Grilled cheese seems like the perfect food. It’s easy to make, has few ingredients and sports a crispy crust and a warm, gooey, cheesy center. What’s not to love? How about the 410 calories and 18 grams of saturated fat per sandwich? I don’t love that. Grilled cheese can attribute its high fat and calories to the butter spread on the outside of the bread to make it crispy and the copious amounts of cheese in the middle. Pair that with a couple of slices of plain white bread and you have a nutritional disaster.
But do you really need all of that to make the perfect grilled cheese sandwich? No! Here are 5 secrets for how to make grilled cheese that saves calories and fat to boot.
1. Pick the right cheese: When it comes to grilled cheese, not all cheese is created equal. Some people love American cheese. It has superior melting qualities, but it falls short on flavor (not to mention that it’s not even really cheese to begin with). So skip mild-flavored cheeses and opt for ones with a stronger flavor—like sharp, or even extra-sharp, Cheddar. Like blue cheese? It’s also a great option. You’ll get more bang for your buck and because it’s big on flavor you won’t have to use as much, which helps cut fat and calories.
2. Think beyond cheese for flavor: OK, so cheese is a necessary ingredient. But you don’t have to have mounds of it to make the perfect grilled cheese sandwich. You can get that hit of soft melted loveliness that cheese contributes by using just a little—and mixing it with other ingredients like mashed beans or even salsa and hot chiles. They not only contribute their own unique flavor, but they help carry the benefits of the cheese, the salty ooey-gooey factor, without lots of fat and calories.
3. Choose better bread: Conjure an iconic image of grilled cheese in your mind and it more than likely is made with white bread. But whole-grain breads are great for grilled cheese too. If you upgrade to a slightly fancier, country-style loaf (not typical sandwich bread wrapped in plastic) you’ll get better flavor, more bite and a crisper crust—not to mention added fiber.
4. Master a crispy crust: Grilled cheese is actually a misnomer. It should be called “fried cheese sandwich” since it’s slathered in fat and not actually grilled. The butter does play a role in creating that nice golden outer crust, but you can get that without adding fat. How? Use a panini maker. The hot surface compresses the bread, helping it crisp up naturally. Don’t have a panini maker? No problem. You can mimic a panini press at home. Here’s how: Heat 1 teaspoon canola oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium heat. Place a sandwich in the pan. Place another medium skillet on top of the sandwich, then weight it down with cans. Cook until golden on one side, about 2 minutes. Reduce the heat to medium-low, flip the sandwich, replace the top skillet and cans, and cook until the second side is golden, 1 to 3 minutes more.
5. Know that everything isn’t better with butter: The butter on the outside of a grilled cheese sandwich not only crisps up the crust, but gives it richness as well. But since grilled cheese is already rich (Hello! The cheese!), you really don’t need butter for the flavor either. Instead, experiment with creamy spreads you put inside that are lower in fat, such as reduced-fat mayonnaise with a squeeze of lemon or reduced-fat sour cream mixed with chopped fresh herbs. They’ll add that silky mouthfeel and sense of richness you may be missing without the butter (plus some added flavor of their own!), but with less fat and calories.