Tips for Making Great Sandwiches

(Published by Tribune Media Syndicates, June 2009)
by Francine Segan

Since 1762, when John Montagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich, put a slice of cold roast beef between two hunks of bread so he could eat while still playing poker, we've loved the sandwich.

And with good reason. The sandwich has a lot going for it. It's economical and simple to make. It's a complete meal, a one-pot supper without the pot. According to a recent survey by NPD, a market research firm, the most popular main dish for dinner in American homes is the sandwich.

Sandwiches are also easy to eat--no plate or fork required. Holding food in your hands is deeply satisfying. "There's something about a sandwich that triggers an almost primordial, caveman-like automatic positive response," notes Dr. Judith Steinhart. "It's a symbol of plenty and pleasure as you lift an entire meal in your hands-a compact mass of food, sustenance, and pleasure, almost the whole world in your hands."

"Sandwiches allow us to enjoy the food we like wherever we want-on a picnic or at our office desk," says Sisha Ortúzar, who along with Tom Colicchio, host of Bravo's Top Chef, co-founded 'Wichcraft, the highly successful chain of upscale sandwich shops. "I look at sandwiches not as a separate category of food but only as a different format for any foods that I like. You can enjoy tomatoes and mozzarella as a salad but also as a sandwich, you can have a meatloaf sandwich and get the same comforting feeling as if you were eating it on a plate, maybe more."

"Good, quality bread is absolutely key to a good sandwich. Soft, mushy white bread can't make a good sandwich," warns Mark Bittman, TV host, cookbook author, and writer of the popular "Minimalist" column in the New York Times. His advice is to use your favorite sandwich ingredients, but experiment with different breads. Try quality peasant, rye, sour dough, olive or nut breads as well as ciabatta, an Italian bread with a thin crisp crust and soft center.

Anything we can fit between two pieces of bread, as well as some things we can't, have seen the inside of a sandwich. In the 1930s the comic strip Blondie first introduced the "Dagwood Sandwich," a combination of tongue, sardines, beans, onions, horseradish and mustard, which over time grew larger adding more and more ingredients. What might succeed in the comics doesn't necessarily work so well off the page. It is possible to have too much of a good thing. "You don't need to make a skyscraper to make a good sandwich. It's hard to bite into a five-inch tall sandwich," laughs Bittman.

"One important aspect of making sandwich is something we at 'Wichcraft like to call 'sandwich architecture.' The way that you build a sandwich is important in terms of texture, flavor combinations and durability," says Ortúzar. "When you build a sandwich the right way, the experience of eating it is always better." It's easy to improve on your sandwich-making skills. You can put a new twist on your favorites by adding just one new ingredient, say sliced avocado to BLT or diced apples to chicken salad. Or try making one element from scratch, like broiled bell pepper slices or pickled red onions (toss sliced onions with vinegar and a little sugar), or even your own homemade mustard.

10 Tips from sandwich experts:

-1- Good ingredients make good sandwiches.

-2- "Since sandwiches are usually closed, don't worry about how ingredients look, only how they taste. Use odd leftovers like the ends of a roast, broken mushroom bits, bruised tomatoes, and crumbled cheese." - Ortúzar

-3- "One of the biggest secrets to a good sandwich is butter. Lightly butter the bread before adding the other ingredients. Butter seals the bread so it doesn't become soggy by absorbing moisture from the other ingredients." - Bittman

-4- "Be as creative with a sandwich as you are with every other kind of cooking. Avoid preconceptions, like always combining lettuce, tomato and mayo, and let your imagination guide you." - Ortúzar

-5- "Don't mix ingredients that don't make sense together. If you wouldn't eat them together on a plate you probably won't want to eat them in a sandwich." - Ortúzar

-6- "When making grilled cheese sandwiches, always butter the bread, not the pan, for even distribution. Experiment with different types of cheese. If you're used to American cheese, try Cheddar or other good melting cheeses like Monterey Jack, Gruyére, Gouda or Colby." - Laura Werlin, author of Great Grilled Cheese (Stewart, Tabori & Chang)

-7- "Avoid "unrecognizable" meats like luncheon meat. It's much better to use inexpensive but honest ingredients, like hardboiled eggs. A simple garlic-sautéed spinach served with sliced hard boiled eggs on good bread is a wonderful, simple sandwich, much better than just halfway decent cold cuts." - Bittman

-8- "Certain ingredients shouldn't touch each other, even if they are in the same sandwich, like lettuce and mayonnaise. Otherwise you'll end up with limp lettuce and watered down mayo." - Ortúzar

-9- "Don't forget to properly season a sandwich. A little salt and pepper will go a long way in bringing all the flavors together." - Ortúzar

-10- "When packing sandwiches for picnics bring the fixings in separate containers and make the sandwich fresh on the spot." - Bittman


Adapted from Opera Lover's Cookbook (Stewart, Tabori & Chang) by Francine Segan

Horseradish Honey Mustard

2 tablespoons prepared horseradish
1 tablespoon mustard powder
2 tablespoons honey
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup olive oil

Combine the horseradish, mustard powder, honey and salt in a small food processor and puree until well combined. Slowly pulse in the oil until creamy and well incorporated.

Herb-Garlic Mustard
2 tablespoons yellow mustard seed
2 tablespoons brown mustard seed
1 teaspoon dried parsley
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon dried marjoram
1/4 cup olive oil
3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon pepper

Combine the yellow and brown mustard seeds in a clean coffee bean grinder and process until finely ground.

Transfer the ground seeds to a small food processor and add the parsley, thyme, marjoram, oil, vinegar, garlic, salt, sugar, and pepper. Pulse until well combined. The mustard will be thick, so you may need to scrap the sides and pulse again to incorporate all the ingredients.

Cranberry Mustard
3 tablespoons dried cranberries
3 tablespoons pear or raspberry vinegar
1/4 cup olive oil
2 tablespoons brown or yellow mustard seeds
2 teaspoons mustard powder
Freshly milled pepper

Puree the cranberries and vinegar in a small food processor until the cranberries are finely minced. Add the oil, mustard seeds and mustard powder and puree until well combined. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

The Best Grilled Cheese Sandwich

Adapted from Great Grilled Cheese (Stewart, Tabori & Chang) by Laura Werlin
Makes 4 sandwiches

Crunchy bread and perfectly melted cheese-grilled cheese as it was meant to be!

For variety add ham or thinly sliced apples.

8 slices sourdough bread (1/4 inch thick)
2 tablespoons butter, at room temperature
6 ounces best-quality cheddar cheese, coarsely grated

Butter one side of each slice of bread. Place 4 slices on your work surface, buttered side down. Distribute the cheese evenly over the 4 slices. Place the remaining 4 bread slices on top, buttered side up.

Heat a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat for 2 minutes. Put the sandwiches in the skillet (in batches if necessary), cover, and cook for 2 minutes, or until the undersides are golden brown and the cheese has begun to melt.

Uncover, and turn the sandwiches with a spatula, pressing firmly to flatten them slightly. Cook for 1 minute, or until the undersides are golden brown. Turn the sandwiches again, press with the spatula, and cook for 30 seconds, or until the cheese has melted completely.

Serve immediately.