French Onion Grilled Cheese Sandwich Recipe
Hello! It’s good to see you again. Another month has gone by and that means another sandwich is in order. This month we’re tackling the ever-popular grilled cheese sandwich, but we’re doing it a little differently (of course!): we’ve made a French Onion grilled cheese sandwich, inspired by the flavors of French Onion soup. Sure, we could have done a basic grilled cheese, but where’s the fun in that? You can get a boring basic grilled cheese almost anywhere. This grilled cheese is interesting enough to stand on its own and robust enough to be a full meal. Ready to dive in? Let’s go!
Some version of a grilled cheese sandwich has existed since Roman times. Surely as long as bread and cheese have been in existence, someone has been putting the two together to form what we’ve come to know as the grilled cheese sandwich. However, the term “grilled cheese” is a more modern development. Prior to the 1960s, these tasty sandwiches were more likely to be called “melted cheese” or “toasted cheese” sandwiches. The proliferation of Kraft’s American singles (blech!) ushered in the age of the grilled cheese sandwich and Americans (especially children) have been enjoying them ever since. We both grew up eating grilled cheese sandwiches, though we had them filled with cheddar cheese instead of American cheese.
Let’s talk a little bit about French onion soup, too. The modern version of this soup has been around since at least the eighteenth century, though onions have been cooked into soups like this in some form or another since Roman times (possibly earlier according to some sources). The defining flavor characteristics of French onion soup are the onions (of course!), beef (typically stock), thyme, and booze (typically either dry white wine or sherry). The finished soup is characterized by a topping of crostini-type bread covered in melted cheese (typically Gruyere, Comte, or Swiss).
Since we’re taking our inspiration from French onion soup for this sandwich, we of course must have beef represented; easy enough, we decided to use sliced deli roast beef. We also used Gruyere cheese and thyme to complete the flavor profile. Further, since we were looking to make a special grilled cheese sandwich, we used a round Italian boule and cut it into slices ourselves. Sure, we could have just as easily used pre-sliced bread, but if you’re going to all the trouble to put good ingredients inside the sandwich, why skimp on the outside?
The goal for this sandwich, as usual, is to use the best possible ingredients you can get your hands on. Select a crusty loaf of bread with a dense, sturdy crumb. You need something that’s going to hold up to what you’re putting in it. Besides the Italian boule we used, we’d also recommend you making this sandwich with sourdough bread or a multi-grain bread, if you’re not into white breads. In general, sourdough is one of our top choices for grilled cheese sandwiches because it crisps and browns so nicely.
Further, when it comes to your cheese and beef, get the best you can buy. The Gruyere we purchased was $28 per pound. Rather steep, yes, but the flavor was unlike anything else we’ve had. The salt crystals in the cheese were pleasant and the nutty flavor of the Gruyere was unparalleled.
We chose Manda brand roast beef for its particularly garlicky flavor. Manda is produced here in Louisiana (Baton Rouge) and is a well-known and widely-loved brand name. Plus, their roast beef retails around $9 per pound so it’s quite reasonable.
Now let’s explore the procurement of our ingredients, starting with the bread. Our plan was to procure locally produced bread created by Bellegarde Bakery, but we weren’t able to source loaves for slicing. Bellegarde is a wholesale bakery which means we can only get their breads at other retailers. While they’ve a wide selection of breads that they provide to restaurants and retails shops, only their baguette and a few other non-sliceable loaves like ciabatta make it to retailers, typically. Though one time we did find a great bread by them made partially with grits, but we weren’t able to find it this time around. Instead, we settled for a rustic Italian boule from our local Whole Foods. This might not seem ideal, but we don’t have wide locally produced bread selection here; indeed, the diversity of bread available in most American cities is lacking. We do have Wild Flour Breads, Gracious Bakery, and Bellegarde Bakery, but none had the bread we needed when we did our shopping. All in all, the bread we used was tasty and toasted up well for the sandwich, and we’re grateful for that!
We purchased the Gruyere cheese at St. James Cheese Company in Uptown New Orleans. We figured if we were buying cheese we might as well go to the only real cheese shop in New Orleans. While many stores sell cheese, St. James is the only store in New Orleans dedicated to cheese. When we arrived at St. James, we weren’t even sure what type of cheese we wanted. We kept an open mind and asked a sales associate to help us select one. She recommended Gruyere for its melting power and for its distinct flavor. We were quite pleased with the cheese we took home. We even bought extra so that we’d have more for snacking. Yum!
Once we’d secured the bread and the cheese, the base of our sandwich, we headed to Zuppardo’s to gather up the rest of our ingredients. Zuppardo’s is a family-owned and run grocery store located on Veteran’s Boulevard in Metairie. It’s been around since 1929 when it started as a roving vegetable cart and is currently run by the fifth generation of Zuppardo family members. Zuppardo’s isn’t exactly close to us, but since we’re trying to visit as many local stores as possible for this sandwich post series, we figured we’d give a whirl. Here we purchased the Manda roast beef, freshly sliced, from the deli, along with everything else we needed to finish this sandwich (thyme, onions, butter — we had sherry, salt, and pepper at home).
