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How to Build a Better Sandwich: Buiding Blocks & Tasty Combos

Linda explores food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes one ingredient at a time.

What makes a great sandwich?

What makes a great sandwich?

When I Was Young, I Hated Sandwiches

When I was growing up, there were no fast-food sandwich shops; no Subway, no Jimmy John's, Jersey Mike’s, Potbelly Sandwich Shops, Firehouse Subs, or Quiznos. There was only Mom. Mom, God bless her heart, could bake the most amazing bread, her biscuits were buttery and flaky, and the crust on her apple pies was almost legendary. Soups and stews and pot roasts were always a hit, and I still dream of her cinnamon sugar coffee cakes.

However, her sandwiches were another story. Peanut butter and jelly were fine, but oh dear, if by chance there was a pork chop or a slab of meatloaf leftover from dinner, you could bet that it would appear the following day between two slices of Wonder Bread. No cheese, no mayo, no mustard or ketchup. Just dry meat and flavorless Wonder Bread. Is it any wonder that sandwiches were never among “a few of my favorite things?”

Somehow, somewhere, I learned what a really good sandwich could taste like. It’s not rocket science. My friend and fellow writer Eric Dierker asked me for guidelines on putting together the perfect sandwich. Here’s the information I shared with him.

It all begins with the bread

It all begins with the bread

The Components of the Perfect Sandwich

  • Bread - the foundation
  • A barrier - to keep the bread from getting soggy
  • Protein - thinly sliced or diced cooked meats
  • Cheese
  • Crunchy texture - contrast #1
  • Zippy flavor elements - contrast #2
  • Creamy element - contrast #3
  • Herbs or spices - that final pop of flavor

Bread

It all begins with the bread, the obvious foundation for any sandwich. That Wonder Bread of my childhood? I’m convinced that an entire loaf could have been compressed to a 1-inch cube, it was so devoid of substance. Therefore, my first word of advice is to “start with good bread.” Get the best-tasting bread you can get your hands on. I don’t care what kind you use. Some sandwiches dictate an uncomplicated white bread with a sturdy crumb. Others (I’m thinking chicken salad at this moment) shine when paired with honey wheat or oatmeal.

Whatever bread you have, you can improve upon by slathering on some butter and toasting gently on a grill or dry sauté pan. You just want to crisp it a bit, not make it brown as for a grilled cheese.

While we're on the topic of bread, may I say a few words about wrap sandwiches (pinwheel sandwiches in a flour tortilla)? I know that they have become a standby n banquet at luncheons and potlucks, but I sincerely detest them because they lack all of the things that make a sandwich memorable. The tortilla is flavorless, the meat and cheese are glued in place with an over-abundance of mayonnaise and/or cream cheese which dominates the flavors, and any chance of meaningful texture or crunch is obliterated because all of the elements within must be in small, thin pieces so that the wrap will stay together. That said, if you must do a wrap, by all means, grab that flour tortilla, but get one that’s fresh. If fresh isn’t available, choose whole wheat—they have a better chew and a wholesome nutty flavor.

One more thing—if you’ve ever ordered a sandwich at Subway, you’ll notice that they remove a channel of bread from the center of the bun. Do yourself a favor and do likewise if you are building a hoagy/submarine sandwich. Not only does it ensure that your masterpiece is less likely to fall apart, it helps to equalize the proportions of bread to meat to cheese to extra goodies.

Types of Bread

Oatmeal

Ciabatta

Sourdough

Challah

Rustic white

7-grain

Dill rye

Whole wheat

Bagel

Next item of business: a barrier

Next item of business: a barrier

Barrier

That might sound like an odd ingredient but unless you are making a muffaletta, you don’t want your bread to turn into a soggy mess. Lay on a creamy layer to seal the inside of the bread. Good old mayonnaise can certainly do this, as can whipped cream cheese or (dare I say?) more softened butter.

Sandwich Barriers

Whipped cream cheese

Guacamole

Sour cream

Ranch dressing

Softened butter

Mayonnaise

Protein

Protein

Protein

If you are including sliced meat in your sandwich, many thin layers are better than one thick slab. It’s just plain easier to chew, and thin slices will not fall out at easily as a large chunk. There’s nothing worse than having a yummy sandwich self-destruct the moment you take your first bite.

If you can’t achieve paper-thin slices (I don’t have a deli slicer and assume that you don’t either), a better choice might be to finely mince your protein of choice (roast beef, turkey, etc.) and turn it into a “salad” as you would with chicken, hard-cooked eggs, or canned tuna.

