I love mayonnaise. It makes mashed potatoes more creamy, it sears a great steak, and it’s an essential part of almost every sandwich. But one application that I cannot get behind is slathering it on the outside of a grilled cheese sandwich. It does not taste that good.
I want to like it. In theory, it makes sense, and I want to believe that mayo is some sort of miracle condiment that makes everything it touches better. Mayo’s higher smoke point gives the cheese more time to melt (which I have never needed), and it does crisp up nicely, but it just doesn’t taste like a grilled cheese. Melted butter tastes good. Melted mayonnaise tastes like greasy nothing. Give me butter. Give me flavour.
Mayonnaise, when used as a frying medium, is very neutral. It’s slightly sweet and subtly tangy, but almost all of that disappears in the pan. Butter hangs in there, its flavour growing nuttier as it browns. Slather your sandwich with too much mayo, and it will taste bland and feel greasy. Slather your sandwich with too much butter? There is simply no such thing. I’ve also never found that mayo renders a sandwich much crispier than butter does, as butter browns and crisps quite wonderfully. (It is literally known for browning.)
If you’re having issues with your bread burning before your cheese melts, turn your damn burner down—medium or lower to start—and consider that you might be choosing the wrong cheese. Not all cheese is meant to be consumed in the same way. Just as you wouldn’t eat a slice of room-temp American cheese, you shouldn’t melt a really good sharp cheddar. (I actually don’t believe that there are people who genuinely prefer a melted sharp cheddar to melted American cheese, as melting a good sharp cheddar is just about the most disrespectful thing you can do to it.)
Hard, crumbly cheeses are subpar melters to begin with—the pH is too damn low—and they start to congeal the moment you get them out of the pan. I am personally a big fan of American cheese—it is engineered to melt—but young, soft cheese like smoked Gouda, deli provolone, brick cheese, mozzarella, and any of the jacks (Colby and pepper) all melt with ease. Heck, you can even get some raclette if you are a person of taste, but insisting on using an aged, hard cheese is just setting yourself up for failure.
Conversely, if you are a fan of a classic, American-cheese grilled cheese (the best grilled cheese), using mayo will ruin your day, or at least make it slightly less pleasant. Every time I have made a grilled cheese with mayo—and I do so about once a year to make sure I’m not missing something—my cheese melts well before the bread is crisped, leaving me with a soft, kind of greasy grilled cheese.
Mayo’s one, seemingly clear advantage is that it’s ready to spread the moment you pull it out of the fridge, but this is only an advantage if you live in a house that refrigerates all of its butter at all times. (Why are you doing this?) And even if that is the case, and all your butter is cold and unspreadable, there’s a very easy way to butter your bread with straight-from-the-fridge butter: Just melt it in the pan first.
This is actually how my stepmom butters all her breads, but it works extremely well with a grilled cheese. Take a tablespoon or so of butter, melt it over medium-low heat, then place a piece of bread in the pool of butter and swirl it around to coat. Remove it from the pan, set it aside (butter side up), and add a little more butter to the pan before adding your next piece of bread. Swirl that piece around in melted butter, add your cheese slices, then place the first buttered slice (butter side up) on top of the cheese. Cover the pan for a minute to help any harder cheeses melt (if you have insisted on using them), and fry and flip until both sides are golden brown.
Are there exceptions to my no-mayo-ever grilled cheese rule? Only one, and that is if you are cooking your grilled cheese on an actual grill, like Meathead Goldwyn does, as the charred, grilled flavour is going to be the dominant flavour anyway, and mayo is just a neater, less drippy, more grill-friendly option. But for a simple, pan-fried sandwich made with nothing more than bread and cheese? It’s gotta be butter, babies. It’s just gotta be.