Cheddar and chutney is a winning combination, but for best results, be sure to use a really gutsy mature or sharp Cheddar in this grilled cheese with onion jam. The jam, or chutney, needs to have a good balance of sweet and tart to make this work perfectly, so be sure to taste and adjust it before assembling the sandwiches.–Laura Washburn

What exactly does it mean to caramelize onions and is that the same as onion jam?

Let’s be clear about what caramelized onions are and are not, shall we? Properly caramelized onions have been slowly and gently coaxed to soft, sweet submissiveness, a state achieved by patient attentiveness over low heat, which tends to take the better part of an hour. What you do not have in this grilled cheese with onion jam recipe is caramelized onions, nor is that a failing of the recipe. It’s actually an act of brilliance on the part of the recipe creator, who cooks the onions for an eminently weeknight-friendly 20 minutes or so—just enough to soften them—and then she tosses the onions with vinegar and sugar. This creates a sweetly tart compote or chutney or jam or godsend or whatever you care to call this cheater’s version of caramelized onions, which ably cuts the richness of cheese, roast pork, seared duck, and so forth. To be clear, while these onions are really damn good, they’re just not caramelized. And that’s okay.

Two halved grilled cheese with onion jam on a wooden cutting board alongside a dish of onion jam and a butter knife.

Grilled Cheese with Onion Jam

5 / 2 votes
These grilled cheese with onion jam, made with sharp Cheddar and a sweet and tangy red onion jam, still have all of the nostalgic comfort of traditional grilled cheese but feel a lot more special.
David Leite
Servings2 servings
Calories651 kcal
Prep Time15 minutes
Cook Time25 minutes
Total Time40 minutes


For the onion jam

  • 2 smallish red onions, halved and thinly sliced
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • Generous pinch salt
  • 1 tablespoon light brown sugar
  • 2 tablespoons wine vinegar (red, white, or sherry)
  • 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

For the grilled cheese sandwiches

  • 4 slices white bread
  • Unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 5 to 5 1/2 ounces sharp Cheddar, thinly sliced


Make the onion jam

  • In a skillet or large saucepan over medium heat, combine the onions and oil and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened and golden brown, about 20 minutes. You're probably going to want to turn down the heat at some point and start to stir the onions almost constantly so as to not let them burn.
  • Add the salt, brown sugar, wine vinegar, and balsamic vinegar to the onions and simmer until the mixture is sticky but still somewhat liquidy, 3 to 5 minutes. Taste and adjust the seasoning, adding more sugar for sweetness or vinegar for tartness as desired.

Make the grilled cheese sandwiches

  • Butter 1 side of each slice of bread.
  • Place 2 slices of bread, butter side down, in a large skillet or grill pan over medium-high heat. Generously spread some onion jam on each slice bread and then arrange the cheese on the jam in an even layer. Cover each open-faced sandwich with another slice of bread, butter side up.
  • Turn the heat down to medium and cook for 2 to 4 minutes, pressing gently with a spatula every once in a while, until the bread turns a deep golden color.
  • Carefully flip the sandwiches with the spatula and cook on the second side for 2 to 3 minutes, or until deep golden brown. (If you’re using a grill pan and you’re keen to create a criss-cross pattern as shown in the photo above, rotate the sandwich 90° and cook for another minute or so, then flip the sandwiches over again, making sure they’re rotated 90°, and cook for another 2 to 3 minutes.)
  • Transfer the sandwiches to a plate and cut in half. Let cool for a few minutes before serving. (Any leftover onion jam can be kept in a resealable container in the refrigerator for up to several days.) Originally published March 5, 2015.


Serving: 1 portionCalories: 651 kcalCarbohydrates: 44 gProtein: 25 gFat: 41 gSaturated Fat: 19 gMonounsaturated Fat: 11 gTrans Fat: 1 gCholesterol: 82 mgSodium: 741 mgFiber: 3 gSugar: 16 g

Nutrition information is automatically calculated, so should only be used as an approximation.

Tried this recipe?Mention @leitesculinaria or tag #leitesculinaria!
Recipe © 2014 Laura Washburn. Photo © 2014 Steve Painter. All rights reserved.

Recipe Testers’ Reviews

Today was a perfect day for a grilled cheese—it was cold and cloudy out, so I needed something super comforting to look forward to! I love the elegant spin that the caramelized red onions gave to an otherwise ordinary grilled cheese sandwich. I loved the combo of balsamic, brown sugar, and red wine vinegar in the onion jam, which gave the onions a lovely sweet-tart flavor that paired nicely with the creamy Cheddar cheese and the buttery bread. (I used a 5-grain wheat bread, not white bread, for the sandwiches.) In terms of the recipe itself, I only cooked the onions for 20 minutes instead of the usual 45 to 50 for actual caramelized onions. After I added the vinegars and sugar, I cooked the onions for an additional 5 minutes over medium heat. I did not add any more sugar or vinegar after the initial addition. I thought it was superb. I cooked the first side of the sandwich for 2 minutes over medium heat, and the second side for an additional 2 minutes, as I didn’t want the butter to burn. I will use the rest of the onion jam on a pork tenderloin this week, but it would also be great in a quiche with some crumbled feta cheese.

