How to Build the Perfect Grilled Cheese (And Pick the Perfect Bourbon to Wash it Down)

Tartine Manufactory Grilled Cheese Sandwich with Cowgirl Creamery Wagon Wheel, Mornay, Asparagus, Mint, Fava Greens & Spring Onions on Tartine Country Bread.
Tartine Manufactory Grilled Cheese Sandwich with Cowgirl Creamery Wagon Wheel, Mornay, Asparagus, Mint, Fava Greens & Spring Onions on Tartine Country Bread.

A grilled cheese is unequivocally good on a number of occasions. It’s the perfect food for watching golf on TV in the middle of the day on your couch. It’s a delight when you’re hungover. It’s the right thing to do when you need comfort after a rough day at work.

You can throw slices of American cheese on Wonder Bread and everything will be fine, but there are much better ways to go about building this wondrous sando. We asked experts Christa Chase, Executive Chef of Tartine Manufactory in San Francisco, and Hunter Pritchett, executive chef and partner of Atrium in Los Angeles, to break down the basics of making a far-from-basic grilled cheese.

1. Start with the right bread.

If you start with the wrong building blocks, you’re going to get the wrong results. When asked what the secret is to making a great grilled cheese sandwich, Chase answered simply: “Great bread!” No dry old slices. Try just a little harder. “Any bread with an airy crumb will do, I am partial to a Pepperidge Farm Texas toast, or an artisan Pullman loaf,” says Pritchett. “The key is to pick a bread cut thick enough to get a 1/4″ golden brown crust and still maintain a steamy interior—it’s all about the contrast.”

2. Make it fatty.

According to Chase, the worst thing you can do when making a grilled cheese is not using enough fat when toasting the sandwich. At Tartine Manufactory, it is law to use melted butter for that toasting. Follow the law.

3. Get creative with cheeses.

Chase’s go-to cheese is Cowgirl Creamery’s Wagon Wheel, which is excellent if you have access to it. For those outside the Bay Area, there are plenty of other options. “I like a classic American cheese slice or three,” says Pritchett. “If I am feeling fancy or pairing with some good wine I’ll use a mix of gruyere and Cabot sharp cheddar, or sometimes a super oozy Raclette with cornichons and shaved yukon gold potatoes.” Experiment with your cheeses. Run wild.

4. Don’t burn it.

Eager home cooks may jack up their stove temp to get their grilled cheeses going faster. This is a grave error. “The most common mistake I see is grilling over high heat,” says Prichett. “This almost always leads to burnt bread and hard, unmelted cheese.” Instead, delay gratification and cook your sandwich with patience. “To make a great grilled cheese, my favorite trick is to griddle both sides of the bread in salted butter, low and slow, to maximize the golden brown crust and concentrate the fluffy interior,” Prichett says.

5. Pair it with bourbon

Once your grilled cheese is cooked and ready to eat, pull out the right bourbon to go with it. “If I chose a bourbon with grilled cheese, I would consider a high rye content bourbon,” says Julian Cox, director of bar operations and development for Tartine. “I love the dryness and spice in this type of bourbon and I believe it lends itself to toasty bread and luscious cheese.” Cox recommends Four Roses Small Batch, or Hirsch 8-Year Small Batch.

Over at Atrium, beverage director and partner Jordan Young would opt for Noah’s Mill for his bourbon pairing. “The bourbon has nice spice and smoke notes with seasoned oak, toasted pecan, and notes of cream and caramel,” he says. “The oaky to creamy combination that Noah’s Mill provides plays really well with a sharp cheddar or American cheese—also, the crispy buttered brown crust that you bite into will play well with the finish of the bourbon and make you want to take another sip.”