Gapers Block has ceased publication.

Gapers Block published from April 22, 2003 to Jan. 1, 2016. The site will remain up in archive form. Please visit Third Coast Review, a new site by several GB alumni.
 Thank you for your readership and contributions. 


Thursday, May 23

Gapers Block

Gapers Block on Facebook Gapers Block on Flickr Gapers Block on Twitter The Gapers Block Tumblr


For several years (yes, in college) I was a professional sandwich maker. As such, I feel I'm qualified to comment on the state of sandwich affairs in most kitchens. You're all just doing it wrong. I know, I know, you're only doing it the way your mom taught you. Well, I'm not blaming you or your mom, but we need to straighten you out.

First off, you need to choose the right foundation: the bread. You're probably using some lousy "whole wheat" bread that's so soft it practically rips when you spread the condiments across it. You know why? Because what you think is nice, healthy whole wheat is actually crappy enriched white bread made with unbleached flour for that nice brown color. In other words, it's no good, at least for the purposes of making a serious sandwich. next time you're at the grocery store, pick out a nice whole grain (not just whole wheat) or multigrain loaf -- I'm a big fan of Natural Ovens of Manitowok's line, especially their "Hunger Filler" bread. What you're looking for is a firm texture with a high fiber content. If the bread you pick up lists more than a gram or two of sugar, put it down.

The Ingredients

Other acceptable options are rolls and bagels. While I've made sandwiches using some pretty strange flavors -- a reuben on a cinnamon-raisin bagel is actually pretty good -- I'd stick with the basics until you're ready to experiment. Kaiser or onion roll, plain or onion bagel. (Incidentally, if you're going to go the bagel route, don't buy the ones in a bag from a company that also sells english muffins. Get them from the bakery department, or an actual bagel bakery.)

Now, the condiments. Most people only put condiments on one side of the bread. This is a mistake for two reasons. One, the condiments will provide a buffer between the bread and other wet ingredients, keeping the bread from getting soggy. Two, condiments add that extra oomph to a sandwich; if you only put your mustard on one piece of bread, you're only at half-power.

For beginners, I recommend just two condiments: mayonaise and mustard. This may seem limiting, but there are literally hundreds of mustards out there, so it really isn't so bad. I suggest a nice spicy or honey mustard to begin with, but if you're feeling timid, good ol' yellow will do. Some people prefer the flavor of Miracle Whip over real mayo, but I find it too tart.

Next, fillings. Here is where our moms steered us wrong the most. If yours was like mine, she put three or four slices of meat and one slice of cheese into the sandwich and called it a day. That might have been fine when we were seven, but the recipe didn't change when we got older. No wonder most of us were still hungry after lunch in high school, we were still eating kids' portions!

Think about this: you had, what, a cup of coffee and a breakfast bar this morning. Three or four hours later, your stomach is growling in anticipation of lunch. Is it fair to your stomach to bust out a skimpy little lunch and force it to wait 'til 6 or 7 for a decent meal? No. The Europeans are correct on this one, eating a healthy lunch and having a light dinner is better for you, and more likely to get you through that afternoon stretch without a 4-o'clock crash every day.

No, three slices of meat just ain't enough. The optimum is two ounces of meat, one ounce of cheese. In visual terms, that's about six to eight slices of deli-sliced ham and two of your average slices of swiss cheese. You could use more, but I wouldn't recommend it.

There are, of course, classic combinations of meats and cheeses -- the aforementioned ham and swiss, for instance. Roast beef and cheddar is a good combo, as are corned beef and swiss (add sauerkraut and mustard on rye bread and you've got yourself a reuben), turkey and provolone and tuna salad and (melted) American.

As for other fillings, the classics are lettuce, sliced tomato and/or pickles. You might also try sprouts or avocado, especially with turkey or chicken salad. Veggies are an important part of a well-built, well-balanced sandwich: they add crispness, crunch and a bit of moisture to the mix, and also complement the flavors of the meat and cheese. For your average sandwich, I'd just use two slices of tomato and a couple leaves of lettuce.

The Construction

As an example, let's make that ham and swiss sandwich.

Place two pieces of bread on a plate (or slice open your roll/bagel and open it up) and get out a butter knife. Open the mayo, get a good amount on your knife, and spread it on one piece of bread, starting from the middle and working your way out to the crust. You want to coat as much of the bread as you can, within reason. Do the same with the mustard on the other slice. start layering your ham onto the bread with the mustard, folding each slice of ham in half on the bread and alternating which side the fold is on -- in other words, if the first slice's fold is on the right, the next one should be on the left, the one after that is facing you, the one after that is facing away, and so on. There are two reasons for layering like this: it keeps the sandwich balanced and stable, and it makes it feel bigger to your mouth, which will help psych you into feeling like you ate more than you actually did.

