Everyone loves a good sandwich and that’s because there are no rules to building one: open the fridge door and create any combination of whatever you can find to put in between two slices of bread, and you have made a sandwich.
But there are secrets to a successful sandwich build. A lot has changed since the 18th century when the fourth Earl of Sandwich ordered meat in between bread.
Although we may believe some sandwiches, such as the grilled cheese, came from heaven, sandwich lovers have travelled the world and picked up exciting condiments, vegetables and meats along the way.
There are now endless layering and combination strategies. Wikipedia lists a couple of dozens examples, ranging from the simple BLT to the famous Philly cheesesteak and everyone’s favourite peanut butter and jam.
Every culture may have a claim to the best sandwich – from the Vietnamese Banh Mi, to the Philly Cheesesteak, or the Classic Cuban to the Croque Monsieure – but the only undeniable winner is the lover of sandwich!
Here are some tips that I have learned from countless mouth-watering attempts to build a better sandwich at home, as well as recipes for my favourites from around the world.
- Contrast is the key. Great sandwiches balance everything inside. Got something salty? Add something sweet. If you have something chewy, contrast it with something crispy. And if you’re using a fat (and you should be using a fat) add something fresh or acidic. Play with all kinds of different ingredients and layering combinations and enjoy every minute of your trials!
- Don’t cut corners. When you are building a really amazing sandwich, don’t get caught up in the idea that sandwiches are made for casual convenience. Just think – thinly sliced, grilled flank steak will do more for your sandwich than a package of roast beef cold cuts. Same thing goes for cutting up your own delicious roast chicken as opposed to something in a package called chicken loaf. Devote a little time to the details and you will reap the rewards.
- Brush your bread with something. Sandwich perfection begins when a warm piece of bread meets a slathering of something tasty. Tops and bottoms of the sandwich should have smears of something to build layers of flavour. Mayonnaise is the king of condiments and will make any sandwich taste better. For grilled breads, add a brush of olive oil or garlic butter to grilled breads. Expand your condiment options with different aiolis (garlicky mayo), hummus, pureed roasted vegetables or vinegary hot sauces.
- Slice everything thinly. Nothing is worse than losing the inside fillings of your sandwich with every bite, or having everything slip out onto your plate. From the meat and cheese to the vegetables, make sure everything inside is either thinly cut or cut into bite-sized pieces.
- Choose bread wisely. Not every sandwich should be built on a chic baguette. Consider your type of sandwich: are you grilling it, toasting or warming your bread, or just enjoying a super fresh, soft loaf? You might not even choose bread at all – there are plenty of other options (see my chicken and waffle slider in the online version of this columm.) Consider the science of the perfect sandwich; it all depends on the layering, toppings and how long before the sandwich is served to decide which bread will work. One thing is for sure, the fresher the bread, the better your sandwich will be.
- Don’t forget the crunch. There is something undeniably great about biting into a sandwich and experiencing a little flavour-bomb crunch. Use pickles or different types of pickled veggies. Try using sauerkraut, kimchee, crunchy shallots or even a sprinkling of potato chips. Having different textures keeps the mouth guessing and wanting more.
It is possible to take all the parts of any ordinary sandwich – bread, meat, cheese, vegetables and condiments – and turn them into something very extraordinary, transcending all of its individual parts.
Experiment with ingredients, but also with balance, layering, cutting and serving.
You will soon find that options and combinations are endless, and the fun is in building.
Blue cheese encrusted steak sandwich with whiskey glazed onions
- 2 tbsp unsalted butter
- 1 large yellow onion, sliced
- Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
- 1/2 cup dark brown sugar
- 1/3 cup whiskey
- 4 8-ounce strip steaks
- 5 ounces blue cheese crumbles
- 1/2 cup Panko bread crumbs
- 2 tbsp whipping cream
- 1 baguette, cut into 4 pieces, sliced in half, tops reserved for another day
- Extra virgin olive oil
- 1 large clove of garlic, sliced in half
- Arugula, dressed in a little olive oil and lemon juice and seasoned with salt and pepper
- Heat the butter in a large heavy skillet over medium-high heat until hot. Stir in the yellow onion, 1 teaspoon salt, and 1/2 teaspoon pepper and cook, stirring occasionally until softened and golden, for 20 to 25 minutes. Stir in the sugar, then pull the pan off the heat and carefully add the whiskey. Ignite the whiskey with a gas flame or a long kitchen match and cook until the flames die down. Continue to cook until the onions are glazed, about 2 minutes. Let cool, then season with salt to taste.
- Preheat your grill or grill pan to high heat. Season the steaks liberally with salt and pepper on both sides. Grill on each side for 3 minutes until grill marks form. Place the steaks on the top rack if necessary and finish cooking until the internal temperature reaches 52 C (125 F) for a medium-rare steak.
