Sandwich Secrets

Discover the art and science behind the perfect grilled sandwich, the nuanced difference between a melt and grilled cheese, and why a diagonal cut elevates your sandwich experience.
a thanksgiving sandwich with delicate and secret ingredients

The Melt and Grilled Sandwiches

One excellent way to improve most sandwiches is to grill or griddle them, but there is an art to doing this properly. First, it is important to carefully assess what kind of sandwich you are making, since some ingredients may not heat well, specifically leafy green veggies, certain fruits, or pre-prepared proteins that are already fully cooked.

  • If you have none of these complicated ingredients, you can simply fry both sides of your bread in a pan, add your fillings and spreads, and put a cover on the pan over low heat.
  • If there are delicate additions, you’ll need to keep the halves of the bread and fillings apart until they finish cooking, before you add any heat sensitive ingredients.

Low heat and a cover are your friends when it comes to grilling sandwiches. They help you to have a sandwich with a consistent temperature throughout and it lets any cheese melt throughout all the other ingredients. Cheese’s full potential is reached through proper melting.

Note: It’s not that a plain cheese sandwich is bad by any stretch of the imagination, it’s just that if you’ve taken the time to improve it already by heating, it’s only natural to go the extra step and make it as delicious and balanced as possible.

The easiest ways to cut fat are to include a powerful spice, a light ingredient or an acid. The simplest option can be the inclusion of fresh black pepper or cayenne, a few chopped shallots or mushrooms, or some strong mustard. However, we are beginning to walk a delicate line that is subject to considerable debate; the difference between a grilled cheese sandwich and a melt. In general, a melt is defined as a sandwich with melted cheese and another type of protein such as bacon or tuna. Grilled cheese on the other hand is limited to cheese and a few spices or minor accents.

Grating some parmesan, mozzarella, and gruyere

Grating some parmesan, mozzarella, and gruyere onto this sandwich and melting it lovingly in a pan will give us an exceptional grilled cheese sandwich. But adding a slice of bacon? Likely a melt. It's all about experimenting and pushing boundaries in sandwich-making. It is only through this process that we develop new and interesting sandwiches, much in the same way that new musical genres are created by building off the identity of existing styles.

grated cheese for a sandwich

Panini, Air Fryers, and the Maillard Reaction

Within the category of melts alone, we see substantial variation as there are many different ways to heat bread. The panini is probably the most famous take on the melt, using a special ridged press to add a consistent grilled texture to the outside of the bread. In the US, there is also a different style of press normally called a “sandwich maker” that is intended to split square bread down the hypotenuse and seals the ingredients into a two-pocket sandwich.

It is also quite popular to toast buns with cheese on a charcoal grill when making cheeseburgers, though some cooks swear by the technique of letting the cheese melt on top of the burger patty, possibly for aesthetic reasons. One of the newer cooking tools in American kitchens is the air fryer; a forced-air heating unit that strongly resembles a toaster. Air-fried melts and grilled cheeses have a distinct and unique texture, as air fryers make use of the Maillard reaction to brown the exterior of the bread in a way that is different from a pan or other heating method.

Tip: One way to force a Maillard reaction in a grilled cheese is to apply mayonnaise to the outside of the bread. Press your sandwich into the pan while cooking it with a spatula.

Mayonnaise isn’t just useful for its browning properties; its greatest strength is as a spreadable oil layer. Many of the ingredients in sandwiches have different levels of moisture and one of the unfortunate properties of bread is that it gets soggy. You can see this when preparing hamburgers, as ground beef tends to push out quite a bit of fat and water when cooked. Often, the hamburgers aren’t fully cooled before being placed on a bun, and the remaining liquids go the only direction gravity will allow; into the lower bun.

If there is a generous helping of mayonnaise spread on the lower bun, this will trap most of the juice and keep your bun dryer for a more enjoyable dining experience. Butter can also work in this capacity or even a leaf of lettuce, but butter has the unfortunate property of melting into the bread, and lettuce before beef often just feels wrong when you take a bite of your hamburger. The reason for this is simple; lettuce has a very distinct texture from both the bun and the burger. When crafting the perfect bite, you want to ease into textures, placing similar ingredients in an order where they can blend together well.

The Diagonal Cut

It is well known that a sandwich cut diagonally tastes better. Why? Aesthetics, surface area, and texture variability. People do eat with their eyes, and the diagonal cut gives us a larger view of the internal ingredients in a sandwich. If you are planning on taking a photo of a sandwich, you can make use of the legendary double diagonal cut, where you also cut at a roughly 15-degree angle along the z-axis, to show off even more of the interior. The texture variability is probably the most scientific of the reasons why a diagonal cut tastes better, as a cut along the hypotenuse allows for a large soft and fluffy center bite and a few much firmer edge-crust bites.

Note: The diagonal cut is a small but significant process. Its prevalence across the world shows how even basic techniques can elevate a dish.

The diagonal cut has more to it than just the slice itself. At its core, it shows us how a small process can work its way into everything that we do. What is especially unusual is that diagonal cuts aren’t really mentioned in many cookbooks or other guides, yet the practice has been spread via independent experimentation and oral tradition around the entire world.

Other minor cooking discoveries, like using medium-low heat for scrambled eggs to reduce the odds of “weeping” or wet scrambled eggs or the simple brilliance of baking bacon in the oven to reduce oil splatter, create a base of experience which elevates the sandwich craft.

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