A panini press is a device that heats two metal grill plates attached to either side of a clamshell hinge. It’s usually electric and can heat its grill plates on its own, but some simple presses, or unheated presses, require an external heat source such as a campfire, barbecue, or stovetop. We’re referring specifically to electric panini presses, but most of these recipes can be easily adapted for an unheated panini press.
The grill on the bottom of the clamshell is almost always fixed, while the top one usually floats on a spring, allowing it to adjust to the height of your sandwich. A small gutter runs along the side of the bottom grill plate, collecting runoff from the sandwich and escorting it to a drip funnel for disposal. The grill plates can be clamped shut or opened wide and spread out to create a double-wide cooking surface, and some presses can set the top to float just slightly above ingredients to melt cheese without actually pressing.
There are as many ways to make a panini as there are people who want to eat paninis, but before you decide what type of concoction you want to make, take a moment to familiarize yourself with the basic elements of your panini press.
As mentioned earlier, there are two basic types of panini presses: self-heated and unheated. An unheated panini press is usually a cast iron pan with a weighted lid designed to be placed over a heat source, like a campfire or stovetop, and these presses have no adjustable thermostat.
If you’re just getting started on your path to panini enlightenment, make things easy on yourself and get yourself an electric press with an adjustable thermostat. It doesn’t need to be complicated; just a simple low-medium-high adjustable setting will work. There are some electric presses out there without an adjustable setting as well—those are fine, but if you have the opportunity to get an adjustable one, you’ll appreciate the flexibility it grants you later.
The most important parts of your panini press are the grill surfaces that make the ooey, gooey, toasty magic happen. If you prioritize convenience and simplicity in your panini pursuits, pick something with nonstick surfaces.
Enthusiasts with ample storage and counter space can invest in a larger panini press that will allow you to do much more than press a sandwich: grill meat, roast veggies, prepare appetizers, or even press two sandwiches at once. But if you’re trying to live a Tuscan villa lifestyle on a downtown apartment budget, then a simple, small panini press will be molto buona.
Taking care of your grill plates is incredibly important, and when it comes to plate care, it all comes down to cleanup.
With unheated cast iron panini presses, cleanup is pretty simple: Don’t use soap. Over time, cast iron surfaces are seasoned as you cook, and using soap will wash away the natural nonstick seasoning that builds up.
Some electric panini presses have removable grill plates for easy cleanup, but having these extra moving parts could eventually give you trouble. Buying a press with fixed grill plates complicates your cleanup a little bit, but if you clean it with a thick, wet rag with a little dish soap while it’s still hot, you should be fine.
The final element you’ll want to consider when picking out a panini press is drainage.
Unheated panini presses are, again, pretty simple. Oil, cheese, and other scraps stay in the pan until you wash them out. Electric panini makers usually have some kind of gutter at the bottom of the grill plate. Some presses will have a receptacle built into the press itself, but these can be complicated to clean.
A good, simple gutter with a little funnel at the end and a tiny cup underneath it (most panini presses will come with their own, but you can use anything, even a shot glass) will handle all your grease and require minimal cleanup.
Using Your Panini Press
A panini press is pretty simple: two heated grill plates, a temperature control, and a light to tell you when it’s ready for action. There’s not much more to it than assembling your sandwich and pressing down on the whole thing for a few minutes, right?
Not so fast—if that’s as far as you take your panini experience, then you’ve only just begun to explore all the wondrous ways this device can revolutionize your sandwich life.
You’re familiar with a traditional panini, no doubt: a sandwich pressed between two grill plates. But your press can do more! Open the plates up to create a double-spread grill surface perfect for roasting asparagus, carrots, charcuterie, or even some hardier cheeses. Adjust the height of the top plate to create a mini-broiler for melting the top of an open-faced masterpiece.
Adventurous types might go beyond reconsidering how they use their panini press and start rethinking how they stack their sandwich in the first place. Who says your condiments and sauces need to stay inside the sandwich? Nothing crusts up quite as well as a thin layer of pesto spread on the outside of a freshly sliced piece of panella and grilled until it fills your kitchen with lovely notes of basil and garlic.
Cleaning and Care
Whether you’re using an unheated cast iron panini press or an electric heated one, one rule remains the same when cleaning your device: Clean it while it’s warm. If the grill plates cool down too much, the residue sticks to the surface like cement. You should be careful of a hot plate, obviously, so don’t rush to cleaning right away, but a long-handled brush and grill mitt should allow you to get scrubbing before the grill gets too close to room temperature.
