How To Build a Sandwich (That Doesn’t Suck)

By on Wednesday, February 2nd, 2022 at 7:43 pm

Apparently, not everyone knows how to build a good sandwich.

Last week, a poll came through on my group text chat: “when applying mustard to a sandwich with turkey, cheese, and lettuce, do you apply on one piece of bread or both pieces?”

Mustard? On your bread? That’s a red flag.

Here’s the thing: except in some rare exceptions like the French Dip or the Chicagoland Italian Beef, bread should not be soggy. Too many sandwich ingredients add moisture and bread acts like a sponge. Good sandwich construction can stop that.

Early sandwiches didn’t have to worry about soggy bread. These rather simple combinations were mostly made of a single filling, like a meat or a cheese. There was no toppings, no sauces, not even mingling meat and cheese on the same sandwich.

There is a pervasive mythology surrounding the history of the sandwich, mainly that John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich invented it during a card game. The Earl, goes the story, wanting to continue gambling, ordered a servant to bring him bread with meat squeezed between it. The creation of the sandwich, however, might have had more do with his work ethic than a penchant for gambling. The earl was a notorious workaholic, and a sandwich would have allowed him to continue working at his desk late into the night.

The Earl’s early sandwich appeared in the mid-18th Century. The term then was bandied about mostly to mean a meat between two pieces of bread with tongue one of the more popular fillings. Sandwiches only became more than that in the mid 19th century when the English society women began serving high tea, a midday snack.

Tea sandwiches are delicate creations. They had the crusts of the bread sliced off and the light fillings. These were snacks meant to bide aristocrats over between luncheon and dinner. Fillings like cucumbers thus came into style. But these tea-time snacks remained simple and their filling layer thin.

The sandwich, like so many other great foods, only really evolved into an art form once it arrived in New York City. Over the course of a dozen years around the turn of the 19th century, sandwich consumption exploded in New York, as did the variety. The theater critic George Jean Nathan began cataloging New York’s sandwiches in the 1920s and found nearly a thousand varieties, some including such silly fillings as spaghetti, while the theater district restaurants served sandwiches with obscene amounts of filling measured by the inch.

Sandwiches also grew popular in automats during the 20th century. These self-service restaurants sprung up around the city, especially at rail stations where people were on the move or in districts where people were out late at night. Food was placed in a cubby behind a glass door so customers could see the selection. The doors were coin-operated: insert a nickel, take the food. Without wait staff, the food prices were kept low. Automats offered everything from hot food to pies, but the rise of the sandwich industrial complex owes much of its success to the ease of the automat dining.

Meanwhile, one of the other big cultural shifts in that era was taking place at work. Women now worked in offices as stenographers and secretaries and telephone operators. Out of the house, they needed a place to eat. However, many of the stodgy 19th century restaurants refused to serve unaccompanied women.

A new kind of restaurant was needed and so evolved the lunch counter. These places, like Shrafft’s, became go-to spots for professional women looking to eat out. Lunch counters catered specifically to them with discounts of food, and portions often seen as too small for men. Sandwiches became an important menu item, especially as a lighter (cheaper) option.

The lunch counters helped make salad sandwiches popular. Homemakers in the 19th century were accustomed to mixing leftover proteins like meat and fish with pickles and mayonnaise into a salad ensuring even food scraps could be turned into edible calories. The lunch counters turned these well-known foods into sandwiches by sticking the filling between two pieces of bread. The tuna salad, chicken salad, and egg salad sandwiches were all created to appeal to these working women who now had lunch breaks from their office jobs.

That brings us to the great egg salad sandwich fiasco of 1933 that nearly killed my grandfather. Wilbur Mac Allen worked at Dun & Bradstreet, an analytics and data company. Dun had just merged with Bradstreet that spring, but at the end of August, catastrophe struck their Manhattan office.

On the morning of August 24, the cafeteria served egg salad sandwiches selling them for a nickel each. By 1 pm, staff began complaining of stomachaches and pains. Two hours later, one woman screamed out before collapsing on her typewriter, and eventually some 200 employees were sickened. “Chaos had displaced order on the fourteen floors,” wrote the local suburban newspaper, The Ridgewood Herald. More than twenty doctors and ten ambulances were sent to the firm, and the 40 employees who had gone home early were telegrammed warnings. My grandfather Wilbur was one of the 30 employees taken the hospital.

The key to a good salad sandwich — other than not letting the mayonnaise spoil in a hot, August morning — is a barrier between the bread and the wet fillings. The Boston Cooking School Cook Book, an early American cookery book, suggests spreading creamed butter across the slices of bread before layering in fillings. Most classic salad sandwiches also include lettuce, and that’s not just so you consider it a salad. The lettuce also acts as a barrier, too.

A sandwich is a layered food, ingredients stacked on ingredients, with ends and a middle. Each layer imparts flavor, but the structure of the sandwich matters.

Begin by laying the bread face down, with the bottom of each piece touching the other. This position makes it easier to flip one on top of the other, and match the shape. If you are using a round roll, like in the chart below, there you can have a perfect match every time.

Add a layer of mayonnaise to both sides of the bread. Butter will also work. Both are high fat foods that will serve as a barrier between moisture and the bread.

Next, if you eat cheese, add a layer to both sides. Again, the cheese will act as a moisture barrier.

Now we’re approaching the central layers. Next add the protein. Usually the protein is only added to one side of the sandwich because of the high calorie count, strong flavor, and that it will typically be the most expensive ingredient. American deli meats will typically have added water, making them a wet ingredient. (Cured meats like prosciutto and salami, relatively dry and high in fat, and will act like a barrier).

Layer on lettuce and other greens. These are providing texture and crispiness. Be sure to wash and then dry them before placing them on the sandwich. Finally, dead center in the sandwich, add the wettest ingredients — fresh tomatoes, pickles, relish, sauces — anything that has a high amount of water.

Flip one sandwich half over on the other, and now you have a sandwich that won’t get soggy.

How to correctly assemble a sandwich to avoid soggy bread


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