Warning: American cheese has no place in this story.
While it’s hard to deny the melty perfection of a diner-style grilled cheese sandwich made with slices of American cheese or even Kraft singles, most experts happen to think American cheese is pure garbage.
But there are professionals who truly know how to turn cheese into magic. When you meet such a person, you should listen to them carefully. We did just that, asking three legendary cheese experts to tell us, in their opinion, the best cheeses for a grilled cheese sandwich.
1. Medium cheddar. This is the mic-drop classic, as far as I’m concerned. Melty, delicious, and with that perfect pull-apart gooeyness. Tillamook is my personal favorite. Aged cheddars are great too, but don’t melt quite as well.
2. Fontina. Another beautifully melting cow milk cheese, fontinas range from mild to stinky so there’s one to suit everybody’s taste. I like the stinkier ones (melting cuts the stink, by the way) and like to add a little minced sage and some prosciutto to my fontina grilled cheese.
3. Monterey or Sonoma Jack. Jacks are mild cow milk cheeses and are particularly good for mixing with a stronger-flavored cheese in a grilled cheese (like blue cheese, or Parmesan) so you can get a more interesting flavor but still have a gooey melty texture. Use mostly Monterey Jack and sprinkle on a couple teaspoons of your favorite blue cheese or hard grating cheese on top of Jack for something unique.
4. Gouda. Gouda is one of the world’s oldest known cheeses, and one of the best for grilled cheese. Straight up red-wax gouda (which is young) is fine, but I recommend trying some of the wide variety of variations … smoked gouda, gouda with cumin, goat milk gouda. Aged gouda takes a little longer to melt (it’s harder) so keep the flame low to not burn your bread, but it’s worth trying if you can find it. In the U.S., Marieke Gouda makes some of the best gouda around.
5. Comte. Comte is an unpasteurized French cow’s milk cheese eaten straight or made into fondue. It’s firm and rich, with buttery tones. Try it with a smear of dijon mustard on a sturdy country loaf.
6. Boschetto al Tartufo. This is a specific cheese, and other truffled Italian cheeses are great too, but this one has cow and sheep’s milks and melts beautifully; it’s available nationwide in Whole Foods’ cheese dept. I like it in a grilled cheese with thick-sliced smoked bacon and some fresh snipped chives on ciabatta bread.
7. Gruyere and Emmental (lumping together because they are similar). Cheeses traditionally used in dishes similar to grilled cheese are always good options, and gruyere and emmental are both used in Croque-Monsieur (or -Madame), a strong hint you’re on the right track. These can be pretty firm cheeses, so grate them before adding to your sandwich to facilitate melting. If you find the flavor a little strong, mix them with a milder cheese, like Jack or havarti.
8. Toma. Toma is a traditional semi-soft cow milk cheese made in Northern Italy. Flavor varies by producer, but it’s creamy and mild, and a great melter. Point Reyes Creamery in California makes a particularly good version of Toma.
9. Havarti. Creamy havarti is another good one to pair with other cheeses; it is relatively soft and buttery, very mild, and children (or people who don’t like any stink in their cheeses) will love it. It melts easily. Try some of the flavored havartis (like dill) for variety.
10. Raclette. This is Swiss cheese you see used in a traditional Swiss dish (and device) also called “raclette” ― you melt the surface of the cheese in front of a fire and scrape it onto bread or potatoes. Of course it’s perfect for melting in a grilled cheese too. It’s got a “Swiss cheese”-type flavor, but more sophisticated.
Beecher Dammeier is the founder, CEO and executive chef at Beecher’s Handmade Cheese, which launched in Seattle and has locations nationwide.