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Tips for a cheesier, crispier, more flavorful grilled cheese

Of all the quick but delicious meals I've leaned heavily on the past 18 months, grilled cheese is near the top of the list. I almost always have the basic ingredients around — some type of bread, some type of cheese — as well as some little extras to make the sandwich really sing. I suspect I've rarely made the same one twice.

Whether you're a grilled cheese improviser or creature of habit, there's usually at least one thing you can do to help transform a good sandwich into a great one. I'm not necessarily talking about overhauling your strategy. Instead, these are small tips for making a next-level grilled cheese.

I canvassed The Washington Post Food section staff, my food-loving Instagram followers and my own experience to compile this list of suggestions. Mix and match, or pick one to focus on. But most importantly, have fun trying them.

— Use shredded cheese. As iconic as the orange slice of American cheese is, I'm with my colleague Aaron Hutcherson on a preference for shredded cheese. I find it melts faster and more evenly than slices. Plus, shredded cheese gives you more control over how much you can put on your sandwich while making it especially easy to create your own blend should you happen to have multiple types. If you can, pull out the box grater to shred your own. Pre-shredded cheese often has added starches or additives that can prevent the ideal melty texture. Want to go even thinner? Follow the lead of Molly Baz over at Bon Appétit and use a Y-peeler to create long ribbons of cheese.

— Upgrade your fat. Don't miss an opportunity to add more flavor to your grilled cheese with the fat you use to griddle it. After spending years using neutral oils (not that there's anything wrong with them, if that's what you like), I've mostly switched to other options I find more exciting. The two I flip-flop on are salted butter and mayonnaise. Both to give my sandwiches more flavor, color and crispness than something like canola oil. Butter can be softened and spread on the bread, or you can adopt Aaron's strategy, which is adding it to the skillet, dragging the bread through the melted butter and then assembling the sandwich right there. Mayo works best when spread on the bread before griddling. Just keep an eye on your mayo- or butter-cooked sandwich, as it can get darker faster than one made with oil. For an even more over-the-top option, grab your jar of rendered bacon fat and use that. Leah Anne Jaros of D.C. ups the ante on the exterior by sprinkling garlic powder over the butter- or mayo-coated sides before griddling, for a garlic-bread-inspired riff that is just so smart.

— Griddle the inside of the bread first. This tip goes hand-in-hand with using shredded cheese. By giving the sides of the bread that will eventually be the interior of the sandwich an initial toast in the skillet, you can help jump-start the cheese-melting process with the residual heat. You don't need to let the bread get as dark as you want the outside. Aim to have it just start coloring and be warm to the touch. That way you won't end up with cheese that hasn't fully melted by the time the outside is beautifully golden.

— Make a heat dome for the sandwich. Food aide Kari Sonde likes to set a small pot lid over the sandwich in the skillet. This serves two purposes, acting like a sandwich press and serving as a sort of steam spa, both of which will help the cheese melt. Chef Matt Adler of Caruso's Grocery in D.C. takes a different approach to ensure proper melting. He prefers to individually griddle cheese-topped slices of bread — so two open faces — and then assembles them at the end. If you prefer a taller sandwich rather than one that has been pressed, this is one way to go.

— Add crunch on the inside. If you're a purist and only want cheese on the inside of your grilled cheese, I respect that opinion. Most of the time, though, I can't resist putting in something else for texture. I know that some of you out there might call anything else a "melt," but there are many paths to a great sandwich. Especially in fall, I'm keen on thinly sliced apple. So is Food editor Joe Yonan, who combines apple with kimchi. Similarly, Food critic Tom Sietsema recommends sauerkraut and radicchio. I'm a big fan of candied or pickled jalapeños and pepperoncini.

— Add crunch on the outside. Sometimes my favorite part of a grilled cheese is when some of the cheese "accidentally" falls out and crisps up on the outside of the bread or as little chips in the skillet. Well, you can be much more intentional by adding shredded or sliced cheese to the skillet first, before placing the bread on it. You'll get a shattering cheese crisp on the outside of the sandwich.

— Use up your condiments. Swiping one of your favorite condiments across your bread is one of the easiest ways to add instant pop to grilled cheese. Kari suggests harissa, chile crisp, relish, gochujang, sriracha and mustard. Daniela Galarza likes hot honey. I often turn to pepper jelly for something sweet and spicy. Cookbook author and baker Martin Philip of King Arthur Baking pries open the finished sandwich to spread some mayo on the inside so that it doesn't disappear into the bread or fillings.

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