With that said, your options for cleaning vary according to the type of grill or press you’re using. If your press is cast iron, it’s best to not use soap—and never let it soak, even to help release stuck-on food residue. Your cast iron press is exactly what it says it is—iron—and the last thing you want is for it to rust. It’s better to put the pan back over the heat and burn off stubborn food residue than it is to soak it off. If you do inadvertently rust your cast iron, you can save it, but you’ll have to scrub off the beautiful nonstick layer you’ve built up.
If you’re using a stainless steel grill or press, your cleaning options are a bit more user-friendly. For a press with removable grill plates, slide off the plates and give them a quick scrub in the sink with soap and water. Not letting them get cool isn’t as important, as you can let them soak and use all the soap you like, but getting to them while they’re still warm will make your job easier. If your grill doesn’t have removable plates, a simple long-handled bristle brush with a little dish soap will do the trick just fine.
Once your press is clean and dry, you can store it in a cabinet, cupboard, or right on the countertop in preparation for your next delicious press.
Stacking Your Panini
So now we’re all on the same page about what a panini press is and which type is right for you, yes? Great. Now let’s move on to the good stuff:
Fellow enthusiasts, this is a panini.
A panini is, traditionally, an Italian sandwich consisting of cheese, meats, veggies, and sauces stacked between two slices of bread (usually ciabatta) and pressed by two hot grills until the cheese melts, the bread toasts, and the meat gets even more delicious. But like many traditions, the panini has been exported to various cultures around the world, each of which has added their own unique take.
Before we get into all the different, wonderful ways to twist a panini into whatever your heart or stomach desires, let’s take a minute to familiarize ourselves with Panini 101.
Before you think of anything else about the bread you’re going to use, you have to consider the thickness. The defining aspect of a panini is the act of getting pressed between two hot grill plates—if your bread is too thick, that press action isn’t going to reach through to your other ingredients. So keep each bread slice between ¼-inch and ½-inch thick, ideally.
Next, are you making something sweet with fruit, honey, or chocolate? You might want something sweet and soft, like potato bread or cinnamon-raisin bread to pair with it. If you’re making something savory, like a hearty roast beef or chicken sandwich, a good rye or even whole-wheat will complement it well.
Some breads hold up better under melted cheese than others. White bread will almost definitely fall apart the minute it gets a little juice on it, while a strong multigrain will maintain its integrity and hold up through the entire panini experience.
Finally, don’t ever hesitate to experiment! There are a lot of options besides traditional types of bread: naan, tortillas, pitas, veggies, and even some types of cheese.
Cheese is an essential component of nearly every panini ever dreamed up, but as universal as it is, it’s also deeply personal. I can recommend cheeses for you to try, but at the end of the day, it’s up to you. Personally, I like to buy a big block of Gouda or Jarlsberg and hack off big chunks of it—but you might prefer pre-sliced cheese from the deli or dairy aisle. I prefer Cheddar, a cheese that melts like a champ (in fact, you’ll find more than a few recipes in here instructing you to “press until the cheese runs down onto the grill plate”), but that doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with a cheese that holds its shape and form even under intense heat.
Maybe you want to skip the bread and get straight to the dairy—there’s even a cheese for that! Halloumi is a hardy, firm cheese that holds up to heat even when placed directly on the panini press, making it ideal for anyone trying to stay keto.
Another crucial aspect of your panini is the toppings you put on it. For that, we have to start with vegetables. The right greens, the right balance of sweet and tart, or the right onion can make or break your concoction.
Personally, I’ve found red onion to be the most versatile of the onions, but Vidalia onions are the king of the layered roots. Spinach is the workhorse of the greens, but alfalfa sprouts can bring a brightness spinach lacks, while a crispy portion of iceberg lettuce can fill out a sandwich beautifully.
And don’t sleep on pickled goodies! A solid dill spear or some sweet bread-and-butter pickle chips can change your meal from sardonic to saccharine, while pickled beets, carrots, or even turnips can add unexpected flavor.
While often overlooked in the world of sandwiches, fruit can be a game-changer for your paninis. What pairs with nuttiness like a Granny Smith apple? What blends in with ricotta or mascarpone like strawberries? Where would hazelnut spreads be without bananas?
What would sandwiches in general be without the juicy, bountiful glory that is the tomato?
