Food

A Grilled Cheese With Super Powers

A Grown-Up Grilled Cheese

Like lots of people these days, I’ve made a real effort to cook with less meat. For the most part, it’s been great, but…

…sometimes I really miss the flavor that comes from animal fat. It’s not even necessarily that I crave a rack of ribs or a grilled medium-rare burger — it’s more that I miss the depth of flavor that comes from, say, throwing a hunk of smoky, fatty bacon into a white bean soup. So, I was delighted to discover Umami Bomb by Raquel Pelzel. Pelzel, a longtime food editor, addresses the “depth” issue for vegetarian cooks with a love letter to umami, aka the “fifth taste” which describes that salty, smoky, meaty dimension you get from a few select non-meat ingredients. Think soy sauce, mushrooms, Parmesan, tomatoes, miso, caramelized onions. Her insanely next-level grilled cheese recipe deploys two umami bombs — miso and caramelized onions — and, dare I say, is as satisfyingly decadent as a burger.

Caramelized Onion Grilled Cheese with Miso Butter
Recipe by Raquel Pelzel from Umami Bomb

4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 large yellow onion, peeled, halved, and thinly sliced
1/1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 tablespoon rice vinegar
1 heaping tablespoon miso paste — preferably white miso, but a darker miso works, too (optional)
1 tablespoon whole-grain mustard
4 slices good-quality sandwich bread
1 cup grated Gruyère cheese
Cornichon pickles for serving

Melt 1 tablespoon of butter in a large nonstick skillet set over medium-high heat. Add the oil, onion and salt and cook, stirring often, until the onion is soft and browned in spots, 8 to 10 minutes. Stir in the vinegar and turn off the heat. Transfer the onion to a small bowl and set aside (don’t wash the pan).

Mix 1 tablespoon of the remaining butter with the miso paste and mustard in a small bowl. Spread one side of each bread slice with the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter. Spread the other side with the miso butter. Place two of the bread slices, plain buttered side down, in the pan. Divide the cheese and onion evenly between them and top with the other bread slices, plain buttered side up.

Cook over medium-low heat until the bread is golden brown, 4 to 5 minutes (do not press the sandwich down with a spatula — just let it be). Flip the sandwiches over and cook on the other side until the bread is golden brown and the cheese is melted, 3 to 4 minutes longer. Transfer to plates and serve immediately with pickles. Lots of pickles.

A Grilled Cheese With Super Powers

Thank you, Raquel. I really love your book!

P.S. Alex’s 10-minute salmon sandwich and rigatoni with caramelized onions and gorgonzola.

(Excerpted with permission from Umami Bomb: 75 Vegetarian Recipes That Explode With Flavor by Raquel Pelzel, Workman Publishing. Photographs by Kate Sears.)

  1. This looks outstanding! I’m looking forward to trying it

  2. Lou says...

    Along the same umami train but easeier: marmite grilled cheese! They are next level. If you throw in some very thinly sliced apple as well, you will feel like you are gourmet living.

  3. Claire says...

    I’ve discovered that a squeeze (or small dab, depending on the container) of vegemite is great for adding depth, especially if I’m trying to make grains more flavourful! Almost like a beef bouillon substitute :)

  4. Emily says...

    You can buy caramelized onions in a jar, and they are really, really good! Look around on the internet to find brands. Yes they cost more, but it’s not something I eat all the time, and what a treat! Just sayin…..

  5. Christina says...

    So funny…just like the others who replied, I came to say the same thing! Caramelizing onions take t i m e…and when you do spend that time, it’s so very worth it!

  6. Thank you for this!

    I recently gave up meat and feel so much better not just for the planet, but my energy and vitality are through the roof.

  7. Jennifer says...

    Back in the 70s, when I was in high school, I read Diet for a Small Planet, which argued that a vegetarian diet would help solve world-hunger (that’s an oversimplification of the book’s argument). I decided to become a vegetarian, and somewhere along the way, I lost my taste for meat. So I’m no longer a vegetarian but I forget to eat meat for months on end. My advice to anyone who is trying to eat a plant-based diet for reasons of ecology or health (as opposed to an opposition to killing animals) is this: Just add a nub o’bacon to your bean soup. Or a nub o’whatever animal you crave. In the same way that eating meat once a month–as opposed to 5x/week (no one eats it more than that, right?)–moves us to a less meat-dependent world, so does using small bits of meat move us to a less meat-dependent world. For those who avoid meat for religious or other ethical reasons, this won’t work, but if you’re trying to reduce the planet’s addiction to meat and/or to improve your own health, using small bits of meat as seasoning is a sensible step.