I don’t think I’ve ever met a grilled cheese I didn’t like, and this one with onion jam was a winner for sure! The onion jam added the perfect sweet tang to the sharp Cheddar. The onion jam came together easily enough, and I added an extra tablespoon brown sugar to balance the red wine vinegar and balsamic vinegar. I softened the onions in the oil for 20 minutes, turned the heat down and cooked them for another 10 minutes. After adding the remaining ingredients, I cooked another 20 minutes to thicken the chutney.

I made the sandwiches with a sturdy Tuscan loaf sliced about 1/2 inch thick. Using plain white bread didn’t appeal to me at all. I used a 6-year-old white Cheddar. Toasting the grilled cheese took about 3 minutes on each side. We loved having the extra chutney to spoon on the crisp toast and didn’t have any left over. This was a family-approved, sweet and tangy, gooey grilled cheese that I’ll definitely make again!

Oh my! Paired with tomato soup, these sandwiches are such a treat. The slightly sweet, full-of-flavor onions play so well with the saltiness of the Cheddar, you really must try it. We let the onions do their thing for at least 30 minutes to get as much caramelization out of them. We used a bakery sourdough bread to up the “tang” factor. My advice would be to not rush the cooking process.

I really enjoyed this quick onion jam, and it paired perfectly with a sharp Cheddar grilled cheese sandwich. I used white wine vinegar. There was TONS of chutney leftover (this is a good thing!). I used maybe 2 tablespoons per sandwich (my slices of bread were on the small side), and I didn’t serve any “on the side” since I served the sandwiches with French onion soup. I’d serve the onion jam on a cheese platter, too.

Grilled cheese of any kind is always a winning suggestion at my home. And I am a huge fan of caramelized onions and will make a batch in the slow cooker or on the stove at any time. So I was prepared to discount the onion jam. The onions were softened and a little darker after 20 minutes of cooking on the stove. I added the rest of the ingredients and cooked them for another 10 minutes until it was sort of syrupy and sticky, using red wine vinegar. I tasted it and did not need to add any further sugar or vinegar. (In fact, I tasted it several times…just to make sure). I was surprised to find it was very tasty, even though it wasn’t truly caramelized. It was tangy and sweet, a perfect offset for the richness of the Cheddar. I used 3 cups 5-year-old Cheddar to make 4 sandwiches. I didn’t use a grill pan since we all covet the crunchy bread of a grilled cheese. No one missed the markings on their sandwich. This resulted in golden, oozy grilled cheese sandwiches with lovely onion jam to cut the richness of the cheese. One taster liked the jam so much that he took a big scoop to eat on the side with his sandwich. All of us loved the jam with the exception of one taster who found it too tangy. There was 1/4 cup left after making 4 sandwiches and someone’s snack, so I used it to make a quesadilla the next day. I think it would also be very nice with some grilled or bacon-wrapped pork roast or chicken.

Much more than just grilled cheese, this recipe is both comforting and suave. A tangle of sweet onions with just the right amount of tang, combined with sharp Cheddar, some pretty grill marks, and you’ve got a grilled cheese sandwich for a Saturday night. Because of the additions of brown sugar and vinegar to the onions, you don’t really have to worry about caramelizing them perfectly. With the addition of the sweet and tart stir-ins, these onions could fool me if I was hungry and ready for a weeknight dinner, although taking them all the way to their sweet, golden end does the sandwich no harm. We thought the heat needed to be decreased to low after the first 5 minutes or so. I cooked and stirred the onions every 5 minutes for about 45 minutes before I was satisfied, but I think I could’ve stopped after the volume of onions had decreased by more than half and the onions were limp and completely translucent, about 15 to 20 minutes. Once I added the sugar and vinegar, my carefully caramelized compote was so pumped up by the sweet-tart extras that all my hard work was just for that soft, savory texture. If you do choose to cheat on the caramelization, I’d chop the onions a bit more so they’re not pulling out of your sandwich in strings. A grill pan tends to take longer to make sandwiches due to the decreased surface area on the bread. The recipe didn’t say how to slice the onions. I made half-moons 1/4 inch thick. I also put my onions in the freezer for a couple hours before slicing. I had read that this could keep me from crying while cutting and it worked! The onions were fully cold but not frozen and not 1 tear was shed. Woohoo! The brown sugar and vinegar were almost immediately absorbed by the onion mixture. Even on low heat, it instantly sizzled and thickened, creating a bit of a sauce for the onions. It really needed no time to thicken, as it wasn’t liquidy. I found the onions were seasoned well at that point. We used Cracker Barrel extra sharp Cheddar, which was nice. The onion jam was divvied between the grilled cheese sandwiches, and that amount made nice tall sandwiches, but once we were eating we decided the balance was off. Next time I’d make 3 to 4 sandwiches instead of 2, as I couldn’t taste the cheese as much as I wanted. If there are less onions, you can use less cheese on each sandwich and get the same effect. I’d bet the onion jam could be frozen then thawed for a super-quick weeknight dinner. P.S. Although we love a vegetarian main, I wonder how a bit of bacon might work here…even just a slice or two finely chopped up into the tangled onion compote could go a long way.

