Now, it’d be foolish of me to declare that there is a right way to make a sandwich, that I have discovered it, and that you all ought to accept my word as gospel. That would be a bridge too far. However, I am arrogant enough to believe that I’ve discovered some tips for making sandwiches that will likely improve the way most people approach the craft. So here we go.
Before we begin, I’m going to focus on cold cut sandwiches, for two primary reasons: 1) When people say “sandwich”, this is most often what they mean and 2) Given the great variety of what might be called a sandwich, from hot subs to Ruebens to wraps to hot dogs, there is hardly a tip that will truly work for all. So, most of what I’m going to offer you here today will be specific to cold cut sandwiches, though you might find certain pieces applicable to other forms.
Without further ado, let’s begin…
As with most any food, the quality of ingredients used to make your sandwich will have a huge impact on the final product. No where is this more true than the bread. If you use crappy bread, you are going to have a crappy sandwich experience. It’s just that simple. Think about it: What is the first thing your mouth contacts when you eat a cold cut sandwich? The bread. If it doesn’t, you’re eating it wrong. The bread can make or break a sandwich. My rule of thumb is that if the bread isn’t good enough to eat on it’s own, it isn’t good enough for a sandwich. Now, what makes good bread is subjective. I’m not going to get all food snobby on you and insist that your bread be organic or artisan or whole wheat or this, that, or the next thing. What matters is that you like the bread. I have my opinion on what I like but you are not me and thus your preference might be other. Just make sure you enjoy the bread. If you don’t, stop buying it. There is no reason to have bread in your house that you don’t like. If you do, stop eating it and turn it into bread crumbs or croutons or something.
That being said, not all bread is created equal. Bread is more than a filling delivery system. Bread provides the structure of a sandwich. So, before you choose your bread, consider what you will be putting inside the bread. Are you going to be using oil and vinegar? If so, you’re going to want something that can absorb it without getting soggy. Are you making a club sandwich? Well, unless you can dislocate your jaw, you’re probably going to need to used sliced bread. Don’t just grab bread arbitrarily… even if you like it. Think about how it will support and compliment that which goes inside. But choose wisely. Or else.
I’m going to be a bit presumptuous here and assume you are putting meat in your cold cut sandwich. For my money, if I am not putting meat in it, than I’m making a grilled cheese, and that has different rules. Also, if I’m making a grilled cheese, I’m probably putting meat in it anyway. So, yea, you are putting meat in it. The meat work starts long before you actually begin to construct your sandwich. It actually begins when you are at the deli counter placing your order. If the person behind the counter doesn’t ask you how thin you want it, interject before they start cutting and tell them what you want. A deli slicer is adjustable with the simple turn of a dial so there is no reason not to get the meat sliced as you want it. In order to take advantage of the next meat tip (hehehe) I’m going to give you, you’re going to want to get your meat sliced thin-but-not-too-thin. It should be thin enough that it can be easily folded over without breaking but not so thin that it sticks together or falls apart. If you go to the same deli counter, get it sliced the way you like and then ask what dial setting the slicer was on. Next time you go back, just give them that number.
Okay, so you’ve got your perfectly sliced meat. Now, we’ve got to start layering. There are two things to think about when layering, both of which contribute to a better and more complex eating experience, both in terms of taste and texture. The first is taking advantage of negative space. A sandwich is not a gold brick; it should have some gaps in it. Don’t just drop a flat piece of turkey on their; lower one edge to the bread and let it sort of drape and fall naturally into place. Repeat until you’ve got most of the bread covered. But then stop! If you’re using more than one type of meat, you want to alternate your layers. This is the second thing to consider. You don’t just want a pile of turkey and then a pile of ham. You want your meats to work together. They should be dancing! So, yea, fold and layer your meats. It will make the sandwich more visually appealing, will feel better when you bite into it, and it will taste better.
