When I was a kid, I was lucky to live in a town that had the best sandwich shop in all the land. I'm not exaggerating: Town Hall Delicatessen in South Orange, NJ was a sandwich-making temple, not just because of the quality of every sandwich, but because even the process of ordering it felt like a holy experience. Sandwiches at Town Hall were made by a team of manly men wearing starched white aprons stained with Russian dressing, and from these gentlemen—not bored teenagers in paper hats, mind you...MANLY MEN!—I absorbed the skills for making the perfect sandwich.
Everything from the ripe tomatoes to the homemade coleslaw was fresh. Each sandwich was layered and assembled with care and attention. Neatness counted (raggedy edges were always trimmed with a lethally sharp chef's knife). From the slathering of softened butter on both sides of bread (to keep the bread moist while creating a sog-proof barrier from the rest of the condiments), to the final step of seeing it lovingly folded inside of crisp waxed paper, you knew you were going to be eating something special.
And why shouldn't each and every sandwich be a work of art? It just takes care, technique, and good quality (not expensive) ingredients to build a better sandwich. So whether it's a Turkey Club or an Italian Hero (or sub or grinder or hoagie...depending on where you hail from), here's what I learned from those aproned men about creating a masterpiece between two slices of bread.
1. Get the Right Tools
A good, sturdy, wooden cutting board is the headquarters for your sandwich making station. At Town Hall, they set out the condiments and freshly sliced meat, cheese, and vegetables on the board so that the customer can see their sandwich being made and can ask for a little more of this or that. I also array all my ingredients (condiments, bread, cold cuts, salt and pepper, cheese, etc.) around the cutting board so that I can see all of my options in front of me. A sharp chef's knife (for slicing a juicy tomato, shredding lettuce, making those perfect turkey club triangles) is also essential—and don't forget the butter knife for slathering on your condiments.
2. It All Starts with the Bread
The wrong bread—too hard or too doughy or not-toasted adequately—will lead to a sandwich fail every time. There are no hard and fast rules about bread selection (while others zig towards a ciabatta roll you may zag to sliced challah), but here's what I recommend for some of the more classic combinations:
BLT/Club Sandwiches = lightly toasted white (a plug for the iconic Pepperidge Farm variety here) or whole-wheat bread.
Subs = a long roll torpedo-shaped roll or section of an Italian loaf that is just slightly crusty; bonus if you scoop out the extra dough in the middle (as some experts call it, "the guts") to make a well for your meat, cheese, etc.
Reuben/NJ Style Sloppy Joe (cold cuts, Swiss, cole slaw, Russian, or Thousand Island Dressing) = Rye bread, always. Seeds or no-seeds are your call.
Egg and Cheese = Kaiser roll or toasted English Muffin.
Ham and Cheese: If you're feeling French, then nothing can beat this combination on a good crusty baguette.
3. Layers are not just for Chilly Nights
How you place each and every ingredient on your bread is crucial. Just think of that first bite (or even better, that beautiful center-bite that you carve out after getting some of the crust out of the way). You want to sink your teeth into a strata of flavors, like in the ultimate mid-summer BLT: toast, mayo, juicy tomato, bacon, crisp lettuce, more mayo, bread...ahhhhhhh. There should always be a balance between textures and flavors so that no single ingredient overwhelms the next, so crusty to creamy to tangy to rich to salty to vegetal to rich. Besides placement, ratios also matter. Some people may assume that a superior sandwich is one with a big mountain of cold cuts in the middle, but, as I learned from Town Hall, the meat should always be thinly sliced and lightly draped in folds (not stacked like a pack of cards). You want everything else to be complimented by the roast beef or ham or turkey, not be bull-dozed by it.
4. Which Leads to...Condiments are Everything
5. Don't Forget to Season
6. Add That Extra Something Special
No sandwich is complete without that extra, unexpected layer that adds some zing and surprise. As a kid, I used to open my sandwich like a book, sprinkle in a handful of bbq potato chips, then press it closed with a satisfying crunch. I still add potato chips on the regular (and I really encourage you to try it), but there are a lot of other secret ingredients worth adding to your arsenal that can really upgrade your sandwich. Things like chopped cherry peppers (also terrific swirled into mayo), pickled onions, pickled jalapenos, thinly sliced dill pickles, fresh herbs (on veggie, egg salad, and bahn mi sandwiches), capers (terrific on tuna sandwiches), everything-bagel-seasoning.
And One Last Thing...Have FUN!
Mastering the layers and flavors of a classic by-the-book sandwich is a foundation worth having, but from there, no one says you have to stick to a strict formula. Consider the flavor combinations you love and go for it. Ultimately a sandwich should be a personal expression of your tastes and, dare I say, gustatorial dreams. If you want to pile your tuna melt with Frito chips, sriracha mayo, and arugula, then go for it. Your sandwich making station is your canvas, so make that sandwich a thing of beauty.
See how to make a classic pressed sandwich with pork, ham, Swiss cheese, and pickles.