Culinary School Lesson: Expert Sandwich Building
In my “What I Learned in Culinary School” series, I’ll be sharing tips and tricks that I learned from two years of working with some of the country’s best chefs. This will include big things like learning to work efficiently, and small things like how to cook bacon perfectly. All of them will be applicable to your home kitchen, making you a faster, better, and more confident cook.
When people ask what I learn in culinary school, the first things that come to mind are the big, general things I’ve already mentioned (check out “What I Learned In Culinary School” Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3 if you missed them). But the things that are most useful in my everyday life are a little bit more specific. You know, like how to make a sandwich. Many people think of sandwiches as desperate meals constructed from whatever is in the fridge. But, sandwiches are one of my favorite foods, and they can be so much more than that!
What separates good sandwiches from bad sandwiches? Much of what I know on this topic was learned from the chef who taught “Breakfast & Pantry” class. The “pantry” portion of the class included all of the duties of the garde manger station in a professional kitchen. The garde manger chef is responsible for cold dishes – salads, cold appetizers, canapes, sandwiches, stuff like that. The chef told us a story of when he was just starting out cooking, and he worked at a crappy little diner. He had a customer that came in every single day for a club sandwich, and told him it was the best club sandwich ever. All club sandwiches pretty much have the same ingredients, so how can one be better than the other? It was the care he put into building the sandwich:
1.) Choose your bread carefully. Make sure you choose a sturdy bread that stands up to all of the ingredients you want to pack into your sandwich, but won’t hurt your jaw from being too chewy. I like fresh French baguettes, or whole grain bread full of nuts and seeds.
2.) Make sure every single bite tastes awesome, not just the middle ones. Spread the mayo / sauce / peanut butter / whatever over every single part of the bread. As demonstrated in the photo above, the two pieces of bread on the left will yield a bit of tasty herbed cream cheese in every single bite, while the hastily-spread piece in the lower right will result in some less-than stellar bites. It seems simple (and stupid), but if you take just an extra 5 seconds, you can make sure that the first bite will taste just as good as a middle bite, which will taste just as good as the last bite. Speaking of spreads…
3.) Condiments act as a “moisture barrier” for the bread, especially butter, mayo, and cream cheese. Because these things are essentially (delicious) fat, if you spread a thin layer of condiment over both slices of the bread, the fat will repel moisture, and the bread will be protected from any water that might come out of fixins like lettuce or tomato. Like I said, a thin layer. I used to just spread one normal layer on one slice of bread (leaving the other slice bare), but now that I do it this way, I make sure the layer is really thin on both slices of bread. I’m still using the same amount of condiment, but using it in a smarter way. This “moisture barrier” action is especially important if you won’t be eating your sandwich right away, but packing it for a picnic instead. Soggy bread is pretty much the worst thing that can happen to a sandwich.
4.) If you have to cut your sandwich in half, always use a serrated knife. Seriously, no other knife will do. Always use a serrated knife, and slice using long strokes. Don’t put apply too much pressure – just let the knife do all of the work.
5.) Always think about texture. The worst sandwiches are a mush-fest. The best sandwiches have a variety of textures. Just think of a BLT. There’s a reason people think it’s the perfect sandwich, and it’s not just the flavor – there’s slightly chewy bread, soft tomato, crunchy lettuce and crispy bacon. Take a cue from the BLT when putting together any sandwich, and try to incorporate ingredients that will bring a variety of textures to the table.
For more tips and tricks from my school days, be sure to check out my culinary school archive.