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How to Build a Better Sandwich

Author:

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

What makes a great sandwich?

What makes a great sandwich?

Way Back When

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

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 that devoid of substance. So, 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 are devoid of 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.

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

soft poached egg

cheese sauce

bechamel

guacamole

Spices and herbs

Spices and herbs

Spice is Nice

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.

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

Comments

Denise McGill from Fresno CA on September 30, 2019:

Yes, thank you. That would be so helpful. I have one with medium tofu and one with chickpeas but both and too squishy to put in a sandwich. I like the flavor but hate that it's so loose that I can't keep it between slices of bread. Thanks.

Blessings,

Denise

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on September 29, 2019:

Denise, I have a pretty good faux tuna salad but I've never attempted egg salad. Would you like me to experiment with that? I'll ask my younger daughter too.

Denise McGill from Fresno CA on September 29, 2019:

This is good information. I make some vegan egg salad with chickpeas but it is so mushy it squishes out of the bread. I hate that. I must be using the wrong bread.

Blessings,

Denise

Lori Colbo from Pacific Northwest on September 27, 2019:

Lol.

All of Seattle is unsafe now.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on September 27, 2019:

My husband loves turkey and cranberry sandwiches. He says the post-holiday leftovers are the best part of Thanksgiving. Safeco Field makes a killer turkey sandwich (or at least they used to. I refuse to go there anymore because of the unsavory neighborhood).

Caprese is wonderful if you can obtain a really fresh tomato. Honestly, basil and cheese make everything better, don't they? (Well, I doubt they could improve a bologna sandwich, but anything else, right?)

Lori Colbo from Pacific Northwest on September 27, 2019:

Sorry for the trigger, Linda, lol. At least we lived to not tell about it. I sure blew it there.

There is nothing better to me than to go to one of those small out-of-the-way hippy sandwich establishments and wolf down a creative sandwich. When I worked in the deli at Fred Meyer's we had so many sandwiches. They were "okay" but there were two I'd never heard of before that I was gaga over - The Caprese and turkey and cranberry. I used to get them for lunch once in a while. I had the Caprese grilled. To die for and so simple. I haven't had breakfast yet and this is making me hungry. Ta ta.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on September 27, 2019:

Lori, you probably noticed that I didn't mention bologna sandwiches. It's one of those memories that I had managed to blot out after all these years, and now you've gone and done it. I can still see (and smell) them. Oh good grief! We grew up as a generation with "bad sandwiches" right?

Lori Colbo from Pacific Northwest on September 27, 2019:

I always say the best sandwiches are the ones that fall apart while you eat them.

My mom use to make horrible sandwiches. Wonder Bread (which everyone used back in my day) with margarine (every sandwich had to have margarine) mayo, and bologna. Just vile. They made me gag. I like mustard with my bologna, although I don't eat it anymore.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on September 23, 2019:

Flourish, I'm so happy to hear from you. I had fun creating this post for Eric. I pray you are well.

FlourishAnyway from USA on September 23, 2019:

This takes sandwich making to a new level. What creative combinations. I like a good egg salad sandwich and am known for my chicken salad which I don’t really make anymore, at least not for myself. I really love a good cucumber sandwich or anything on a croissant.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on September 23, 2019:

John, nice to see you twice in one day. Somewhere in the ethernet I have floating out there a recipe (perhaps even here on Hubs) for a chicken salad sandwich with about a 50/50 mix of mayonnaise and sour cream, celery (of course), finely diced smoked almonds AND fresh minced rosemary leaves. It's the rosemary that makes everyone pause and ask "...what is that flavor I'm tasting?"

I agree that "more isn't better" when it comes to sauces. Let the primary ingredients shine through.

Thanks for stopping by.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on September 23, 2019:

MizBejabbers, I've allowed my personal bias to slip into my article, and for that I do apologize. Yes, of course, most normal people include onions in their sandwiches (well, maybe not peanut butter?) but I've just never been a raw onions kinda girl. I will certainly allow you the pleasure of your onion sandwich. If I receive too many more slings and arrows I might just amend my article.

By the way, the expression "sitting in tall cotton" isn't lost on me.

