the star. If you’ve added honey glazed peaches or hoisin pulled pork, chances are the cheese is no longer the shining glory, and you therefore no longer have yourself a grilled cheese.

I’m not going to tell you what you can and can’t put in a grilled cheese but if you add more than one extra thing and if that thing is in abundance and really flavorful, to me you’ve strayed out of the land of grilled cheese and into the land of melts. Melts are good. They’re grilled sandwiches with several ingredients, one of which is melted cheese. But a melt is not the same thing as a grilled cheese sandwich (in actuality, methinks “grilled cheese” is a subset of the class “melt” such that all grilled cheese sandwiches are melts but all melts are not grilled cheese sandwiches).

My advice: If you call it a grilled cheese, make sure the cheese is the main ingredient and that there isn’t much else going on. Then you should be fine.

That’s just my humble opinion though. The Wisconsin Grilled Cheese Academy (OMG, this is actually a thing! I want to go to there!) has a different take on grilled cheese sandwiches; they add lots of extras. Since Wisconsin is the dairy capital and since I lived there and saw firsthand the intense adoration of cheese, I’m going to allow their vision of a grilled cheese to stand alongside mine.

Every year, the Academy holds a grilled cheese sandwich challenge. The winner takes home $15,000. That can make a lot of sandwiches. Last year’s winning sandwich was The Sports Bar, which features sourdough bread, Gorgonzola and mozzarella. It also has Sriracha barbecue chicken.

Some other sandwiches from their site: The Picante features Jalapeno cheddar cheese bread (extra points for cheese in the bread), pepperjack and cheddar cheeses, chorizo, peppers and corn salsa. Or try The Mahalo, with chipolte jack, cheddar and pork belly on pretzel rolls.

OK, these sandwiches don’t sound much like a classic grilled cheese as definted by me above, but if the fine state of Wisconsin approves, then who am I to argue?

Although really, deep down, we all know that I’m right.

Amy Bowen

Amy had no clue how to cook until she became the food reporter for a daily newspaper in Minnesota. At 25, she even struggled with boxed mac and cheese. These days, Amy is a much better cook, thanks to interviewing cooks and chefs for more than 10 years. She even makes four cheese macaroni and cheese with bacon, no boxed mac in sight. Amy is also on the editorial team at The Cookful.