Our Guide to Building a Better Sandwich
Forever, since the PB&J of my childhood, I have taken sandwiches very seriously. Having always had very definite thoughts on everything from crunchy peanut butter to soggy bread, I’ve dedicated much of my adult life to perfecting the art of sandwich making.
For the sake of research (I swear!), I go out of my way to track down interesting breads, unexpected fillings, authentic ethnic street foods and regional sandwich traditions. Then I translate all that I learn and love into thoughtful stacks in my own kitchen.
My “research” is ongoing, naturally, but I know for sure that the best sandwiches are comprised of just a few very specific elements. Here is my tried-and-true formula for building a better – the best! – sandwich, including some outside-the-box ideas.
What Holds it All In?
Begin your sandwich build by working from the outside in. That is, consider first which bread, flat, wrap or leaf will hold the meat of the meal. Think about texture, crumb and flavor, and whether or not it will scrape the roof of your mouth. A good base is like a set of strong bones; it needs to be appropriately sturdy for sandwich success.
- Bread: Do not limit yourself to the sliced white bread on your counter right now. Play around with different varieties for each sandwich you make. Pair flavorful, herby breads with saltier meats; conversely, choose salty rye horns or pretzel sticks to complement mildly flavored meats. Toast English muffins to enclose any stack crowned with a runny egg, or layer veggies and hummus on horizontally-sliced focaccia. Make sure whichever bread you choose is fresh and chewy enough so it doesn’t crumble in your mouth, but not so chewy that it’s hard to bite.
- Wraps: Tortillas, pitas and wraps are excellent options for filling-focused sandwiches, and they’re great for people looking to dial down the carbs. So many varieties are now available, so let the flavor of the wrap inspire how you will fill it. Fill a tomato-basil wrap with arugula, fresh mozzarella and pine nuts for crunch. Or, smear a chipotle-chile wrap with cream cheese and stuff it with roast beef.
- Lettuce: For light lunches and gluten-free options, let lettuce be the bones of your sandwich. Choose heads based on flavor and texture, and seek out leaves that are large enough to fill. Bibb lettuce has tender, sturdy leaves with a very mild flavor; Romaine offers maximum crunch; and Iceberg lends cool, crisp texture without much flavor at all.
The Heart of the ‘Wich
Go beyond the deli counter to find the starring layers of your ultimate sandwich. For example, always make more than enough of your favorite main courses, and use them to make sandwiches the next day. Leftover short ribs, chicken thighs and meatloaf work well for sandwich fixings that are hearty enough for lunch the next day or another supper later in the week.
Don’t stop at meats either! Marinated and grilled vegetables are delicious and nutritious ways to fill a sandwich too. Cauliflower, zucchini, eggplant and summer squash absorb flavor beautifully and jarred fillets of roasted red peppers and sun-dried tomatoes add depth and intense flavor that satisfies the hungriest bellies.
Dry Sandwiches? Never Again!
Creaminess takes many forms, and you can count on it to add flavor, maintain moisture and even act as the glue that keeps your sandwich together.
- Cheese: Take cheese selection seriously when building each sandwich. Think about how it will melt, whether or not its flavor will overpower the rest of the sandwich or if its high fat content will coat your tongue. And, determine if you are looking for a contrast to the meat or a complement to it. Contrast spicy meat with a sweet or mild cheese. Complement an apricot-glazed ham with lemon stilton. Pair a soft Pecorino cheese with pesto-rubbed turkey breast. Experiment to find your favorite combinations.
- Sauce: You might settle for simple mayo or mustard, but keep an open mind when considering the myriad of other options available. Try saucing your sandwich with barbecue, salad dressings or marinades. And if you stick with mustard, play with the many sweet, spicy, whole-grain, garlicky and wine-kissed options on the shelves.
- Something Surprising: Blow your own sandwich-lovin’ mind and discover added creaminess from the most unexpected ingredients. Pimiento cheese dip, hummus, avocado, cottage cheese and olive tapenades lend tons of flavor while providing the creamy consistency that takes any sandwich over the top. Jams and jellies pack nothing but punch too. And, of course, you can never go wrong when topping any sandwich with a fried egg bursting with runny yolk!
Presentation is Everything
Temperature and texture are, quite possibly, the most important components of a successful sandwich. Toast bread to prevent sogginess or add crushed chips to create an interesting, crunchy layer. Keep veggies cold and crisp, and cheeses melty and warm. If the meat is meant to be hot, serve it right out of the press or pan, and if it’s meant to be cold, serve it straight from the fridge.
Stack for Success
After you’ve thought of all else, be sure to stack ingredients with strategy and care. Layer every sandwich while considering how and when you want each component to hit your tongue. I like to taste sweet layers before spicy ones so heat doesn’t overwhelm my mouth. I also like to layer sour or pickled ingredients on top of my sandwiches to cleanse my palate with every bite. How you stack a sandwich is totally up to you. Tailor each one to your own personal tastes and cravings.
You know, an added bonus of my sandwich fascination is that there will always be more for me to research. And that research will always be tasty. The science of sandwich making is simple, but the sandwiches themselves can be quite cutting edge. Now, if someone could start researching the perfect potato chip to serve on the side…