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Making the Perfect Cubano Sandwich (and Much, Much More)

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

The Cubano is quite possibly the ultimate ham and cheese sandwich.

The Cubano is quite possibly the ultimate ham and cheese sandwich.

Let's Go to the Movies

Which movie genre is your favorite? My car-obsessed husband loves any film that involves a chase scene (Fast and Furious, The Italian Job, and Bullitt are on his top 10 list). One daughter seeks out horror flicks—the scarier the better, and the other daughter wants nothing but animated movies.

And then there’s me. I think animated features are too formulaic, real life is scary enough (I don’t have to pay to be frightened half to death), and car chase scenes barely keep me awake. But give me a good food scene and I’m all eyes and ears and taking notes. For example:

  • Who can forget Meryl Streep as Julia Child, blushingly euphoric over her first encounter with sole meunière in Julie/Julia?
  • Or the timpano in the 1996 Tony Shaloub/Stanley Tucci movie Big Night (this is so good I should f---ing kill you!)
  • In the movie Chocolat, Vianne the chocolatier hosts a birthday party for her friend, Armande. The setting is outdoors, a backyard patio, and some of the people of the village are invited. They chat amicably as they pass dishes of bread and vegetables. And then, there is that moment of awed silence when a chocolate mole is poured over the roast chicken. The camera pans around the table as guest after guest takes their first rapturous bite.

And then there’s this scene from the little-known 2014 movie Chef. Until this movie, I had never heard of much less tasted a Cubano sandwich. How unfortunate!

"Starting from scratch never tasted so good."

— "Chef" (2014 film)

Did You Notice the Ingredients?

The perfect Cubano sandwich is not complicated, but it does require some very specific (and amazingly tasty) ingredients. The most obvious component, and the one that takes the longest, is the slow-roasted pork. Sliced ham also plays a part, but that one is easily sourced at your local deli. Pickles? We'll talk about those in a moment. Cheese should be thinly sliced and meltable (I have my opinion about that too). And finally, the bread. Honestly, the bread is what makes or breaks a great Cubano. I'll help you with that also. So, let's get started.

Cuban-Style Roast Pork

There are many cooks in the online realm of kitchens on whom I rely. Each of them has their own specialties. When it comes to cooking protein, I know I can rely on J. Kenji López-Alt of Serious Eats.

Kenji is not just a cook, he is a food scientist and examines every ingredient and every process to the nth degree. In traditional Kenji style, he has methodically researched, documented, photographed, and explained every last detail to help you achieve the perfect Cuban-style roast pork shoulder.

The Cheese

There is only one type of cheese for an authentic Cuban sandwich. Thinly sliced Swiss cheese from the deli has a sweet-nutty flavor and just the right amount of meltiness (yes, that's a word) to hold the sandwich together. Make no substitutions.

The Ham

While you're at the deli buying that Swiss cheese, get a few slices of honey-roasted ham too. Thinly sliced. It's the perfect contrast to the smokey caramelized flavor of the roast pork.

The Pickles

You might be thinking "do I really need pickles?" Yes, yes you do. Sweet pickles are never to come near a true Cubano—dill pickles, sliced lengthwise (were you taking notes during the video?) will provide a tangy, briny snap, a contrast to the creamy cheese and smoky pork. Don't buy already-sliced pickles in the jar; they're too thick. Slice them yourself. Get your sharpest knife and create those perfect thin puckery slices. If you omit the pickle you won't be experiencing the amazing combination of flavors and textures that makes this sandwich so special.

The Bread Spread

There is no mayonnaise on a Cubano, no lettuce, no tomatoes. Mustard, and not any type of mustard—not Dijon, not grainy brown mustard, and not honey Dijon. Standard yellow mustard is the kick of flavor mandated by lovers of the Cubano.

The Bread

Cuban bread has a unique taste and texture because it is made with lard. The crust is sturdy but not crackling crisp and the interior is pillowy soft. Unless you live in or near Miami your chance of finding true Cuban bread is probably quite slim. A Mexican bolillo could stand in as a reasonable substitute. If even that is not an option, a soft-crusted French bread will suffice. But if you are feeling particularly ambitious, you can make your own.

How to Assemble the Sandwich

  1. Slice the bread in half lengthwise (from end to end).
  2. Warm the ham and the roast pork briefly on the grill (just enough to take the chill off).
  3. Layer the roast and then the ham on one side of the bread. Top with cheese and then the pickles.
  4. A rich smear of yellow mustard on the other half of the bread and put it all together.
  5. Use a plancha, not a panini press. A plancha is flat, not grooved. If you don't have a plancha use a grill and a weight to press the sandwich against the gill. A large cast-iron pan or Dutch oven will do the trick. Paint some melted butter on the plancha (grill), place the sandwich on top, paint the top of the bread with more butter and start pressing. When the edges of the bread look golden and the cheese is starting to melt, you are done. (By the way, if your sandwich doesn't require at least two napkins you didn't use enough butter.)
Use a plancha (on the left), or use a cast-iron pan and your grill (like Kenji, on the right)

Use a plancha (on the left), or use a cast-iron pan and your grill (like Kenji, on the right)

Cubano pizza

Cubano pizza

Cubano Pizza

This is not your typical pizza. All of the flavors and textures you expect in a Cuban sandwich are assembled in this Cubano pizza. The dough is first spread with a generous amount of mustard. Next comes the Swiss cheese. The porky richness of ham and roast pork shoulder is the next addition and then pops of flavor from briny pickle chips. In a slight detour from the classic, mozzarella cheese is the final touch—it glues everything together. Bake this pizza on the lower shelf of your oven to achieve a crispy crust.

