How do you make a perfect sandwich even better? One word: mayonnaise.

Specifically, leave the butter in the refrigerator and, instead, slather your bread with mayo before cooking. I learned this trick years ago from Gabrielle Hamilton, chef-owner of New York’s beloved Prune, when we volunteered to teach a kid’s cooking class, and it has never failed to deliver. Butter has a tendency to burn and scorch before the cheese inside melts. You’ve been there. I’ve been there. It’s not a happy place. But because mayo is mostly oil, it works to “fry” the bread to a perfect, crisp, golden brown when it hits the pan. Plus, mayo spreads on easily right out of the jar, unlike butter, which has to soften first.

Butter has a tendency to burn and scorch before the cheese inside melts.

Start with a crusty sourdough, sliced ½ to ¾ inch thick, to provide some tang and chew. As for the cheese, I like American, a sharp cheddar, a nutty Swiss — or even better, a mix of these.

If you want to one-up the perfect, here’s another trick, this one from food writer Ruth Reichl: Grate a dry cheese like parmesan or aged cheddar, but don’t put it inside the sandwich — sprinkle it on the mayo’ed side of the bread before cooking. The cheese will melt, fry in its own fat, then crisp up into a crunchy crust. You heard me right: grilled cheese with a crisp cheese crust. It’s so delicious it might make your childhood memories of grilled cheese obsolete.

Perfect Grilled Cheese

  • 2 slices of good bread, ½–¾ inch thick
  • 3 oz cheese, grated or thinly sliced
  • Mayonnaise, as needed

1. Heat a large sauté pan, preferably nonstick, over medium heat.

2. Meanwhile, spread mayonnaise on one side of each slice of bread, enough to cover it from edge to edge.

3. When the sauté pan is hot, place the bread mayo-side down in the pan. (Open-faced cooking helps the cheese melt faster and more evenly.)

4. Divide the cheese over the tops of the bread, and cook until the bread is nicely browned and the cheese has melted, about 4 minutes. (If the bread browns faster than the cheese melts, cover the pan for a minute or two.)

5. Press together slices, cheese facing in, and eat.

Optional: Before cooking, scatter 1 to 1½ tbsp grated parmesan or aged cheddar over the mayo side of each slice of bread. Cook according to directions above until pan-side cheese is crisp and browned.

Take This Sandwich To the Next Level

For some variety, mix your cheese with one of these before cooking.

  • 2 forkfuls of sauerkraut
  • A handful of raw, shredded spinach, chard, or kale
  • Sliced pickled peppers
  • 1 tbsp finely chopped white or green onion
  • A drizzle of hot sauce