Cheese sliced just thin enough for that perfect sandwich

Cheese sliced just thin enough for that perfect sandwich

Cheeses

If you use cheese, choose something that will harmonize with the flavor of the meat. Bold beef or spicy sausage/smoked meats can handle a bold, strongly-flavored cheese. Mild tuna or poultry needs a more gentle, subtle-flavored cheese.

Types of Cheese

Asiago

Cheddar

Provolone

Mozzarella

Muenster

Swiss

Gouda

Havarti

Brie

how-to-build-a-better-sandwich

Crunchy Texture (Contrast #1)

Creamy barrier and/or cheese demands an other-side-of-the spectrum textural crunch. Veggies are one method (and I’ll provide other ideas below). Even if they are fresh and washed, rinse those veggies again to refresh them.

Crunchy Options

Shredded iceberg lettuce

Baby kale

Baby arugula

Very thin radish slices (just a few)

Potato chips

Tomatoes

Shredded fresh carrot

Crisp apple slices

Tortilla chips

Finely chopped smoked almonds

Cucumber slices

Bacon

Cole slaw

Microgreens (fresh sprouts)

Romaine

Zip (Contrast #2)

Want to add some more excitement? Once again, think about the protein in your sandwich. Beef or smoked meats might want a dash of horseradish, Dijon, spicy German brown mustard, or garlic dill pickles. Chicken and turkey make me think of mango chutney, cranberry relish, or even something innovative like fresh grapes, raisins, or nectarines.

Zippy Options

Horseradish

Dijon mustard

Spicy German mustard

Garlic dill pickles

Kalamata olives

Vinaigrette

Briny capers, rinsed and minced (just a touch)

Mango chutney

Cranberry relish

Sliced grapes

Raisins

Sliced nectarine

Basil pesto

Sriracha

Honey mustard

Sweet pickle relish

Pickled jalapenos

Hot Italian giardiniera

Creamy (Contrast #3)

Not always necessary, but sometimes you might feel particularly inspired to add one more wow factor if you are building a hot sandwich.

Creamy Options

Hummus

Sunny side up fried egg

Softly poached egg

Cheese sauce

Bechamel sauce

Guacamole

Spices and herbs

Spices and herbs

Herbs and Spices

Salt and pepper, of course. But a pinch of this or a dash of that might just be the pop of flavor that takes your sandwich over the top. Consider using fresh herbs (no more than 2 teaspoons, minced):

  • chopped chives
  • rosemary leaves
  • fresh dill leaves
  • cilantro leaves
  • parsley
  • fresh basil leaves
  • lemon zest

Will They All Play Nicely Together?

When choosing the type of bread, you might also consider the texture of what is going in-between the top and bottom. If the filling is crunchy (a breaded chicken cutlet, for example), a soft, puffy bread will squish with your fingers and help envelope that chicken. Conversely, peanut butter and jelly might benefit from a slightly crunchy crust.

I say that with some assurance, but then my thoughts go back to a very disappointing experience. What I thought would be an amazing sandwich at a neighborhood bagel shop was one of my saddest lunches on record. The bagel was baked in-house. The filling promised to be an imaginative combination of flavors and textures. But the bagel was sturdy with a capital “S,” so much so that when I took my first bite all of the fillings squirted out the backside.

Don't let that happen to you.

A Few Suggested Winning Combinations

Chicken Salad

Egg Salad

Roast Beef

Oatmeal bread

7-grain bread

Sourdough bread

Sour cream

Guacamole

Ranch dressing

Fresh sprouts

Radish slices

Provolone

Mango chutney

Vinaigrette

Tomatoes

Lemon zest

Parsley

Arugula

Chives

Basil pesto

Ham

Peanut Butter

Tuna Salad

Dill rye bread

Rustic white bread

Ciabatta bread

Softened butter

Bacon

Mayonnaise

Gouda cheese

Raisins

Potato chips

Shredded carrots

Iceberg lettuce

Honey mustard

Briny capers

Fresh dill

Turkey

Meatloaf

Vegetarian

Rustic white bread

Whole wheat bread

Challah bread

Whipped cream cheese

Mayonnaise

Hummus

Brie

Havarti

Tomatoes

Crisp apple slices

Coleslaw

Cucumber slices

Cranberry relish

Spicy German mustard

Kalamata olives

Rosemary

© 2019 Linda Lum