Cubano breakfast sandwich

Cubano breakfast sandwich

Cubano Breakfast Sandwich

Look at that photo. I will confess that I am a sucker for a runny egg yolk. I am not hungry, but oh my goodness do I want one of these Cubano breakfast sandwiches. Liren starts with a crisp English muffin and explains:

"Salty roast pork, sliced thin, stacked together with smoked ham, swiss cheese and pickles, all pressed together in buttery bread. But put an egg on it, and you’ve got the ultimate breakfast sandwich."

I couldn't agree more.

Cubano sandwich meatballs

Cubano sandwich meatballs

Cubano Sandwich Meatballs

This is not a meatball sandwich; this recipe is for my friends who are gluten sensitive but still want to enjoy the experience we've been talking about. Roast pork, ham, Swiss, and pickles are combined to make Cubano sandwich meatballs. Roast them in the oven and then top with a thin pickle garnish.

Vegan Cubano with seitan

Vegan Cubano with seitan

Vegan/Vegetarian Cubano Sandwiches

I was asked for a non-meat Cubano and am happy to report that I found two that might work for you. Both of them rely on vegan ham slices which you can find in the natural foods section of your grocery store. Three options that I'm aware of include Yves Veggie Ham Slices, Tofurky Smoked Deli Slices, and Litelife Smart Deli Ham. There may be other great vegetarian products out there, as well.

If you are vegetarian you can, of course, use real Swiss cheese, but vegan cheese is also available at your large grocery stores.

This Cuban sandwich with seitan is satisfyingly meaty. Seitan (pronounced “say-tan”) is a vegan meat substitute made from vital wheat gluten. It can be purchased pre-made or easily made at home with just three ingredients—vital wheat gluten, water, and a little bit of time.

The Cuban jackfruit sandwich marinates in the orange-lime juice that flavors the traditional Cubano. Unlike seitan, this option is gluten-free; the texture is incredibly just like pork and might even fool your meat-eating friends.

Have I Convinced You?

Sources

© 2020 Linda Lum

Comments

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on July 20, 2020:

Abby, try the vegan option (at the end of this article). All of the flavor, none of the guilt.

Abby Slutsky from America on July 20, 2020:

Well, I had never heard of them until I saw Chef, which incidentally is one of my favorite movies. You did a nice job of showing us how to create the sandwich, and, if I ate meat, I am sure it would be a favorite.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on July 01, 2020:

Flourish, there are two vegetarian options for you, but yes my husband would be doing that breakfast sandwich for sure. Thanks for your kind words on the intro. I try.

FlourishAnyway from USA on July 01, 2020:

I could totally see my husband trying this for breakfast (in addition to the regular sandwich)! Your intro was very creative.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on June 25, 2020:

Dora, thank you for your kind words. Hmmm, I'm thinking. With a meat-packed sandwich I don't think you could come close to finding a substitute that would taste anything like a Cubano. I looked (really, I did because my daughter is vegetarian), but I'll put my Sherlock Holmes hat back on and see if I can come up with anything reasonable.

I love a challenge. If I find an answer I will post it here, and in my weekly Q&A with appears each Monday.

Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on June 25, 2020:

I love the intro to your article and I sense the fun you have making your recipes. I'd love to find a meat substitute for the sandwich.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on June 24, 2020:

Mary, I don't think you'll be disappointed.

Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on June 24, 2020:

I have seen these Cubano sandwiches in movies, but I don't think I have ever tried one. Time to do something. It looks delicious.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on June 24, 2020:

Eric, I've tied a bow on the Q&A for next Monday already. May I save this for the following week?

Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on June 24, 2020:

I know I cross over from Ask-Carb-Diva-Questions-Answers-About-Food-Recipes-Cooking but this has been on my mind. I simply do not like some recipes. You cook a whole lot and I am sure you run into this. Yes sometimes we just throw it out and try to learn from it. "Just too much garlic".

Do you thereafter "redo" sometimes and how do you generally make those adjustments if you do.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on June 24, 2020:

Shauna, love and hugs to you. Get well soon, and I hope you and your son enjoy those sandwiches. How lucky for you that there's a deli nearby that can make them for you.

Shauna L Bowling from Central Florida on June 24, 2020:

Linda, I'm a bit under the weather today, so I stayed home. We have a little Cuban restaurant nearby called Cubans on the Run. You've made me so hungry for a Cuban that I've offered to buy lunch if my son runs up there and picks one up for me. I'm so excited!