John Hansen from Queensland Australia on September 23, 2019:

I love a good sandwich and you offer some great filling advice here. I agree the choice of bread can make or break it though. I love Horseradish with roast beef, and nothing beats a good ham and salad as long as the salad combination is right. I never thought of the use of herbs like rosemary instead of just salt and pepper but will certainly try that. Sometimes less is more with a good sandwich...many fast food outlets drown them in too much sauce or mayo so you can barely taste the other ingredients.

Doris James MizBejabbers from Beautiful South on September 23, 2019:

You really make my mouth water with memories from the days when I would eat any bread I wanted. My favorite was a nice sweet and firm oatmeal bread. Today every piece of bread I put into my mouth has been toasted, even peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Why? Ever eat a piece of untoasted gluten-free bread? The flavor may be okay, but the texture is terrible, and the sandwich falls apart while I'm trying to pick it up. But still, it hasn't discouraged me from trying to recreate those delicious sandwiches from years ago.

One must-have I didn't notice on your list is onions. If it's a meat sandwich, it must have onions on it for me to enjoy. Most southerners tell me they made tomato sandwiches as a kid. Around my neighborhood we made onion sandwiches after school. Two slices of bread spread with mayo, nice thick slices of sweet onion, and if we had it, lettuce leaves. We were sitting in tall cotton.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on September 23, 2019:

Thank you, Dora. That is very kind of you. I hope you are safe and well.

Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on September 23, 2019:

Here is the expert guide to sandwich making. I especially appreciate the winning combinations list. Thank you.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on September 23, 2019:

Gosh darn it, I've already had lunch (some cottage cheese), but I really wanted a sandwich and you've not helping one bit Pamela (LOL).

For your information, I did an entire article on "The Perfect BLT." You can use the looking glass in the upper right-hand corner of this page to find it.

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on September 23, 2019:

If am going to have a sandwixh I want it to be interesting with all the ingredients you listed in this article. I like interesting bread, so I use a Italian 5-grain bread. I like Dijon to add flavor on some sandwiches. I do like mayonaise on a bacon, letture and tomato sandwich, which I don't have often but I really like them Great article on sandwiches Linda.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on September 23, 2019:

Shauna, I'm pretty sure that I did when (I thought) no one was looking. The possible combinations are limited only by one's imagination.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on September 23, 2019:

Tashaney, I think this is the first time you've visited. I'm so glad that you stopped by today. I appreciate your kind words. I have many friends (and a daughter) who are vegetarian and so am always looking for options for them as well.

Shauna L Bowling from Central Florida on September 23, 2019:

Linda, the sandwich combos sound yummy. I also like roast beef and Swiss on pumpernickel.

I had to laugh about your Wonder bread comment. When my brother and I were little, we loved to squish Wonder bread into "dough" balls and eat them plain. Did you ever do that?

Tashaney Hibbert-Jones from London on September 23, 2019:

This is amazing. Even as someone who hardly eats meat, this still can apply to a meatless sandwhich due to the variety of combination ingredients. Perfection.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on September 23, 2019:

Bill, if I didn't know any better, I'd take that as a challenge. Stromboli it is my friend.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on September 23, 2019:

Bread, meat, cheese, and mayonnaise...the perfect sandwich according to Bill.

When I was in college, every Saturday night we would go to a local sandwich shop and buy a stromboli...not technically a sandwich, I guess, but it was the best "sandwich" I have ever had. Oh how I miss that stromboli from the Alleyway Shop in Seattle.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on September 23, 2019:

Eric, I wrote this one in particular for you (remember your question of a few weeks ago?) I'm glad you like it. As for pure white bread, I know what you mean, but white doesn't necessarily connotate plain or dull and boring (I'm never going the Wonder Bread route again, OK?). Homemade bread, even made with just white bread flour, smells and tastes amazing.

Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on September 23, 2019:

Most excellent. Wow you really share a whole lot about all kinds of food here. I don't think I have even seen pure white bread for years. We have great bakeries around here. Mexican and Vietnamese bakeries seem to do real well. And of course San Francisco is just up the road.

Muchas Gracias