How To Make a Sandwich

489px-Edward_Montagu-2Now, 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…

Bread

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.

Meat

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.

Cheese

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.

Veggies

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…

Condiments

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.

Other Considerations

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.

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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.

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38 thoughts on “How To Make a Sandwich

  1. There is a piece you left out:

    Many people make their sandwiches on a plate when they should be making their sandwiches on a cutting board. That way, once the sandwich is made, you can cut it in half (or thirds or quarters or what have you) and not have to choose between a knife blunt enough to not do damage to plates or a knife sharp enough to make the sandwich look pretty once you’ve sliced it through.

    As for condiments, a good oil and vinegar is pretty much superior to both mayo and mustard. You have to get to aioli-level stuff before finding a condiment superior to a simple oil/vinegar/spice mix.

    (As for the meats themselves, it’s best to have the thinnest sliced meats you possibly can and wad them up and layer and fold them than to have the same amount of meat in a thicker cut just lying there flat.)

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      • Chicago gal transplanted to Puerto Rico here, and I cannot even begin to express how much I miss Lebanon bologna.

        I’m, more or less, a health food nut.
        Nevertheless, I never cared to learn what is actually in Lebanon bologna. I don’t care. Bring on the nitrates/ites. Meanwhile, hand me some rye bread, Havarti cheese, vidalia onion, Hickory Farms sweet/hot mustard, romaine and some avocado if available, and I’m good for the whole dang day, come what may.

        Come to think of it, maybe it’s my deficiency in Lebanon bologna that’s turned me into a cranky old sot.

        On a positive note, I live within a few twisty hilly miles of the only deli on the island that carries Boar’s Head. No Lebanon bologna, but … other yummy sammich stuff.

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        • You had good Lebanon Bologna in Chicago?
          … i’m surprised. I cant’ get good stuff out here [Pittsburgh] (mostly because of poor turnover).
          Lebanon Bologna’s pure beef, smoked up good and sweet.

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          • My oldest friend turned me on to it, way back in the ’70s. She hailed from Lebanon, PA. So yeah, I was pretty confident she knew a thing or two about Lebanon bologna.

            And yes, I could easily get the yummy stuff from a selection of Chicago-area delis. Crikey, I could even get it from the local Jewel for a time.

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    • I don’t really disagree with anything here and will co-sign your point on the cutting board. The only caveat I have is that, while O&V is indeed superior (and let’s not forget balsamic vinegar, which is ideal for certain sandwiches, though not necessarily the cold cut variety) in a vacuum, I think certain sandwiches are better suited to other condiments. If I’m making a pretty basic ham and cheese on sliced bread, I’m going with a good spicy mustard.

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  2. I generally like a roasted meat about a thin as I can get it. Turkey, chicken, roast beef, ham — these should be sliced thinly enough that they come out shredded. This creates a lot of negative space in the folds between the bits of shredded thin meat.

    I’m with Jaybird on oil and vinegar as the favored condiment. I will mix up oil and vinegar in a squeeze bottle along with a little bit of oregano and basil, and some salt and pepper. Shake well, squeezes on to the bread easily. Mayonnaise by itself is bland. I need something mixed into it, and I’ve taken to Prejean’s Cajun Seasoning.

    Many people like provolone cheese for its fatty texture but demure willingness to defer to more assertive flavors of meat and vegetable. I much prefer cream Havarti, which doubles-down on the texture but brings enough flavor that you know it’s there by taste as well as mouth feel. Now, if you smoke the provolone first, that’s a different story.

    Red leaf lettuce. Raw cucumber. Onion is tasty on a sub, but raw onion tends to produce these long, unsightly strings, and diced onion is a bit too strong.

    For a sandwich, sliced bread is good. Rolls are better. My favorite are ciabatta rolls but a baguette, torta, or a seeded (poppy or sesame, I like them both) hoagie roll are the way to go.

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    • My problem with shredding the meat is that after a couple days in the fridge, it all clumps together and the potential for negative space is lost. If you are getting the meat sliced that day or (better yet!) slicing it yourself… then, yes, go thin.

      Smoked cheeses are exactly the sort that say, “Eschew the condiments! Let my taste shine through!”

      Muenster is an overlooked cheese and Swiss seems to have mistakenly fallen by the way side.

