Back in college, I had a part-time job making sandwiches at the campus deli. It was a responsibility I took pretty seriously, at least more so than studying for some of my exams. My wrap technique always produced taut bullets of layered meats and cheese, while the diamond-shaped crosshatch I’d perfected on the panini press was my own signature move. Even now, when running into former classmates, some of them still remember me as “that girl from the sandwich bar."
It’s an accolade I wear with pride, because sandwiches are a mindset, as far as I’m concerned. There is an art and a lofty aesthetics to making them well, one that can be self-taught, although some folks just seem grasp it more innately than others.
I’m here today to give you my sandwich rules 101. Because even if I didn’t end up making much out of my humanities degree, I did come out of undergrad with a thesis-worthy argument on the do’s and don’ts of what to put between two pieces of bread.
1. The sky is not the limit
I hail from New York, where a diner or deli sandwich means a stack of sliced meat that can be measured in inches with a piece of soft rye on either side. As much as this appeals to my inner carnivore, I gotta say I’m not a fan of these skyscraper-like behemoths. Nor do I go for tall sandwiches that look like a stacked kabob turned on its end. You should be able to fit a sandwich in your mouth without having to open too wide. Anything more is kind of like playing Jenga—that tower is going fall apart and make a mess, eventually. So I’d like to entreaty New York sandwich makers to take a look at CHOW’s reuben. Modestly proportioned and neatly stacked, it comes to the mouth like a soulful kiss from one’s life partner and not like a sloppy makeout session with a fleeting summer romance. Get our Reuben Sandwich recipe.
2. Choose your bread wisely
All too often, I’ve seen great sandwich toppings ruined by the wrong choice of bread: delicate arugula and goat cheese dwarfed by a monster focaccia, salty ham and melty cheese on a stoic, multigrain loaf. The bread you use should always complement what’s inside, both flavor-wise and in terms of texture and girth. Save big, crusty breads for equally hefty toppings and don’t try to compensate for lavish meats and cheeses by choosing a health-conscious loaf. Oh, and remember that some breads make the sandwich, like with tortas, cubans, and cemitas. Those pretty much demand to be put on the specific rolls with which they share their names. Get our Mexican Torta with Rajas and Jack Cheese recipe.
3. Be an architecture buff
A sound sandwich relies on a sound structure, just like a building. If you try to construct it without a proper foundation, there’s a good chance that the whole thing might just fall to the ground. Meats should always be on the bottom, since they’re generally the weightiest. For cold sandwiches, cheese comes next (if it’s a hot sandwich, however, put it on top, so it has a chance to melt). The center layer should be the lettuce or leafy greens, which act like a net that helps everything stay in place. On top of that go your pickles, tomatoes, and other assorted vegetables, which should be carefully layered over the contours of everything beneath. Then spread your sauces or condiments onto the underside of the top layer of bread and let gravity help them work their way into everything beneath. You can spread sauce on the bottom, too, although sometimes this can make things a little slippery for the meat. Our ham and Camembert sandwiches recipe is great for nailing down this sandwich building technique. Get our Ham and Camembert Baguette Sandwich recipe.
4. Brush up on your knife skills (or get a good slicer)
If I had to name one reason why restaurants and shops generally put together better sandwiches than anything you’d make at home, it’s because they pre-slice everything for optimal layering. And it’s not just the deli meats and cheeses, this applies to the vegetables, too. When chopping everything by hand at home, you’re more likely to cut everything unevenly and too thick, resulting in pieces that just kind of wiggle around and fall out. Get a good sharp knife and try to make slices that are nice and thin, or better yet, use a mandoline. This will help create a more compact and evenly layered sandwich. On sandwiches like this one with apple and cheddar, careful slicing is all the more important to maintaining its layered structure. Get our Apple and Aged Cheddar Grilled Cheese recipe.
5. Be one with the sauce
The easiest way to kill a sandwich is with too much sauce. While it can be the thing that takes a sandwich from humdrum to fantastic, especially if your ingredients are on the dry side, it can also overwhelm everything else and wreak havoc on the architecture of the sandwich, turning the bread to mush. So use it moderately, and if you’re not going to eat your sandwich right away, pack it separately to keep your bread fresh. Or if you do want to go all out, serve the sauce on the side—there are some sandwiches, like the French Dip, that were made for dunking and slathering. Get our French Dip Sandwich recipe.
6. Mine the contents of your fridge
I don’t buy ingredients from the deli counter all that often to put on sandwiches at home. They are often bland and salty, or pricey, or sometimes a combination of both. So while I might leave sliced pastrami to the pros, I do love to use up odds and ends from my leftovers to make hodgepodge-y sandwiches. Last night’s roast chicken or those leftover bits of steak are way more flavorful than anything you could get from the sliced meats section. Or you can take some inspiration from recipes like our spicy meatloaf sandwiches, which revamp those dinner extras with some condiments and spice. Get our Spicy Meatloaf Sandwich recipe.
7. Keep it simple
Most fully-loaded sandwiches simply end up in overkill territory, with a few rare exceptions (like the chivito, Uruguay’s everything-and-the-kitchen-sink monster). Since a sandwich forces you to take in all of its flavors at once, you don’t want to have too much going on. Instead of trying to figure out how many ingredients you can fit inside like a clown car, it’s better to focus on one or two core flavor pairings, like matching your meat to a cheese or a flavored spread, then perhaps adding on a couple other low key toppings based around that. This smoked duck, cherry, and gorgonzola sandwich is a great example, which places its sole focus on the way the smoke interacts with the sweetness of the cherries and the salty tang of the cheese. Get our Smoked Duck and Cherry Pressed Sandwich recipe.
Miki Kawasaki is a New York City–based food writer and graduate of Boston University's program in Gastronomy. Few things excite her more than a well-crafted sandwich or expertly spiced curry. If you ever run into her at a dinner party, make sure to hit her up for a few pieces of oddball culinary trivia.