  8. Loren says...

    Jenny, do you have a brand of miso that you particularly like? I have tried a few from the Japanese grocery near my office but they’re usually too sweet and I wind up chucking them after they languish in my refrigerator for a few months.

  9. J says...

    THIS. I know meat eaters love their meat… the truth is, many vegetarians love the taste too, we just can’t bring ourselves to eat meat anymore. We know too much, and we decide to pass on flavours we love. I know, I know, the recipe above includes an animal product, but it is a really nice step in what I personally think is a more evolved and compassionate direction. So, thank you for this post. Well done. Can’t wait to check out the book.

    • Lizzie Cogan says...

      Yes thank you for this post. Really appreciate it.

  10. Kate says...

    This sounds SO GOOD and I love any efforts to help vegetarian dishes shine!
    One quibble: the directions further the myth of just how long it takes to caramelize onions! It’s at least a good half hour in the pan, much longer than 8 to 10 minutes ;)

    • Erin says...

      I just came down to the comments to say the same thing! Give the onions enough time to truly caramelize!

    • Cait says...

      Same! There is no way the onions in that picture were sauteed for less than 30 min.

    • Christina says...

      So funny…just like the others who replied, I came to say the same thing! Caramelizing onions take t i m e…and when you do spend that time, it’s so very worth it!

    • Abbey says...

      Hahaha if you’ve ever caramelized onions and also read that Slate article, you will forever be compelled to immediately call out the Timing Lie in the comments section. I don’t make the rules.

  11. Jessica Camerata says...

    This looks SO delicious! Love a good grilled cheese sandwich.

    xo Jessica

  12. Heidi says...

    Another great variation on Grilled Cheese (Or any sandwich) for people who want a punch of flavor but can’t have MSG is the Barefoot Contessa Ultimate Grilled cheese. Make the sauce in that recipe and put it on any sandwich… so good!!

  13. Nina says...

    I’ve also been cutting back on meat at home and welcome articles like this. Unfortunately, it looks like I have Histamine Intolerance, which would mean I would need to significantly cut back on foods like parmesan and balsamic vinegar, which have been great for adding flavor to the rice + vegetable + cheese I usually make for dinner. So I’ll be using more herbs. My tip for going meatless is to make sure your vegetables are cooked how you like them, in my case not mushy. Steaming and using a timer seems to work better for me than boiling for getting nice al dente vegetables.

    • Diana K. says...

      Boiling really sucks the flavor out of most veggies. I can’t think of any food that I prefer boiled.

    • Katherine says...

      My MIL has had an msg intolerance, so very similar loss of strong flavours, like parmesan, vinegar, soy sauce, well most sauces, right down to tomato. Lemon was a life saver. Lemon chicken with capers and red onion, lemon pasta with basil… And roasted capsicum makes a great full flavour when you want a tomato style substitute. It felt pretty hard being so limited at first, but we all ended up enjoying the new flavours we found for her. I hope you find your new favourite flavours too.

    • jane says...

      I’ve been using a vegetarian “oyster” sauce made of shitake mushrooms – it’s amazing for adding umami to anything.

  14. Hazle says...

    Word of warning to anyone who’s very sensitive to MSG: all those ‘umami’ foods are really high in natural glutamates, and for some people they can have a similar effect (I’d be wide awake all night after most of these ‘umami bomb’ recipes 😢).

    • Donna says...

      I’m sensitive to it but I eat a lot of these foods and they don’t affect me that way. MSG upsets my stomach and gives me migraines. Food sensitivities can vary so much from person to person.

  15. Lana says...

    I once read a book written by a woman who had dated JFK Jr. In it she mentioned that he always made a “secret sauce” to put on top of cooked spaghetti noodles. The sauce was equal parts butter and soy sauce melted together in a sauce pan. I thought it sounded so weird but course I had to try it because JFK Jr (duh!) and it was so amazing! Total umami punch and you can customize it with garlic or mushrooms! It’s delish.

  16. My 10yo has been a vegetarian for a couple of years now. It’s challenging to feed her – there is always that nagging little voice at the back of my head that questions if she is getting enough. Not only in terms of nutrition, but also in terms of exposure to a vast world of flavors. I’m definitely going to check out Raquel’s book. Thanks for the recommendation!

    • Alyce says...

      If you’re looking to expose your child to a wider variety of flavors, I have to recommend the Cook’s Illustrated Vegan for Everybody cookbook. Great, very flavorful plant-based recipes. I’m not a vegan, and don’t often bother with the vegan substitutions and everything turns out wonderfully.