With all of our ingredients ready to go, let’s make that sandwich!
You might notice, if you read ahead, that the cook time on this sandwich is 25 minutes. The actual sandwich only needs five minutes to cook. However, caramelizing onions takes time, and that increases the time needed for cooking. Though caramelized onions take time to cook, they are delicious and well-worth any effort it takes to cook them. Even here at a 20 minute cook time, that’s quite fast. You can see below that our onions are a little burned on the edges. We’re fine with that but some purists would not be. Just do the best job you can with them.
While your onions are caramelizing you can use the time to prepare your other ingredients. If you need to slice bread and grate cheese, now’s the time. If you took a shortcut on both and bought sliced bread and sliced or grated cheese, more power to you. Just remember to buy the best quality you can. The quality of the final product will reflect the quality of its ingredients. Once the onions are done caramelizing, you’re ready to roll on the actual sandwich.
Like the Reuben sandwich we created in our last post, we like to build this sandwich directly in the skillet. After carefully buttering one side of each slice of bread, place the first one, butter side down, in a properly pre-heated skillet (medium high or so). Add about half the cheese and then the two slices of roast beef. As with the Reuben, be careful to not allow the sliced beef to fall too far outside of the bread. Ideally, all the meat should be contained inside the bread. Top all that with about half of the caramelized onions you just prepared and the other slice of bread, butter side out.
Below I have the directions for cooking the grilled cheese sandwich, but really, just cook this like you would any grilled cheese sandwich. Of course I need to detail the cooking method in the recipe but it’s not meant to be an exact science. Use your best judgment. The only things you need to keep in mind are don’t burn the bread and to make sure the cheese melts. Balancing the heat requirements of these two objectives is the key to a successful and tasty sandwich.
When you’re ready to serve, cut the sandwich in half and plate it with some potato chips, coleslaw, or potato salad. Heck, you can even pair it with a little green salad if that’s what your heart desires. The sky’s the limit on how you have this as a meal: it’s robust enough that the sandwich might be all you need.
The cultural relevance of a grilled cheese sandwich can seem difficult to pinpoint because everybody makes and eats them. But that’s its importance right there: the grilled cheese sandwich is a major component of most American diets. American’s ate these as children; they order them for a reliable meal; they throw them together when there’s nothing else in the fridge. It’s hard to get more basic than bread and cheese, but basic dishes are often the most versatile.
The grilled cheese is the type of sandwich that can be as decadent or as basic as you’d like. Slap together two slices of cheap white bread and Kraft singles or go big with a fine cheese and hand-made loaf of bread. Rich or poor, wealthy or not, almost everyone under 40 in modern America has had a lifetime of grilled cheese sandwiches. The rest of the population spent a good amount of time making these sandwiches for their kids and their kids’ friends. Next to the peanut butter and jelly sandwich, the grilled cheese is surely the most well-known and most widely consumed sandwich in our nation.
French Onion Grilled Cheese Sandwich
- 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
- 1 large onion, sliced
- 1/2 teaspoon thyme leaves
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
- 1 teaspoon dry sherry (or dry white wine)
- 2 slices of crusty white bread (sub your preference, if needed)
- 2 teaspoons unsalted butter
- 2/3 cup to 1 cup shredded Gruyere cheese (sub Comte, Emmentaler, or Swiss, if needed)
- 2 slices of roast beef
Caramelizing the Onions:
- Melt the butter over medium-high heat in a large, wide skillet.
- Add the onion slices, thyme leaves, kosher salt, and black pepper. Stir well and cook for 15 to 20 minutes, until onion is caramelized and softened.
- Add the sherry, stir well and scrape up any bits from the bottom of the skillet.
- Transfer the onions to a ramekin and set aside while building the sandwich. Wipe down the skillet so you can use it again to cook the sandwiches.
Preparing the Sandwich:
- Next, start on the sandwich. On a cutting board or flat work surface, lay out four pieces of bread. Smear each piece of bread with a thin layer of butter on one side.
- Over a medium-high flame, set a skillet to heat. Once you can feel heat radiating off of the skillet, add the first slice of bread, butter side down. Don't start with the heat too high or bread will brown before cheese melts.
- Add about half of the cheese and scatter to cover the whole piece of bread.
- Next, carefully layer on the two slices of roast beef and then top with some of the caramelized onions.
- Finish the sandwich with the rest of the cheese then top with the second slice of bread, buttered side facing outward.
- Cook the sandwich for about 2 minutes on the first side, until golden brown. Flip and repeat on the second side. Total cooking time should be less than 5 minutes.
- Once the sandwich is done, remove it from the skillet, place on a cutting board, and use a knife to cut the sandwich on a bias (at an angle).
Note: The caramelized onion should yield enough for two sandwiches.