Now add your cheese, layering the slices perpendicular to each other on top of the ham. Next comes the lettuce, which you've washed and torn into sandwich-sized pieces. Then the tomatoes, arranged so they're overlapping in the center of the stack but covering a good amount of ground. Finally, place the mayo-coated bread on top.

Why that order? There really is a reason, and it has to do with the flavors of the condiments and the stability of the ingredients. First, mustard and ham are perfect companions, flavor-wise, and you want them to be together when they hit your tongue. The mayo, on the other hand, insulates the bread from the tomato, keeping the former from getting soaked by the latter. As for the order of the fillings, the ham forms a solid base upon which the cheese can rest. The cheese and tomatoes would slip and slide against each other, making for a messy sandwich, if it weren't for the lettuce in between.

Of course, sandwiches aren't usually eaten alone. You're going to want something else -- the proverbial "fries with that." Fries, however, are not on the menu in most people's lunchbags. I'd pair our newly made ham'n'swiss with an apple and maybe some potato chips. You might also consider pretzels or a couple of chocolate chip cookies, and I'm a big fan of Pirate's Booty cheese puffs.

GB store


paul / December 15, 2003 11:33 PM

Excellent tips. The layering thing is key.

One thing to add - whoever said that sliced bread is the best thing since sliced bread, was wrong. I'll slice my own bread thank you, thicker than the automatic machines do, and slightly on the bias, to make it easier to bite into.

I highly recommend the Lithuanian Rye from the local Baltic Bakery, availalble at many large supermarkets, as the best unsliced bread that you don't need to go to a bakery for.

Ian Olsen-Clark / December 16, 2003 10:06 AM

How do people feel, the American sandwich compares to its European counterparts?

I personally find, that there are, many great sandwiches to be found here, but very typically, a sandwich just contains too many ingredients, in too greater volume. The old dictum of ‘less is more’ seems to have passed by the world of sandwich making. It’s as if an overstuffed sandwich, is part of the unofficial ‘Bill Of Rights’, along with sub-two dollar gasoline.

I am troubled by the many challenges the American sandwich presents, such as “Do you need more than one type of meat?” or “Is cheese and meat really a good combination?”

What am I missing? Let me know the finest outlets for sandwiches in Chicago, and I will very happily undertake an extensive survey!

Andrew / December 16, 2003 10:24 AM

If you're judging American sandwiches by what you can buy in a restaurant, Ian, you're looking at an example of the escalation of food portions in this country. A sandwich with half a pound of meat on it is not a pleasure to eat and is, frankly, disgusting, but for some reason restaurants (especially the fast food variety) seem to think customers want and expect that kind of "value." When I said two ounces of meat in the article, I should have said that using more would be worse than using less.

Most homemade sandwiches are thin little things, which is what I'm railing against. What's the point of a sandwich if you're going to be hungry in an hour? I mean, a snack is one thing, but if it's sustenance to make it through the day, you need more than two slices of meat.

Ian Olsen-Clark / December 16, 2003 10:59 AM

Hi Andrew,

I appreciate your comments were targeted at the gourmet home constructor, I was just interested in the 'State Of Nation' sandwich wise, as it were.

If you've not seen it, The Sandwich Project is a great resource.

Cinnamon / December 16, 2003 11:07 AM

It borders on slightly too much meat, but the corned beef sandwich you can eat while standing at the bar and drinking Berghoff Dark at the Berghoff (17 W. Adams) is a great sandwich. Their mustard is great, but I admit I'm too intimidated by the regulars to ask for mayo.

Seth Zurer / December 16, 2003 12:48 PM

glad to see someone taking sandwich construction seriously -- isn't there a long digression on assembling the perfect sandwich in the last book of the Hitchhikers Guide series - i haven't read em for a long time, but I remember the character carefully slicing lunch meat to fit the shape of the bread.

A couple of things: a reuben doesn't usually have mustard, but rather thousand island dressing as the major condiment. And they've installed stools at the bar at the berghoff now, although old regulars (I'm thinking on Chowhound's Rene G) insist on standing out of respect for the old ways.

Also, on the sandwich theme, check out the aformentioned Rene G's top ten chicago sandwich list: I've only covered 4 out of 10 : my works cut out for me. I saw that ZouZou's been closed for renovation and transfer of mgmt, so who knows if the new incarnation will have the same quality.

Andrew / December 16, 2003 1:11 PM

Actually, there are two forms of reuben, one with mustard, one with 1,000 island (which is actually a substitution for the harder-to-find Russian dressing). Ne'r the twain (schools of thought) shall meet. I prefer the 1,000 island, but most people don't have that in their fridge.