- In a bowl combine the blue cheese, bread crumbs and heavy cream until the mixture comes together.
- Once steaks reach 52 C, divide the blue cheese mixture between the steaks and pat it evenly over the top. Adjust the oven to broil setting. Broil the steaks for 3-5 minutes.
- Brush the baguette with a little olive oil and place on the grill for just a few minutes to get char marks. Remove from the grill and rub with the garlic. Place a blue cheese encrusted strip loin on top of a baguette bottom. Top with some whiskey glazed onions and a handful of arugula. Enjoy!
Banh Mi sandwiches
- 2 cups Thai sweet chilli sauce
- 2 pounds skinless, boneless chicken thighs
Ingredients– PICKLED VEGETABLES
- 1/2 cup water
- 1/4 cup rice vinegar
- 1/4 cup sugar
- 1/2 tsp kosher salt
- Pinch of crushed red pepper
- 3 large carrots, julienned
- 1/2 red onion, thinly sliced
- 1/4 pound daikon radish, julienned
Ingredients– BANH MI
- 1 baguette, split and grilled and cut into 4
- 1/2 cup mayonnaise
- Liverwurst pate
- 1 cucumber, thinly sliced lengthwise
- 10 large cilantro sprigs
- 1 jar pickled jalapeño slices
- Put the chicken in a re-sealable plastic bag with all but 1/4 of the sweet chilli sauce. Seal the bag and marinate for at least an hour.
- In a small saucepan, bring the water, vinegar, sugar, salt and crushed red pepper to a boil. Transfer the brine to a large bowl and let cool to room temperature. Add the carrots, onion and daikon and cover to keep them submerged. Refrigerate the vegetables for at least 30 minutes and up to 3 days. Drain the vegetables just before using.
- Light a grill or preheat a grill pan over medium-high heat. Remove the chicken from the marinade and grill the chicken over moderate heat, turning once until just cooked through, about 14 minutes. Transfer to a cutting board and let rest for 5 minutes. Roughly chop the chicken thighs into bite-size pieces and toss in a bowl with the remaining sweet chilli sauce.
- Spread the cut sides of the baguettes with mayonnaise and grill for a couple of minutes to warm. Bring to a cutting board to build your Banh Mi. Spread a generous amount of liverwurst on the top and bottom pieces of bread. Arrange the cucumber slices on the bottom halves. Top with the chicken and then the pickled vegetables. Garnish with the cilantro sprigs and pickled jalapeno. Close the sandwiches and serve right away. Enjoy!
Ingredients– OLIVE SALAD
- 1 cup pitted olives, preferably a mix, roughly chopped
- 2 tbsp capers, rinsed, dried, and roughly chopped
- 2 to 3 Italian hot-pickled peppers (such as pepperoncini), chopped
- 3 tbsp olive oil
- 1 tbsp red wine vinegar
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 1 tbsp minced shallots
- 1 tbsp minced celery
- 1/2 cup roasted red pepper strips
- 4 ounces salami, thinly sliced
- 1 loaf focaccia, halved lengthwise
- 4 ounces provolone cheese, thinly sliced
- 4 ounces hot mortadella, thinly sliced
- 4 ounces hot capicola, thinly sliced
- Combine olives, shallot, celery, red peppers, capers, hot peppers (if using) and olive oil in a small bowl. Stir to combine. Season to taste with vinegar, salt, and pepper.
- Tear out some of the doughy insides of the bread if it’s especially thick, and lay bread slices down face up on cutting board. Spoon olive mixture on both top and bottom halves. Layer meat and cheese onto bottom half, then top with the top half. For the best flavour, wrap in plastic and allow bread to soak up the juices for one hour before serving. Cut into quarters and serve. Enjoy!
Grilled chocolate sandwiches
- 12 1/2-inch-thick slices pound cake
- 12 good chocolate squares, such as Ghirardelli or Lindt
- Options: cherry preserves, peanut butter, sliced bananas
- 1/3 cup unsalted butter, melted
- Confectioner’s sugar, for garnish
- Raspberries, for garnish
- Lay pound cake slices on a work surface.
- If using the options (and I highly recommend using them all!) cover 6 of the slices with peanut butter, 1/2 tablespoon of the cherry preserves and then the banana slices. Top each with 2 pieces of the chocolate. Top with remaining pound cake slices and brush melted butter on both sides.
- Using a non-stick skillet or griddle, grill sandwiches over medium-low heat until chocolate has melted and bread is a golden brown color. Dust sandwiches with confectioners’ sugar and serve warm. Garnish with fresh raspberries. Enjoy!
Patrick Mathieu is an acting captain at Waterloo Fire Rescue in Ontario. He was recently featured on Food Network’s Chopped Canada. firstname.lastname@example.org @StationHouseCCo