Growing up, I was the worst. I don’t know how my mother handled it, but I would only eat a handful of foods: buttered noodles, cheese pizza, grilled cheese, and plain hamburgers without ketchup. (In case you’re wondering, I eat all kinds of foods today but still stand firmly behind the ketchup-is-gross sentiment.)
On any given day, if you asked me what I wanted to eat, it was probably be grilled cheese. If I had the ability to make pizza at home, that might have been my go-to choice, but my father taught me how to make his signature open-faced grilled cheese sandwich, so it won. The preparation was always the same: two pieces of white bread filled corner to corner with thickly-sliced cheddar cheese. Into the toaster oven it went until the topping became melty and lightly browned. Add a few twists of freshly cracked black pepper and down the hatch.
This was the only grilled cheese I knew until I attended summer camp in my late teenage years. Camp’s version of the grilled cheese came griddled with the cheese sandwiched inside the bread. My mind was blown: not all grilled cheese is served open-faced? But if you’re sharing cheese between two slices of bread, how in the world will you get enough of it?
All it took was one bite and I was convinced. It had everything I loved about my open-faced version and so much more. That buttery bread was crave-worthy good, and the golden brown crust crunched between my teeth right before I got hit with an ooze of melted cheese. I was floored, convinced that grilled cheese was the perfect food.
But what made it so perfect? What is it about a cheese sandwich that is so infatuating? You might just feel comforted by a crispy-on-the-outside, gooey-on-the-inside eating experience, but it’s more than that. First, there’s something called the Maillard reaction – a chemical reaction that happens when sugars are exposed to heat, making a perfectly grilled steak appetizing and turning onions from stinky and pungent to caramelized and sweet. When you toast bread, the starch in the flour expands and loses water. That’s why it firms up and sheds its floppy quality. At the same time, the Maillard reaction happens. When the proteins and carbohydrates in the bread react with the heat, they not only produce a golden color, but they also let off an appealing aroma and a deeply satisfying flavor.
By itself, this bread is crunchy and flavorful, but your brain really gets off when fat comes into play. In the case of grilled cheese, that fat is the butter on the outside of the toast and the cheese contained within. As it turns out, it’s not about the flavor these ingredients bring to the table. Studies have shown that we can actually become addicted to cheese. Even reading this article is enough to make you want to grab a string cheese or a leftover slice of pizza. It’s all about a protein in milk called casein. When your body digests this protein, it releases a string of amino acids called Casomorphins. Recognize the second half of that word? Sound like morphine? Funny enough, these Casomorphins actually act like opioids. They attach to your brain’s opiate receptors and play around with your dopamine levels. You actually feel calmer after eating grilled cheese or pizza, making cheese something similar to dairy crack.
So think about that the next time you’re craving a grilled cheese sandwich. The combination of flavor-packed, texture-rich toast with ooey, gooey, melted cheese crack is kind of a recipe for addiction. I’m still in the “I don’t have a problem” phase of my personal cheese addiction. I’m positive that I could skip cheese any time I want.
Addiction or not, I’m pretty specific about how I make my grilled cheese these days. I still love that peppery, open-faced cheesy bread of my childhood, but when I need to feel better about my life, I make the griddled kind. Instead of slathering the bread with butter, I use (bear with me) mayonnaise. It promotes even browning and keeps the sandwich from becoming too greasy. I mean, butter is all fat and cheese is essentially the same, so combining the two can be too much. Using mayonnaise introduces an eggy quality to the sandwich, which just sort of completes the deal. And, if I really want to get into confessing my sins, I’m 100 percent addicted to mayo, so I may as well add it into my crack sandwich.