It's Time To Settle The Grilled Cheese Debate: Mayo Or Butter?

a couple pieces of bread
Should You Use Mayo Or Butter For Grilled Cheese?Gabby Romero

Grilled cheese sandwiches can be contentious. What seems to be a simple sandwich invites a lot of heated debate. Grilled cheese enthusiasts are divided about which bread you should use, the best type of cheese, and even the right way to cut the sandwich in half. But one particularly polarizing part of a grilled cheese is about what you should spread on the outside: butter or mayonnaise.

Coating your slices of bread in something rich to encourage a golden brown crust is non-negotiable. You may have grown up eating grilled cheeses that were slathered in butter, but swapping it for mayo has become increasingly popular. Celebrities like Joanna Gaines, Antoni Porowski, and Martha Stewart all swear by mayo as the secret to their sandwiches.

The thought of using mayo, however, still causes some grilled cheese purists to recoil. The topic is so divisive that we adopt a Switzerland position on our recipe (a.k.a. use whichever you prefer). But aside from personal preferences, is one method actually better than the other?

We decided to investigate and test the two spreads head to head. So the next time you make one for yourself (on National Grilled Cheese Day, April 12, or any other day), you can ensure that you end up with the best sandwich possible.


grilled cheese sandwiches on plates
Gabby Romero

Let’s start with the OG. There’s a reason why people say butter makes everything better. On top of being creamy and decadent on its own, butter is packed with lightly sweet milk solids. When cooked, these milk solids transform into brown butter and take on a nutty, toasty flavor. We love using brown butter as a sauce for pasta or as an upgraded base for a chocolate chip cookie. And naturally, it can improve the flavor of a grilled cheese.

But it needs to be said: using butter in a grilled cheese sandwich isn’t always ideal. Brown butter turns into burnt butter in a matter of seconds and can ruin the flavor of anything you’re cooking. It takes sometechnical skill and practice to perfectly time the browning of the butter with the toasting of the bread and the melting of the cheese in the center. And because the butter can brown so quickly, you often have to take your sandwich out of the pan before the bread has enough time to evenly toast.

And from a practical perspective, butter is a solid fat and can be extremely firm straight out of the fridge. So unless you have a butter bell hanging out on your counter, you need to set aside some time to let your cold butter soften enough to spread.

While I cooked this sandwich, I had to watch the stove like a hawk and consistently adjust the position of the pan to avoid any unevenly toasted spots. The finished sandwich ended up evenly golden and rich—but admittedly, I’ve made plenty of butter-based grilled cheeses in the past that had less beautiful results.


grilled cheese sandwiches on plates
Gabby Romero

For those unfamiliar with exactly what mayonnaise is, it’s an emulsion of oil and some type of acid (usually vinegar or lemon), with egg. The egg acts as a binder that brings together two unlike ingredients to form a thick and creamy spread. It’s the same science that goes into making smooth salad dressings. Mayonnaise has a similar fat content as butter, but is spreadable straight out of the fridge.

Another perk of using mayonnaise for grilled cheese is that you don’t need to worry about burning milk solids. The fat in mayo can withstand high temperatures, so you can take as much time as you need to develop the perfect level of brown on the outside of your sandwich. I used Hellmann’s mayo, but virtually any brand will work. The only thing you need to keep in mind is that you should use regular, full-fat mayo. Light mayo has significantly more water content, which will steam your bread rather than toast it.

The only drawback for some is that you miss some of the creamy, nostalgic flavor that you’d get with the butter. Mayo has a more neutral flavor profile, which is great if you want the cheese and other fillings in the center to shine. I personally have no issue with the flavor of an all-mayo sandwich. But traditionalists may still miss the butter.

Mayo + Butter

a plate of food and a bottle of water on a wood table
Gabby Romero

There are pros to using butter and mayo individually in your grilled cheese sandwich. But does combining the two spreads achieve the best of both worlds? We say yes!

Cooking foods in both oil and butter is a popular technique to reap the flavor benefits of the butter with the practical appeals of oil. We tried this technique by combining equal parts mayo and softened butter, then spreading it on the exterior of our sandwich. Having to wait for the butter to soften, then stirring it into the mayo was more time consuming than the other two methods.

But the results speak for themselves. The mayo and butter combo crisped up like a dream and I didn’t have to worry about any burnt butter solids. The overall verdict? If you want a low effort, high reward grilled cheese, use mayo. But if you want to make an extra special sandwich, use a mayo-butter combo.

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