Sweet or acidic, citrus or berry, there’s a place for any fruit on your panini press. You don’t even have to pair it with anything—a few minutes on a hot grill plate can transform a simple sliced Bartlett pear into a decadent treat.
Every sandwich has an ingredient that serves as the anchor around which everything else revolves. For a grilled cheese, it’s the cheese. For an eggplant parm, it’s the eggplant. If you’re keeping your sandwich vegetarian, you have a lot of flexibility in choosing this anchor.
But if you’re adding meat to your sandwich, 9 times out of 10 the meat is going to be the anchor. With rare exceptions, meat is just too pronounced an ingredient to take the backseat, so you’ll want to build your panini around it. To do that, take a moment to think about what kind of meat you want.
Are you thinking poultry, pork, or beef? Maybe fish? Are you putting something together using leftovers or are you getting meat pre-sliced or sliced at the deli? Sliced meats stack better, but nice chunks of leftovers can bring a homemade quality to paninis that the deli rarely matches.
Finally, there are plenty of meats that pair beautifully with each other. Bacon goes with almost anything, while Italian cuisine has countless examples of cured meats teaming up to create delicious flavor combinations. Mortadella, pepperoni, capicola—if you’re thinking Italian sandwiches, you’re thinking meat.
Spreads and Condiments
Finally, the rug that really brings the room together: condiments, spreads, and sauces. When cheese, meat, and vegetables are combined on bread, you have a collection of foods in a convenient method of conveyance. But throw a little homemade Beer Mustard or Homemade Aioli on there, and you’ve got a sandwich.
If there’s one crucial piece of advice I can give you regarding condiments, it’s to know when you’ve got too much. Most sandwiches and paninis only need one condiment, and some are amazing with two. It is rare that any sandwich will ever need three or more. If you overload it, you risk throwing the entire panini off-balance.
Practice Your Italian
One last thing before you start making paninis yourself: How did this whole “panini” thing get started? To find out, you must first unlearn what you have learned. It turns out “panini” doesn’t mean “hot pressed sandwich” at all.
The word for “bread” in Latin is panis, and in Italian, that became pane. Words were derived from that, like the word for “bread roll,” panino, and its plural, panini. So when you say “panini,” to an Italian person, you’re saying “rolls of bread.”
For a long time, that’s all that word meant—if you had bread, a little cheese, and some wine, you were pretty much having a full meal. It wasn’t until Italians started stuffing peppers, olives, and meats into these bread rolls to make a panino imbottito, or “stuffed bread roll,” that we started seeing the prototype of modern-day sandwiches.
Fast-forward to 1970s Italy: Teens in Milan were hanging out in paninoteche, where they transformed the panino imbottito into the pressed panini we know today. Those kids, or paninnare, are who you have to thank for your pressed ciabatta, your toasted focaccia, and the otherwise ooey-gooey melty goodness that sizzles on your grill plate.
Some sandwich terms you might want to be familiar with:
Focaccia: a flat, oven-baked bread usually brushed with olive oil and seasoned with herbs, similar to pizza dough and great for pressed or open-faced sandwiches.
Ciabatta: a wide, soft bread with big fat nooks and crannies inside, perfect for catching butter, olive oil, or melted cheese.
Capicola: a dry-cured cut of pork shoulder, usually running from the neck down to the ribs. (When you hear Tony Soprano ask for the “gabagool,” he’s actually referring to this. It’s a Jersey thing.)
Soppressata: a type of salami made from the leftover parts of a pig, chopped, seasoned, and placed in a sausage casing along with a thick, gelatinous liquid to bind it together.
Mortadella: an Italian sausage made primarily from ground or hashed pork and spiced with black pepper, myrtle berries, and pistachios.
Panella: a simple, scored Italian-style round bread.
Prosciutto crudo: a dry-cured ham served thinly sliced and uncooked.
Mozzarella: a soft, pulled cheese traditionally made from the milk of the Italian water buffalo, but any type of milk can be used.
Burrata: a soft buffalo-milk cheese with an outer shell of mozzarella filled with a mixture of soft shreds of stretched cheese curd (called stracciatella) and cream.
Provolone: a smooth cheese with a number of variants ranging from sweet to sharp, and occasionally smoked.
Pepperoncini: a sweet pepper, known as friggitello in Italy, often pickled (not to be confused with the one-p peperoncini, a hot Italian pepper).