A sandwich is a simple concoction. It traditionally consists of two pieces of bread that hold together meat, cheese, veggies and condiments.
But how is it that some sandwiches are utterly mind-blowing and even a little life changing while others are simply bland and uninspiring? What accounts for this disparity?
To find out, let’s get advice from some top experts to figure out the architecture of a perfect sandwich.
There are a variety of factors that contribute to the delectability of a sandwich. But you could argue that using fresh ingredients is the most important.
NYC sandwich master Walter Momentè of Alidoro can testify to this. Jen Carlson interviewed Momentè for Gothamist in 2016, and he told Carlson that he makes many of his ingredients in-house and always ensures that he hand-picks items like fresh mozzarella every morning on his way to work.
It’s all about having an attention for detail, Momentè says, which he traces back to his childhood in Italy, where he helped his parents prepare dishes in their restaurant. You need to be diligent about upholding quality standards and not take shortcuts simply for the sake of convenience.
Skimp on freshness, and the taste is almost guaranteed to suffer.
Niki Achitoff-Gray at Serious Eats offers some simple advice about choosing bread that’s dead-on: Any bread you use for a sandwich should be tasty enough to eat on its own. If it passes this test, you should be good to go.
After all, you can’t expect to achieve culinary greatness by slapping your ingredients between two slices of low-end supermarket bread. In her article, Achitoff-Gray references Charles Kelsey, the owner of famed Boston sandwich shop Cutty’s, who says that having great bread means you’ve got a great sandwich, and choosing the right bread is really half the battle.
So, what exactly constitutes as great bread?
For starters, you’ll typically want to stick with small batch, artisanal bread rather than something that’s mass-produced. Consider going to a local baker who makes everything from scratch.
The Bon Appétit team points out that you can spot a good loaf by looking for bread with a nutty aroma; a dark and crunchy crust with large, irregular holes; and a considerable degree of color variation.
Bread making expert Chad Robertson also adds that great bread tends to have a mildly sour taste, but not so acidic that it’s overwhelming.
Even though great bread is a bit more difficult and costly to procure, the end result will be well worth it.
Preparing vegetables is an art in and of itself, and there are a few guidelines you’ll want to follow.
Chris Bianco, sandwich master and owner of Pane Bianco in Phoenix, explains that buying fresh, flavorful vegetables is critical, but that’s only part of the equation. It’s also important to wash them even if they’re already clean because this really brings them back to life. It also makes them more crisp and crunchy.
In addition, he recommends seasoning lettuce and tomatoes with a dash of sea salt and freshly ground pepper. Although this may not sound like a big deal, it can really inject some bold flavor into a sandwich.
One of the most common mistakes made when constructing a sandwich is throwing in everything but the kitchen sink. There seems to be a misconception among some that more ingredients are always better.
This isn’t the case. In fact, adding too many ingredients can detract from the overall experience.
Owner of Oakland-based sandwich shop Pal’s Take Away Jeff Mason explains that besides making a sandwich hard to eat, having too many ingredients can mess with the flavor and balance.
He points out the importance of not allowing one ingredient to impose on another and adds that they should be great together — though you want to be able to taste each one individually. In other words, you don’t want to go overboard on any single ingredient to the point that it clashes with the sandwich as a whole. It’s all about achieving the right balance.
To the untrained eye, it may seem that the ingredients in amazing sandwiches are layered haphazardly. But in actuality, expert sandwich makers have a distinct strategy in place so that everything comes out just right.
Paula Forbes writes in Epicurious that denser textures like meat and cheese are better off at the bottom, and vegetables and the more crunchy ingredients are better toward the top.
Caroline Fidanza, owner of the Brooklyn sandwich shop Saltie, agrees and compares a sandwich structure to assembling a burger. She says that the patty is the prize, and the garnishes must go into your mouth first in order to truly taste them. Otherwise, they could be overridden by the meat.
Fidanza adds that if you eat a hamburger upside down, you get the meat and then any condiments, which is jarring to the tastebuds. The same could be said about eating a sandwich, so you want to be smart about layering your ingredients.
One of the all-time sandwich eating frustrations is having delicious ingredients slip out onto your plate, each bite becoming more vexing than the next.
The solution? Use thinly-sliced ingredients rather than thicker ones. This prevents them from slipping and helps everything stay in place.
Karen Ahn offers some additional advice on minimizing slippage in Food Hacks Daily. She recommends adding a layer of cheese in between anything slippery to create more friction. Also, a shallow layer of tomatoes will stay in place much more easily than a row of overlapping slices, she says.
One of the more subtle yet essential elements of a perfect sandwich is having a contrast of textures.
Tesi Wei Lim, chef at Massachusetts restaurant Journeyman, tells Popular Science that texture is a primary building block of the eating experience. His wife, Dinana Kudayarova, concurs and explains that if everything is mushy it begins to feel like baby food, and if everything is crispy it starts to feel dry.
The key is to achieve a nice balance, where soft and crunchy exist in perfect harmony. For instance, you might want to toast the bread, add some bacon or even throw on some potato chips to give a normally soft sandwich some crunch.
Sure mayo and mustard are great. But why limit yourself to the everyday when you get be bold and daring?
Some people are afraid to get too exotic with their sandwich condiments because they’re afraid that it will ruin the flavor. But if you think about some of the most epic, mouth-watering sandwiches you see on menus, most include condiments that are outside of the box. And in some cases, they may be condiments that you’ve never even heard of.
As The Nibble points out, condiments, spreads and dressings are the hidden heroes behind many modern sandwich innovations. They’re what have really helped sandwiches evolve over the years and what continue to keep them interesting.
So, where do you find ideas for unconventional and downright unorthodox condiments? The Butcher’s Best team suggests looking online for simple condiment recipes you can make at home, including things like pineapple salsa, dill mustard and red onion marmalade.
Sogginess is generally frowned upon in a sandwich.
Heather Barnett at Fabulous Foods says sandwich makers must create a moisture barrier with something creamy or oily between the bread and the wet ingredients, like lettuce and tomatoes.
Jaclyn Anglis at First for Women explains how this works: Fats like mayo and butter act as a membrane that’s a natural barrier to liquids, which makes them ideal spreads on sandwich bread. This is a simple yet effective way to stave off sogginess and makes pretty much any sandwich more palatable.
While some sandwiches are intended to be eaten cold, adding some heat does something marvelous and often cranks the flavor profile up a notch.
It’s especially delicious when it turns cheese into ooey, gooey goodness. And it turns out that there’s a very scientific explanation for why heating sandwiches makes them so tasty.
Daniel Bennett at Science Focus explains that heating a sandwich excites essential oils in the ingredients and creates a more appealing aroma for a more robust sensory experience. So, applying some heat targets your customers’ nostrils as well as their taste buds.
The Saveur team summarizes it perfectly by saying that great sandwiches don’t happen by accident. They require a dedication to quality, careful attention to detail and an understanding of how to balance ingredients.
In short, good sandwiches take effort.
The points mentioned here provide some valuable insights as to how to approach each step in the process until it ultimately culimates into an edible masterpiece.