Whether you prefer an unadulterated grilled cheese with American cheese and plain sandwich bread or a more elaborate creation, the perfect sandwich retains the contrast of succulent, gooey cheese with crisp, grilled bread. Experiment with combinations of bread, cheese and additional ingredients when you want to elevate the humble grilled cheese into something extraordinary.

Your preference in a grilled cheese sandwich might be one with evenly golden bread or a preparation with some flavorful black char around the edges of the bread. No matter which kind of sandwich you like, some common rules apply:

  • Don’t try to spread cold butter on the bread — it’s impossible to do without tearing the bread. Soften the butter in the microwave before spreading it, either for just a few seconds or by melting it completely. 
  • Find just the right medium temperature on your stovetop, and adjust the temperature during cooking. It’s better to cook your sandwich too slowly than to completely burn the bread.
  • Follow the lead of culinary consultant Marc Matsumoto, writing on the PBS website, and apply some weight atop your sandwich with a pie plate during cooking to help ensure that the bread browns evenly.

Expand your horizons by trying new cheeses and blends of different cheeses to find your own idea of grilled cheese perfection:

  • Instead of generic Swiss cheese try an upscale or unusual cheese you haven’t tried before, such as Gruyere cheese imported from Switzerland.
  • Peggy Smith, co-author of Cowgirl Creamery Cooks, recommends that you combine a hard cheese with a soft cheese. She uses cheddar and Monterey Jack with fromage blanc, a cheese that resembles very thick sour cream, in her recipe from Sunset magazine.
  • Marc Matsumoto suggests grating cheese to speed up melting.

If you love the bread in your sandwich as much as the cheese, try some of these alternatives to plain sandwich bread:

  • Thick-cut French bread or sourdough bread both give you a crisp crust and a more airy bread than typical sandwich bread. Choose sourdough for an extra tang in your sandwich.
  • Slice a rustic, whole-grain loaf as thin or as thick as you like. These breads provide lots of texture and chew.
  • Experiment with different flavors, such as deeply flavored rye bread or intense and slightly sour pumpernickel for something really different.

Vegetables, fruits or other ingredients add flavor or texture or both to a grilled cheese. Add your favorite ingredients, or try these ideas:

  • Fruit. Slices of apple or pear work especially well because they hold their shape and add both flavor and crunch.
  • Vegetables. Try pickled onions, plain pickles, grated carrots, thinly sliced celery or even a mound of crunchy iceberg or romaine lettuce.
  • Flavorful ingredients. Experiment with olives, black or green; chutney of any flavor; fresh tomato slices; sun-dried tomatoes; or tapenade. 
  • Meat. Use country ham, pastrami, turkey or any bit of leftover meat you have on hand.
  • Unusual combinations. Small amounts of any ingredients you love can work in a grilled cheese sandwich, such as the one at the Fine Cooking website with mozzarella, Parmesan and ricotta cheeses; roasted asparagus; minced garlic; and chopped mint, basil and capers.