I separate the cheese from the meat because, while there are some similarities, there are some differences as well. Cheese should be cut a little bit thicker. You’re not going to want to fold it because cheese doesn’t fold well. It will just end up breaking and doubling up the thickness. But you will want to work it into the layers. Again, this will add to the complexity of the sandwich. BUT, mind your ratios. Your meat to cheese ratio should be between 3:1 and 2:1. So, using the above example of turkey and ham, DO NOT go turkey-cheese-ham-cheese-turkey-cheese-ham-cheese. That’s too much cheese. Go turkey-ham-cheese-turkey-ham-cheese. And remember that your cheese is a bit thicker than your meat, so each layer should have a slice or two less.
You can make a perfectly good sandwich without veggies. But, oh, what you can do with veggies. Lettuce, tomato, onion, hot peppers, pickles… these are my faves. But don’t feel limited to that. Shredded carrots, cucumbers, green pepper, olives… all bring something to the table. Just make sure you have good, fresh veggies. After bread, this is probably the part of a sandwich where quality of ingredients matters most. However, before you begin, again consider the type of sandwich your making. I won’t eat an Italian sub without hot peppers; but I’d never put them on ham and cheese. That’s just not the way I roll. Similar to the bread, you have to really think about what you’re going for. Besides the taste element they bring, what veggies are best at is adding texture. The crunch of crisp lettuce, the juice of a ripe tomato… meat and cheese can’t do that for ya; you need veggies. Now, this isn’t to say that all sandwiches should have veggies. I’ve had a number of great sandwiches sans veggies. Again, consider your tastes and the purpose of your sandwich. Also, consider when you’ll be eating the sandwich. If you are making one early in the morning to bring to work, odds are the tomato will start to get soggy and slimy in the fridge. Conversely, if you are packing one to store in your backpack during a long hike, your lettuce will probably wilt and that crunch will be gone, never to return. But don’t be afraid to use veggies. They can really do a lot for a sandwich and are a nice way to get a serving or two into your diet.
And, if you are wondering, yes, a good cole slaw qualifies as a veggie. Cole slaw as a sandwich topper is usually reserved for hot sandwiches, such as pulled pork, but I see no reason to limit it thusly. And if it is a truly great cole slaw, it can double as one of your…
Everyone has an opinion on condiments. Some of them are right (yay, spicy mustard fans) and some of them are wrong (boo, mayonnaise fans), but everyone has one. But before I go on, let me let you in on a little secret: if you use a really, really good cheese, on that is flavorful with a bit of a punch, you’ll find that you might not even need a condiment.
However, let’s assume you are using condiments. It is fitting that we end with condiments not only because it is often the last thing you add to the sandwich, but it also brings us full circle to the bread, because one must achieve harmony between the two. As I mentioned above, certain bread/condiment combinations just don’t work. If you put oil and vinegar onto a sandwich made with sliced white bread, that thing is going to melt before you get through your second bite. The bread simply can’t stand up to the vinegar. However, your condiments must also compliment your meat and cheese selection. Spicier meats don’t play well with mayonnaise. Mustard and saltier meats (e.g., prosciutto… which isn’t my favorite sandwich meat, mind you, because of its elasticity, but I know some people love it) can quickly become overwhelming. If you are using the right sort of cole slaw, the kind that is vinegar based, don’t go and sully your thoughtful decision with mayonnaise. Oh, and never, ever put ketchup on a sandwich. Just don’t do it. Okay? Agreed? I don’t want to have to start hitting people.
Some people, like my wife, like to put chips on their sandwich. They like the crunch it provides. To me, this is evidence of a flawed sandwich. If you want some crunch, consider another bread or add some veggies.
Toothpicks can come in handy if you go big with your sandwich, but remember to take them out. Please don’t enter yourself into the running for a Darwin Award by choking to death on an ignored toothpick.
I know toasted sandwiches are all the rage now, but I don’t really get it. If that is your thing, I guess go for it, but consider which parts take well to toasting and which parts don’t. Hot lettuce is not appealing to me.
So there you have it. How to make a sandwich. Again, this isn’t a recipe mind you, but some tips. Tips which, if followed, I’m confident will improve your sandwich making and eating experience immensely. I hope you enjoy them. I enjoyed writing them. And I look forward to the comment war that I’m sure will ensue.