It seems simple enough: a sandwich with cheese on it, heated to the point that the cheese melts – but is it really that simple? Yes, pretty much. It’s bread with cheese on it. For some reason, though, that particular food item has been granted a confusing jumble of nomenclature, some of which is down to personal preference, some of which is regional, and some of which is used to make technical distinctions.
We are, of course, talking about the toastie. The jaffle. The toasted sandwich, the toasted cheese sandwich, the grilled cheese. We are even talking about the melt. Fuck it, let’s go crazy, we’re even talking about the goddamn croque monsieur.
First, we must define our terms: the word ‘sandwich’ encompasses an extraordinarily broad body of foods; a loose enough definition could include things like hot dogs, burgers, burritos, pies, pierogi, baklava, gyoza, arepas, and, hell, even the humble pastie. For our purposes, a sandwich is simply two (or more, if you really want, you psycho) parallel pieces of sliced (note it) bread between which ingredients are placed. The sides are open, but the top and bottom are enclosed. We will not brook tartines in this article.
Secondly, I must make clear my biases and conflicts of interest: I believe this type of sandwich, melted, to be called a toasted cheese sandwich, or even just a toasted sandwich, if I’m pressed for time. I pledge to not let my own biases interfere with the staggering journalistic work of scientific enquiry at play here.
Let us begin by interrogating the term ‘toasted cheese sandwich’, and by extension, the diminutive forms ‘toastie’ and ‘toasted sandwich’ (which we will not confuse with the utterly insane ‘toast sandwich’). We know we’re OK with the term ‘sandwich’, and I would imagine we’re definitely OK with the term ‘cheese’, but already we get murky at ‘toasted’. The Oxford Dictionary defines something toasted as being “cooked or browned by exposure to a grill, fire, or other source of radiant heat.” As we all know, however, the device we sometimes call a toasted sandwich maker or a sandwich press doesn’t cook by radiant heat, it cooks by conduction, or direct heat.
So, unless you are cooking your toasted cheese sandwich via radiant heat – using, say, the grill part of your oven, or over glowing coals – it is not technically a toasted cheese sandwich. This does not include doing it in an oven: while the air in an oven is often heated by radiant heat, the heat transfer to the food itself is done via convection (even in non-convection ovens, which is confusing).
Let’s look at ‘grilled cheese sandwich’. This term seems to be favoured by the Americans, which on some level makes me immediately want to distrust it, but we are professionals and scientists, and we will give it its due. This one is slightly murky because the word ‘grill’ means different things in American and British English. In British English, a grill is a “device on a cooker that radiates heat downwards for cooking food“. Americans would call this thing a ‘broiler’ which is, frankly, disgusting.
The Americans would have you believe that ‘grilling’ is cooking something on a grill over a source of direct heat, which makes this confusing as hell. The food cooked on the grill is partially cooked by conduction (direct heat) on the metal bars of the grill, while it is also partially cooked by either convection or radiation, depending on whether the heat is coming from glowing coals (radiation) or from air from the heat source (convection). To further murk up this issue, there are also infrared grills, which primarily cook by radiant heat.
If you, like a normal person, ‘toast’ (don’t start with me) your sandwich on a sandwich toaster, you are decidedly not grilling it. In the context of making a sandwich with melted cheese on it, ‘grilled’ is just as accurate in Australia as ‘toasted’ – it only really applies if you, like me, don’t have a sandwich toaster and do it under the grill on your oven. If you are in America, however, it is only true if you have done it over a BBQ or maybe in a grill pan, if we’re being generous. Pretty straightforward.
Next up: the jaffle. This term is supposedly specific to Australia and Indonesia, and like a lot of modern terms, comes from one popular brand. The consensus seems to be that the Jaffle-branded jaffle iron was invented by a Bondi man named Dr Earnest Smithers in 1949, although similar devices had existed for quite a while before that. What distinguishes the jaffle iron from the toasted sandwich maker is that the cooking component of the device contains inset grooves that allow the filling to be completely sealed within the bread, moulded into pie- or dumpling-like containers.
This one gives us our most clear-cut definition. Was your sandwich heated in a jaffle iron, pie iron, toastie iron, or (and this is completely real) a snackwich maker? Then it is a jaffle. If it was not, it is not.
Let us take another journey to the beautiful United States of America with ‘melt’. The melt is simply some non-cheese filling such as meat or vegetables and cheese, in a sandwich that has been heated to the point that the cheese melts. Examples include the tuna melt, or the patty melt, which is basically a hamburger sandwich. My extensive(ish) research would lead me to believe that the requirement for another filling would preclude the term ‘melt’ from being applicable to a sandwich that solely contained melted cheese. To my mind, the lack of specificity regarding the method of heating would make this the most accurate, if it weren’t for that requirement.
Lastly, we must turn our attention to France, and the sandwich known as the croque monsieur. This one is the most ridiculous of the bunch. A proper croque monsieur is either cooked in a frying pan or baked in an oven, and has cheese on the top. Utter nonsense. No thank you. I do not have time for the croque monsieur and I will dismiss it as quickly as I introduced it.
So what have we learned? ‘Toasted cheese sandwich’ is basically only accurate if you cook it like a freak. Same goes for ‘grilled cheese sandwich’, unless you’re in America, and, well, even then. ‘Jaffle’ has a very specific use and is not applicable as a blanket term. ‘Croque monsieur’ can fuck off.
My gut feeling is that ‘toasted cheese sandwich’ is the most appropriate because we make them with a toasted cheese sandwich maker, but my brain also says we call them that because we believe that they make toasted cheese sandwiches. We are stuck with a cheesy ouroboros.
Unless you want to use a variety of terms, some of which will never actually be accurate, I suggest we need to come up with a new term, one that encompasses a sandwich that has melted cheese on it in all of its varieties. Dear reader, for your consideration, I present: ‘the melty cheesy sandwich’.Image: Wikimedia Commons / Mack Male