Thanks to the Earl and his chess obsession.
First of all, let’s agree we’re not just talking about slapping some ham and cheese on bread for a quick lunch. While that’s certainly useful for getting yourself fed, we’re going to talk about something that takes a little more thought and preparation, for when you want something a little nicer.
There are four basic elements to a good sandwich, although there can be more: bread, protein, moisture, and contrast.
Bread: Bread includes traditional sliced (or sliceable) breads, pitas, wraps, rolls, and buns. Choosing the right bread for your sandwich gets you off to a solid start. You want to pick one that does something important for your sandwich. That might only be serving as a platform for the rest of it, or it might involve adding a complimentary or contrasting layer. A bread’s weight if often overlooked. There are some sandwiches that want a hefty bread, like pumpernickel, there are some that want a very light platform like a croissant.
Protein: I was going to call this meat, but you can certainly make sandwiches with just cheese. Protein is generally the feature element of your sandwich, whether it’s traditional deli meat, a slab of leftover steak, a thick cut of mozzarella, or some nice barbecue. Protein is what you want to play your other elements off of, making it the wheel around which everything else revolves. Obviously protein can include both meat AND cheese, but I find that it’s nice to use cheese for a contrast as well.
Moisture: I find that all sandwiches that I make need a moisture element. This includes mustard, mayonnaise, barbecue sauce, and anything you might spread onto the bread. The moisture element serves both the function of helping your sandwich stay together and adding a flavor layer. It can be a complimentary element or your contrasting one—although I think that even if you’re using it as a contrast, it helps to add additional contrast.
Contrast: This can take one or two forms. It can be flavor contrast, textural contrast, or both. Tomato, for example, provides both if you put it on your ham and cheese. If I’m using the moisture element for flavor contrast, I definitely want to add texture here.
So let’s put all this together into a sandwich which we recently made. We made pulled chicken barbecue and some bleu cheese coleslaw expressly for the purpose of making these sandwiches. We chose some nice onion rolls as our bread, adding thinly-sliced onion and a little smear of habañero jelly for contrast.
Bread: Onion Roll
Protein: Chicken BBQ
Moisture: BBQ sauce and coleslaw dressing
Contrast: Red onion, bleu cheese, habañero jelly, slaw
You can see that our some of our elements cross the lines. The BBQ sauce mixed in with the chicken and the slaw dressing mean that we don’t need a moisture element on its own. The slaw is great with this sandwich because it creates both a flavor and textural contrast, especially the crisp bite of the cabbage contrasting with the tender meat. I hadn’t planned on it, but there was a little leftover arugula in the fridge, so at the last minute I put some on the top. The peppery flavor went very nicely with the BBQ. It didn’t provide addition crunch, since it’s softer than the slaw. Still, I’m happy I added it. The heat and sweet of the jelly did exactly what I wanted it to–it even left me wishing I had added a little more.
Building a great sandwich is relatively easy. Just start with the basics blueprint in mind and let your imagination run free!