The secrets to building the perfect sandwich, from the bread to the textures to the acid
As a society we have a tendency to undervalue sandwiches. Pile all the ingredients for a bahn mi — multiple meats, pate, pickled vegetables, herbs and sauce — on a plate and it would be considered a fine entree. Layer it between two slices of bread and it becomes a lunch that’s supposed to be cheap and quick.
But the beauty of a sandwich, according to Mason Hereford of Turkey and the Wolf in New Orleans, is that it can accomplish things a regular plate of food can’t. “If you have a plate of food, there is a lot of opportunity for the diner to choose their own adventure,” he says. Diners might put too much sauce on each bite, or avoid one ingredient altogether. But in a sandwich, “the bite is preordained. If it’s 10 or 20 bites, each one gets to be determined by the creator of the sandwich,” Hereford explains. “You get to balance everybody’s bite for them.”
Of course, with great power comes great responsibility, in this case, to the craft of making a truly transcendent sandwich. There are rules to creating a proper Italian sub, a po’ boy, or a French dip, which many of us are fine with leaving to someone else. But making a great sandwich at home can — and should — be done. We collected advise from sandwich experts across the country, all of whom specialize in different cuisines, and many of their tips were the same. So if you have no idea how to craft a sandwich, start here. In no time, your sad desk lunches will be a thing of the past.
Less can be more
While it’d be easy to assume the more meat and cheese on a sandwich, the better, the key to a great sandwich is balance — which sometimes means holding back on your most decadent ingredients. “You could have the most delicious melty sandwich with all the best ingredients, but if that bread is soggy or slippery [with too much sauce], it’s just not going to taste as good,” says Angela Mullenhour, assistant general manager of Handlebar, a vegetarian and vegan pub in Chicago. This takes trial and error, but it’s also probably easy to anticipate your strongest flavors beforehand. Consider, for instance, the beef dip sandwich with taleggio served at Ends Meat in Brooklyn. Yes, a hot sandwich oozing with creamy cheese sounds decadent, but, as Ends Meat founder John Ratliff explains, “you have to be very sparing with the taleggio because it’s a washed-rind cheese. It’s really pungent, and it’ll take over the whole sandwich.”
This also makes temperature a consideration, as that will affect the resulting bite. “If it’s a hot sandwich, you’re going to need a little more protein because it does kind of cook down and melt down into the bread,” says Ratliff, “versus a cold sandwich, where the protein doesn’t change at all.” Similarly, heat makes greens wilt and cheese melt. Think about that before putting an entire Sweetgreen order on your roll.
Do not mistake lettuce for texture
Texture is an easy thing to forget in a sandwich, because a certain degree of it can come from toasted bread. “A lot of times, people throw lettuce on there so you get away with not having to add texture,” Hereford says. But having some contrasting textures in the ingredients really elevates your creation.
This is especially true for vegetarian and vegan sandwiches. Mullenhour, of Handlebar, says the restaurant doesn’t rely on plant-based meat, but often borrows from traditional meat-cooking techniques when making vegetables, whether it’s chicken-frying mushrooms or smashing and searing a black bean and quinoa patty. It’s about getting those textures right, rather than just layering roasted vegetables on top of each other and calling it a day.
A lot of that texture can be achieved by being conscious with layering. Since you’re crafting a perfect bite, where you place certain ingredients is incredibly important. Ratliff says he tries to layer stronger and subtle flavors between each other, and breaks up meats with other components. He describes one creation in which one side of the bread is layered with bacon, the other with pork liver pate, both sides are toasted, and then everything else goes in the middle, which tastes much different than if the meat ingredients were placed together. “Layering drastically affects the way a sandwich is eaten,” he says.
But like Hereford says, do not think texture has to come from lettuce, or any other “traditional” source. Texture in your sandwich can look like potato chips, handfuls of fresh herbs, or hard and soft cheeses together. “The tomato sandwich we run in the summer has, like, an entire half-cup of sunflower seeds, an abnormal amount of something to put on a sandwich,” Hereford says.
Consider the bread
There are few things more disappointing than a beautiful sandwich with the wrong bread, like when shaved meats and cheeses are served on a loaf so crusty it cuts up the roof of your mouth. Or when a juicy filling gets paired with bread so thin and soft it falls apart before you can even eat it. “The bread is the vehicle on the sandwich highway from plate to mouth,” Mullenhour says. “You can’t have the passengers flying out before they reach that destination.”
Softer, thinner breads are generally better for softer fillings like cheese, avocado, or anything that can be bitten through easily. If you’re making something like grilled cheese, go too thick and the bread might burn before the cheese starts melting. However, the more you pile things up, the sturdier the bread will need to be; otherwise, it’ll likely get soggy and fall apart. A soft sandwich loaf is just not going to stand up to a pile of brisket with slaw and sauce.
Hereford also notes that bread is not just a vehicle for your sandwich fixin’s, but another opportunity to consider texture and flavor. “We’ve done sandwiches that needed an acidity that wasn’t up front, so instead of lemon juice, we went with a very strong sourdough,” he says. Another sandwich required more texture, though not crunch, so Hereford found a heavily seeded wheat loaf. Toasting, of course, can add that texture too, though Hereford has a tip he learned from Turkey and the Wolf chef de cuisine Colleen Quarls: Rest your toast as you would a steak. “If you toast your bread and immediately start making your sandwich, the bread continues to be hot and steams itself, and gets soggy,” he says. Letting it cool, applying your sauces, and then building the sandwich helps it keep its integrity.
Drop some acid
Think about how many recipes call for you to squeeze a lemon over the whole thing when you’re done. If we’re going with the idea that a sandwich should be crafted just like any other plate, then why not here as well? Hereford says the chefs at Turkey and the Wolf squeeze lemon over the sandwich components just before they assemble the whole thing “to really brighten it up” and break through any especially rich ingredients. Mullenhour also suggests having a variety of pickles and giardiniera around for extra kick.
No matter what you do, though, remember that great sandwiches are made through experimentation. “If you make a sandwich once and never adjust it, you’re doing yourself a disservice,” says Ratliff. The work of a true sandwich artist, after all, is never done.
Dingding Hu is an artist and writer based in New York whose work is a combined reflection of self discovery, food craving, people watching, as well as pop culture.