The sweet onions with the tang of balsamic vinegar mixed with sharp Cheddar will delight. Adding to the pleasure is warm, buttery toasted bread. An adult spin on a childhood classic. The onion jam was easy to make with the help of a mandoline. I caramelized the onions for about an hour then added the other ingredients. After adding white wine vinegar and balsamic, I stopped cooking, as the liquid was a thick syrup. I did add a little more sugar per my family’s preference. After buttering the bread and adding the toppings, I browned the sandwich according to the directions and found it was perfect—the insides were lovely and gooey. I did not have a ridged griddle pan, so one sandwich was made in a skillet, and I lightly browned one side, flipped, cooked until browned, flipped again to the first side, and finished browning. The other sandwich I made on an electric panini press, and I flipped it again to make the pattern. Both approaches worked out great. I would use the panini maker next time so I can make the grilled cheese sandwiches at the same time. I did have leftover onion jam, enough to make another 2 sandwiches or to use as a sandwich topping. I really want to try it on a hamburger or on bruschetta with goat cheese.

Move over, grilled cheese and tomato, my old friend, here’s a worthy newcomer! I used a nice sharp white Cheddar and a lovely dense white sandwich loaf to make the perfect midwinter grilled cheese treat. But back to the onion jam for a moment. I caramelized the onions for over an hour because I thought I wanted—and I believe I was right here!—a really soft and jammy onion. After adding the rest of the ingredients and simmering the mixture, I did not feel a need for more sugar or vinegar. I used red wine vinegar and a nice hearty balsamic. However, in hindsight, I might use dark brown sugar instead of the light that was called for to add a bit more depth and darkness to this onion jam. On to the sandwich. I liked the assemble-in-the-pan approach, despite my initial skepticism. My usual grilled cheese approach is the opposite—assemble and then attempt to move the uncooked sandwich without losing everything on the way to the pan. It’s not easy to let a lovely grilled cheese sandwich sit and cool for a few minutes, and my wait time was barely that. There was not any jam left over, but if you use a skimpier amount, you might be able to force some leftovers. Those leftovers would be good as an accompaniment to a cheese plate or to make another round of these sandwiches. While my white Cheddar and white bread combo was lovely, I would also like to try this with an orange Cheddar and a wheat or multigrain sandwich bread. And this recipe could easily be multiplied for a larger group. I couldn’t fit more than a single sandwich in my skillet, but instead of making the 2 in succession, I used 2 pans so they would be done at the same time.

The onion jam is a great addition to a traditional grilled cheese. Cook the onions over looooow heat, allowing them to cook slowly, darken, and sweeten over time. Then when you add the vinegars (I used red wine vinegar) and the sugar, you are left with a beautifully sweet-tart onion jam that goes well with the Cheddar.

This was a great grilled cheese recipe. I used a sherry wine vinegar and a white balsamic vinegar for the onion jam. I had a bit of onion jam left over and I used it in a sofrito. The only thing I’d like to do differently is use whole-wheat bread and a cheese blend of 50% Cheddar and 50% Muenster, which I feel would give the grilled cheese better melting ability and taste.

About David Leite

I count myself lucky to have received three James Beard Awards for my writing as well as for Leite’s Culinaria. My work has also appeared in The New York Times, Martha Stewart Living, Saveur, Bon Appétit, Gourmet, Food & Wine, Yankee, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, The Washington Post, and more.

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Recipe Rating


  1. 5 stars
    Grilled cheese is like a doll. You can play with it as is or you can dress it up, and it can become a whole new game, a game filled with surprises and imaginative turns that you didn’t originally see coming. That is what this grilled cheese is—a Barbie doll that’s been given a game-changing new accessory. Originally, I thought that the onion jam was going to be too time-consuming to be worth it for just a grilled cheese sandwich. But was I oh so wrong. The chutney turned out absolutely perfect. The sweetness from the brown sugar and the acidity of the vinegars played well against each other. I added a small pinch of salt at the end. I then started thinking of all the things I could dress up with this chutney and once again became a giddy little girl who just got a new doll.

    My only fear with this recipe was that this amazing onion jam would overpower the sharp Cheddar flavor that I crave in a good grilled cheese. But once again, like most notions you conjure in your imagination, I was wrong. After cooking the sandwiches a little longer than what the directions recommended, the first bite I had was divine. The chutney did not overpower the Cheddar at all. Instead, it complemented it, just as the perfect accessory should. My one issue with this recipe is that there is simply not enough chutney left over. When I make this recipe again, I plan on doubling it so I can not only make more sandwiches, but so I have some left over. used red wine vinegar because that’s what I had on hand.

  2. This jam would be great in all kinds of applications. The pictured sandwiches appear to have been cooked in a waffle iron. Can you share any tips for using this method? Thank you!

    1. Actually, Beth, the criss-cross marks were made in a grill pan. We include instructions on how to achieve this in the recipe instructions, so give it a twirl and let us know how it goes!