Lately, I’ve been obsessed with recipes and their structure. I believe this site’s posts reflected that obsession in one way or the other. There is, however, a reason for my obsession; I’ve been tirelessly working for months on a project that involves helping people cook better at home. Also, I got the inspiration for this post from the ‘Pro Home Cooks’ YouTube channel where Mike G created a sandwich series. I admittedly binged on that series over a weekend or two. If you’d like to watch it, I leave you the link here. In combination with a fascination for Banh Mi’s that I had during 2018, that series awoke a scientific interest in sandwiches.
So, what makes a perfect sandwich? Let’s dive into it. There are five key components that every decent sandwich must have. Some of these components are optional; others, like the bread, aren’t. You can, however, place anything you like between two pieces of bread, but would that be called a sandwich? The main components to any sandwich are:
- The bread.
- A protein or two.
- A condiment.
- Greens / fruit vegetables.
These components must strike the perfect balance of flavors to yield a sandwich that surprises the palate. So let’s dive into each element.
Any of the components I outlined between two slices of bread would make a basic sandwich. But not all bread is created equal. There are some considerations when choosing bread for your sandwich. When it comes to texture, you want something sturdy enough to support the ingredients you’ll put in but soft enough not to hurt your mouth. So, a balance between toughness and chewiness is critical. Also, nobody likes hurting their mouth while eating a sandwich; thus, the bread shouldn’t be too crusty.
Flavorwise, I like to select neutral-flavor bread. I try to match the flavor with my ingredients if I have a flavored one like rosemary focaccia.
Common bread choices for sandwiches are baguette, ciabatta, dinner rolls, potato rolls, pita, or focaccia. But every culture has a staple or two.
Lastly, you want to make sure that you toast at least the side of the slices facing in before assembling the sandwich. Toasting will harden the platform for the ingredients and introduce the extra caramelized flavors from the Maillard reaction. Most chefs toast their buns with mayonnaise or butter.
Proteins and Fats
Proteins and fats are arguably the second most important ingredient of any sandwich. Think about this, how often do you eat a lettuce sandwich versus a burger? When choosing your proteins, consider the texture. There’s hardly something worse than biting into a steak sandwich and ending up with the bread in your hands and the whole steak dangling from your mouth. Tough proteins have to be cut or pounded, making them easy to bite. Flavorwise, consider the seasoning of the other ingredients and maybe season a bit differently than when you’re cooking the protein alone. Finally, consider the combinations of proteins you’ll put in—for example, tofu and eggs, ham and cheese, steak and egg, and so forth.
Condiment & Dressings
It took me long to draw the parallel between a sandwich and a salad. They’re the same thing in many ways but with the ingredients prepared differently. Bread is optional in salads too. However, they’re more similar than different, at least in my mind. Following the line of the previous recommendations, think holistically about the flavors you’re putting in. Condiments moisturize the sandwich, so you don’t feel like you’re swallowing cardboard; also, fat distributes the flavors better in your mouth, so condiments like mayo will make your sandwich taste better almost by default. You probably know the common condiments for a sandwich, mayo, ketchup, mustard. But also, think of salad dressings as condiments; an emulsified vinaigrette, caesar dressing, etc. These are great hybrids between condiments and dressings. For example, Vietnamese Banh Mi’s have Maggi Seasoning that packs so much umami.
Greens or Fruit Vegetables
Yes, tomatoes are fruits, so do cucumbers, get over it! Both greens and fruit vegetables deliver freshness and crunch to the sandwich. Without them, the sandwich becomes rich and feels a little heavier. Season your greens and veggies before putting them into the sandwich; most people don’t do it. I’ll share a story, last year I visited Montreal, in Canada, and I got one of the best paninis I’ve ever tried. The panini was this traditional chicken and arugula panini, but the arugula was pre-dressed in a light balsamic vinaigrette, and that itself made the sandwich so much better! Until then, I hadn’t realized how dull a sandwich with undressed greens is.
The final component of the perfect sandwich is pickles. The sour and acidic flavor from the brine helps brighten the entire sandwich and adds a layer of flavor to balance out the richness that might come from your proteins and condiments. I know many who don’t like pickles in their sandwiches, but I urge everyone to give it a try. You might end up pleasantly surprised.
Putting it All Together
Sandwiches are great on-the-go and convenient snacks, but not everyone pays attention to them. When assembling your next sandwich, I hope you think about the components and what each element brings to the final dish. Remember that some have multiple functions, like cheese that acts both as protein and fat, or pickles that serve as a dressing and a fruit vegetable. Please let me know which is your favorite sandwich in the comments section below.