Looking forward to hominy next week. Thanks for taking my suggestion, Sis!

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on June 24, 2020:

Shauna, and my job is done. Next week hominy.

Shauna L Bowling from Central Florida on June 24, 2020:

I love Cubanos! We call them Cubans, here in Florida. Our local Publix grocery store quite often has them on sale (in the deli section).

The breakfast sandwich is definitely something I would try. Two delicious foods packed into one ooey gooey messy meal? Yes, please!

Once again, you've made me hungry, Linda!

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on June 23, 2020:

Rachel, I'm glad you enjoyed this stroll through Little Havana. My daughter doesn't eat pork, but I've GOT to make one of these myself.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on June 23, 2020:

Wesman, you always make me smile. I find it rather irritating when I see blatant self promotion, so I appreciate your support and suggestion, but I don't see myself being "that person."

As for your former life, perhaps you lived during the Great Depression.

Rachel Alba on June 23, 2020:

Oh my goodness, Linda. Your pictures and description of the Cuban sandwich is making my mouth drool. Now I want one. Thank you for sharing the description and pictures.

Blessings to you.

Wesman Todd Shaw from Kaufman, Texas on June 23, 2020:

Over on Reddit I believe there are a few "subs" dedicated to sandwiches, and then there are larger food subs, and then subs about asking for food advice.

Don't know how you feel about advertising your work, but were I you, and I'm not - I would be sliding some links into comments there. Probably daily.

Anyway, one of the sandwich places was where I believe I heard of the Cubano. What I find intriguing about this sandwich, which I have not had an official version of-is the interplay between smoked pork and ham.

Seen the prices of beef lately? Jebus H. Kristo-I'm glad I like pork. Anyway, I've got so much bread and so much meat around here, the logical thing is I'm going to be constructing sandwiches a lot.

I must have starved in a previous life. I have some strange fetish with stockpiling food lately.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on June 23, 2020:

Eric, everyone's loving that egg sandwich (even the vegetarians).

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on June 23, 2020:

Bill, I think we could work something out re. the pickles and I agree with you on that breakfast sandwich too. I'll be working under the cedars today so not in the sun. Daddy didn't raise a dumb kid.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on June 23, 2020:

Count me in except for the pickles, and that breakfast sandwich has me drooling. That I would eat daily; of course I would weight 250 in a month, too.

Stay cool...way too hot for this boy!

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on June 23, 2020:

Pamela, I doubt I'll be here either. When I saw the dancing I immediately thought of Eric and his son Gabe. They have lots of fun in their house.

Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on June 23, 2020:

I think this is worth the trip to the store to get it right. I must confess I will go the the deli to get everything pre-cut. My splurge for the week.

I am floating a bit just seeing that marvelous egg creation.

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on June 23, 2020:

Each of these Cuban recipes looks absolutely delicious. There is nothing I don't like in any of these sandwiches or the pizza. I do like Dijon mustard but would settle for just regular mustard in any of these sandwixhes.

This is an interesting article and I like the video. First the dancing around while getting things started and then the as. sembled that wonderful sandwich.

We do have food wasted in the U.S. and I know it is worse now during the pandemic. I hope that changes. As for my article, the synthetic meats being developed will feed the 2 billion new people that are expected by 2050. Since I probably won't we alive then, I wil enjoy meat while I am here.

foodlocate on June 23, 2020:

Cuban cuisine is a blend of Spanish, African, and other Caribbean cuisines. Some Cuban recipes share spices and techniques with Spanish and African cooking, with some Caribbean influence in spice and flavor. This results in a blend of the several different cultural influences.

P.S: The food from the photos looks delicious!

Theblogchick from United States on June 22, 2020:

The food you list here looks very tasty. Thanks for sharing.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on June 22, 2020:

Manatita, any breakfast that includes a runny egg is totally on my plate (I always prefer savory over sugar. I'm sweet enough as it is).

As for Pamela's article, I could say that there is no shortage of meat and that in America there is a tragic waste of food (I wrote of this several weeks ago in my article on Sustainable Eating in the 21st Century).

However, with the Covid19 many meat-processing plants in the United States have been (at least temporarily) shut down. Perhaps there is not a shortage of meat, but a shortage of specific types of meat (we won't have the Smorgasbord of the past).

I'm so happy to see you here and writing. I didn't give you a non-meat option. (And honestly, on this topic I don't know how one could). The pizza is all meaty-porky (thus the Cubano taste), but maybe a shake of smoked paprika would help.

Blessings to you.

manatita44 from london on June 22, 2020:

I would love to go to Cuba. It is high up on my list. I think that I'll love their food too. The breakfast looks too yummy for me, but the Pizza will do, as long as it's vegetarian.

Pamela seems worried about a shortage of food in the future, but when I see meat like that, it reminds me of plenty! Don't America throw food away?

This guy is certainly giving it a Latino twist. The food may even dance in my stomach! Ha ha.