  17. JessicaD says...

    My husband’s love language is grilled cheese. I have a number of health issues that will keep me hanging (bummed) in bed a lot of nights. He’ll get home, come upstairs to check in, then come back up 20 mins later with an innovative grilled cheese that he knows will cheer me up. Seriously, a good grilled cheese can solve, or at least salve, so many problems. (Pro tip: I love mine with a smear of mayo — sounds disgusting but is amazing!)

    • Allyn says...

      Oh man I thought I was the only one that likes mayo on a grilled cheese….. Allllll the Mayo

    • Sarah says...

      In my first trimester, when all food sounded horrible, my husband made me a grilled cheese and gently offered it to me while I was sprawled on the couch. It tasted amazing and I’ll never forget the sweet, simple gesture.

  18. Maryann says...

    This looks delicious.

    My fave grilled cheese recipe: sauerkraut, swiss or cheddar and/or goat cheese, fig jam. It’s like a party in your mouth.

  19. Kelsey says...

    This book looks great! I like to pre-cook my caramelized onions and have them on hand to add to dishes as I need.

    Just a small request, perhaps Cup of Jo could consider linking to another retailer besides Amazon, especially for books. Independent Bookstores are vital to communities and many of them offer online ordering through IndieBound and similar sites. It’s a great way to keep your hard earned dollars in your own community.

    • gracemarie says...

      Seconded!

    • Rebecca says...

      Yes!!!!! Indie bookstores for the win. Seems like a simple but effective switch :)

    • Elle says...

      Agreed. I love this site, but I’ve stopped clicking on the links to products because they always go to Amazon. I understand that affiliate links are how the blog stays in business, but partnering with Amazon feels really out of touch given everything that’s happening in the world, and how little Amazon has done to give back with it’s staggering wealth.

      Jeff Bezos is the only top US billionaire who hasn’t signed the Giving Pledge (started a decade ago) and has a record of giving only .09 % to charity, which is equivalent to the average American worker having given only $42 to charity. Even with a recent pledge (only another .01%), he still falls extremely far behind.

      Bezos has enough money that he could buy every single homeless person in America a house and still have billions leftover for himself. He could feed every single hungry person in the world for 4 years, he could solve the Flint water crisis, and he could quintuple the budget to fight the opioid epidemic.

  20. Kate says...

    As a kid, my dad made grilled cheese almost every Friday night and he called it his World Famous Grilled cheese. It was simple white bread and Kraft cheese slices, but I remember that me and the neighbor kids really believed it was world famous and to this day, friends of mine from childhood will ask me if he still makes his world famous grilled cheese. That taught me that the real magic in any recipe is the confidence you bring to it :)

    • Kate says...

      :)

    • Lana says...

      So sweet!

    • hita says...

      ha! My husband is the self proclaimed ‘sandwich king’ and my daughter and nephews and nieces definitely believe it! I need to find my ‘kingdom to rule’. :-)

  21. Julie says...

    this looks great, just put on hold at the library!

  22. Louisa says...

    Tomatillos + adobo sauce + provolone = best grilled cheese.

  23. Gita says...

    This! As a five-year old 99% of the time vegan, I can’t believe I’ve just discovered it and now add the paste (white or dark) to just about everything – soups, stews, salad dressings, and sometimes I even eat it straight out of the jar. It adds another dimension and is high in protein to boot.

  24. Ashley says...

    So excited to try this!
    I have several archived Cup of Jo featured recipes that I return to time and time again.
    Thanks so much for always sharing such great food ideas!

  25. SoSuSam says...

    Oh YUM. I would love to see a vegan version of this incredible-sounding sandwich!

    • Donna says...

      Use vegan cheese and butter.

  26. Jessie says...

    I’ll definitely have to try this! My go-to grilled cheese trick is adding kimchi. I forgot where I read the recipe, but SO DARN GOOD. The way the cheese & kimchi taste together is heavenly.

    • janet says...

      +1 to kimchi grilled cheese!

  27. Marie says...

    I think this is the first time I’ve ever immediately purchased something from a blog post. This cookbook theme speaks to my vegetarian heart!

    • E.P. says...

      The point of subtracting meat for climate change purposes is kinda negated by adding cheese. Cheese comes from the same agricultural animal that is attributing to climate change to begin with. Duh. I mean, moo!

    • Amy says...

      The greenhouse gas emissions from eating cheese are half that of eating the same amount of beef, so if you are trying to make incremental switches that have impact, cheese for beef certainly counts.

  28. Jackie says...

    Women are kicking butt, here and in every field. Love it!

    • Kelly says...

      I was just thinking this the other day on a post. How talented are all of these beautiful women?! ❤️😍