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      • If when you bring your meat home from the deli, take it out of the plastic bag, remove the “paper” that they sliced it on, gently pat dry with paper towel, store in air tight container on fresh paper it will generally last longer in the fridge. Without the clumping that goes on. Most fridges are colder than the deli case (which is why at the end of the day we put the meats and cheese back in the walk in) so the temperature cause the condensate on the meats which cause them to stick, clump and spoil at a faster rate. Now these tips are what my grandparents used when they ran a small grocery/deli that sold sandwiches to several industries near their farm. Grew up learning how to slice meat (heh, heh), build a sandwich etc. Most of our sandwiches started with a whole grain bread spread with a butter/herb spread we made daily (left over spread was fed to the pigs) then on one side would layer meat (the gentle slump of ham from the right, turkey to the left is so ingrained in me I didn’t stop to think about it until you brought this up) topped with a thick (twice the thickness of the meat) slice of cheese, on the other slice of bread the veggies would go.
        Bibb lettuce, romaine or mixed greens, never ice berg lettuce. Red onions sliced very thinly or Vidalia onions, tomatoes, seeded and chopped, sliced olives (black/green) thinly sliced peppers (hot or sweet, roasted stored in a spicy olive oil), thin slices of seeded cucumber. Then they are cut on the diagonal and wrapped in waxed paper. We used to a daily (Monday thru Friday) run of 87 sandwiches until my Grandparents retired. He was 82 and she a spry 75. They then started making sandwiches for the senior center/meals on wheels until he passed at 88. She went a few years later, cause she said she just missed him too much. They had known each other since they were babies.

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      • Turkey can vary too. Thick if it’s fresh-cut and the only meat you’re using, thin if you’re combining it with, say, ham.

        And it can always be improved by being topped with sauerkraut and melted cheese.

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  3. I have nothing to add, except to say that the best sandwich I’ve ever had (a picture of it can be seen here) doesn’t have meat, but does have fruit, which you don’t even mention. I demand a fruit section.

    OK, now I’m hungry…

    It’s spinach, havarti, and pear, by the way. Mmmm… now I’m hungry.

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    • A sentence is really just a word sandwich. Just as the mustard needs to go on top of the lettuce but beneath the mayonnaise to properly make a particular type of sandwich, so the word “not” has a prescribed place in the sentence or the meaning is lost, and the diner gets a perplexed look on their face as they chew, their intellect trying to fathom the exact nature of the flaw their taste buds detected.

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  4. In the past year or so, I’ve come to the conclusion that spinach is almost always a more interesting choice for a sandwich than any kind of lettuce… Every now and then when I pull a fresh head of butter lettuce from my garden in the winter, I reconsider that conclusion, but nine times out of ten these days I’m going with spinach…

    And, I’ve recently discovered the pleasure of adding a bit of cilantro to a sandwich. It’s a whole new world… I’ve also used basil and some other herbs (add rosemary to that vinegarette for some good punch to a nice turkey sandwich) in the past.

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    • With Andrew 100% on the spinach; it can also be used on pressed or toasted/baked sandwiches, another advantage over lettuce. Plus it actually has some nutritional benefit. It’s clearly superior in most scenarios (especially if you already have something else providing the crunch, like bacon or pickles or raw onions).

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      • I almost never use lettuce on anything, substituting spinach or kale in places where one might normally find lettuce.

        And again, best sandwich I’ve ever had: pear, spinach, and havarti from Chapman’s Pie Wagon II.

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    • I’ve always preferred spinach to lettuce. Mustn’t let spinach get too old or it gets bitter. But even older spinach can be wilted with some garlic, butter (or good olive oil) and black pepper, perhaps even a bit of diced ham or bacon if you are of the porkly disposition.

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    • Spinach can be a bit too cocky. Lettuce knows its place. It’s like sound editing – you do your job and you earn your money, you might even get an Oscar if you’re good, but you can’t expect millions of people to tune into the awards ceremony.

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    • Great point on spinach. I often use baby spinach in place of lettuce or, if I can get it, baby arugula.

      Another place I love to put spinach is on pizza… plus it allows me to trick myself into thinking I’m eating healthy.

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      • It has been revealed to me by the Angel Gabriel that there’s nothing the archangels like better than Lou Malnati’s spinach deep dish pizza while watching their beloved Green Bay Packers.

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  5. The best sandwhich is roast beef on rye with lettuce, tomatos, onions, maybe pickles, and mayo or mustard depending on the flavor that your going for.

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    • There is no “best” sandwich. That kind of thinking goes against the spirit of sandwich-making. A meatball sub, a chunky tuna salad on rye, an almost-too-thick cheeseburger from the backyard grill…the options are endless. A basic example: what’s the right cheese for a ham sandwich? It depends. Swiss goes one direction, muenster another. If the ham is hearty enough, it can tackle a chedder. Heat the sandwich up and the rules change again.

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  6. Good post! I agree with most of the comment-ees too… spinach is where it’s at as far as greens on your sandwich. Sandwiches are my favorite food, by far. I bought the True TSSU-48-12 (this one) sandwich prep table for my house because I love them so much (and I had some extra room in the kitchen- very large, mind you). Makes things real easy.

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