What’s Allowed in a Grilled Cheese Sandwich?

Are you a grilled cheese purist? Cheese, bread and butter. Or can a grilled cheese include ham? Or tomato? Or ham and tomato? Let’s investigate what makes a grilled cheese a grilled cheese.

What can be in a grilled cheese sandwich and still have it be called a grilled cheese sandwich?

What defines a grilled cheese? 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?,” 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 to another kind of sandwich. The key about a grilled cheese is that the cheese should be the super 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 melts not grilled cheese sandwiches. (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 still the star. Then you should be fine.

That’s just my humble opinion though. The Wisconsin Grilled Cheese Academy (OMG, this is actually a thing! My dream job.) 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 winner was the Sports Bar, which features sourdough bread, Gorgonzola and mozzarella. It also has Sriracha barbecue chicken. Yum.

Need some other ideas for extra ingredients? 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, 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.