Last time I was at the Berghoff, the stools were all at the tables and counters, not by the bar. But it was a slow day, so maybe they do get some use at the bar on busier days.

amyc / December 16, 2003 2:05 PM

At which point do you cut the crusts off?

Ruthie / December 17, 2003 2:25 AM

What about vegetarian sandwiches? I've experimented a bit with hummus and veggies on wheat bread, but it seems to be missing a little something-something. Suggestions?

miss ellen / December 17, 2003 9:19 AM

my roommate makes famous "salad" sandwiches:

it's all about textures & layering. lots of veggies, maybe some cheese, dressing of sorts - she loves 1000 island - or hummus. oh, and she loves to do these on hawaiian bread for a big, thick sammy.

also, for the meat lovers - next time you make a big roast beef, try putting some of those french-fried onions in there & you'll be suprised. i love all the different flavors & textures, so i really liked this idea!

Ian Olsen-Clark / December 17, 2003 10:50 AM

For vegetarian sandwiches, you can also pursue a mediterranean style simplicity theme, by using fewer high quality ingredients. Combinations such as good heirloom tomatoes, basil and a little seasoning on whole-grain bread work well.

The whole 'simplicity' challenge is to see how many ingrdients you can leave out of a sandwich. Every element must justify it's inclusion.

Naz / December 17, 2003 12:04 PM

Nothing beats these typically English sandwiches, both of which I eat to this day which are vegetarian:

01/ Egg and Watercress - egg salad (light on the mayo there) with some watercress/sprouts (again, light there too).

02/ Cucumber - butter up some white bread(both sides), lay one layer of thinly sliced cucumbers, cut off the crusts and you're good to go. Subtle but oh so good. Perfect for tea, with some scones.

Ian Olsen-Clark / December 17, 2003 12:48 PM


You must of course, use those overpriced, seedless 'English' cucumbers.

I tend to think of the classic English sandwich containing, either just bacon (not quite vegetarian I'm afriad) or fries with ketch-up. Now that's English cuisine!

Naz / December 17, 2003 12:51 PM

Those cucumbers are hard to find...

Oh! And baked beans on toast, open faced!

Ian, do you remember the commercial with the cartoon alligator kid who got locked up in his room but always had Heinz baked beans on toast?

Ian Olsen-Clark / December 17, 2003 1:02 PM


Wholefoods will sell you a seedless cucumber for $2+, I think.

I don't recall that Heinz commercial. What time period was it?

I still eat 'beans on toast' on occasion. Vegetarian beans must be used for this!

Naz / December 17, 2003 1:10 PM

The Heinz commercial was around 86-89 sometime. In London.

Vegetarian beans on toast is the only way to go.

Ian Olsen-Clark / December 17, 2003 1:26 PM

86-89. That explains it. I think I was in the pub, during that time...

Meanwhile, back on topic. I found a sandwich blog!

bk / December 17, 2003 4:18 PM

I love you! And BLTs.

Naz / December 17, 2003 4:24 PM

Sandwich blogs rule!

j3s / December 17, 2003 4:51 PM

Only slightly off-topic: this reminded me of the song "Sandwiches" by the Detroit Grand Pubahs. Came out about four years ago, contained the line "Make your thighs like butter/ Easy to spread/ Out here on the dance floor/ We can make sandwiches." It's some entertaining techno, sandwich-makin music.

Kate / December 18, 2003 10:40 AM

There is also a PBS series about sandwiches across the country. It is called "Sandwiches That You Will Like," and is produced by WQED Pittsburgh. They have a segment on the lobster roll, a segment on the muffaletta, a segment on the po-boy, a segment on the cheesesteak -- You get the idea. They have a web site: Sandwiches That You Will Like. I don't know if the series has been or will be shown on Chicago public TV, but if not, maybe Gaper's Block readers could start up a petition.

LD / January 19, 2004 1:56 PM

I have a beef with the way Chicago makes sandwiches. Yup, I"m making a sweeping generalization about the whole damn city. I can't seem to get anyplace to cut my sandwich in half ......that is 'down the middle". This golden sandwich rule is especially broken at bagel shops (einstein's, beans and bagels)...I always say "please cut my sandwich in half....down the middle" and they forget every time. Who would want to eat a friggin' sandwich that is not cut in half, it seems senseless. I wrote my complaint to Einstein's and they sent me a coupon for a free lunch and they said they only cut sandwiches that have more than just cream-cheese on them.....weird. And don't even get me started on the lack of good bread and bagels here, and where are the deli's? Not Wall Street Deli, Swedish deli, German deli, Jewish deli, just your plain ole run-of-the-mill deli. I've been looking for 10 years. Okay I'll stop now.
-NY transplant


About the Author(s)

GB store

GB Store

GB Buttons $1.50

GB T-Shirt $12

I ✶ Chi T-Shirts $15