Benny & Joon-style Grilled Cheese Tutorial

College students nationwide are redefining what it means to be an Iron Chef. They may not be competing on a reality show, but they are working with a secret ingredient – one that most people prefer to leave in the laundry room: a clothing iron.

Many universities prohibit the use of appliances with an open coil in dorm rooms, such as hot plates, George Foreman grills and toaster ovens. For many hungry students who were tired of the dining hall, that meant cooking using whatever means necessary. Microwaves are the most popular means, but when it comes to perfectly crisping a Panini or crafting a gooey grilled cheese, students turn to the iron.

Kenneth, a student at Tennessee Technical University, posted one of the first tutorials on YouTube for making grilled cheese using an iron. In the video, Kenneth turns the iron to its hottest setting, then butters the outside of a cheese sandwich, wraps it in aluminum foil, and sets it on top of an upside-down baking sheet. He places the heated iron on top of the foil-wrapped sandwich and lets it sit there for two to three minutes before flipping the sandwich over and toasting the other side. When the cheese has melted, it’s ready.

“I’d say it works best when the steam if off,” Kenneth says in the video – a statement echoed in other tutorials. The “Iron Chefs” agree that the appliance should always be turned to the hottest setting, typically cotton or linen. The quality of the iron only affects how long it takes to heat, so any bargain-bin contraption will do, provided you’re willing to wait to start cooking.

Though these iron-pressed meals are most commonly found on college campuses, they didn’t originate there. Some trace the practice to the early 1900s, when housewives wanted cook for their families without turning on the oven and heating up their homes. It’s challenging to say where the practice began exactly, but one man can be credited for popularizing it: Johnny Depp.

In the 1993 film Benny & Joon, Depp prepares a stack of sandwiches by pressing a bare iron directly onto the buttered bread. This prompted many fans to try it, only to lament online that they spent hours scraping burned butter marks and gobs of cheese off their irons. The aluminum foil wrapper is critical.

Just like any appliance, cooking with an iron has its share of safety concerns. While some students advocate simply setting the foil-wrapped sandwich on top of a textbook or towel, investing $6 in a baking sheet and an oven mitt is the surest way to avoid scalding your hands  – or burning the cover of that $130 American Government tome. The iron should never be left unattended, and it should always be turned off and left standing on its back so that the metal plate isn’t touching anything.

Ultimately, the household appliance may not be making an appearance in Kitchen Stadium anytime soon, but for resource-starved students, it’s a must-have on campus.

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