It’s sandwich season, and thank goodness: “What other thing is as reliably cheerful?” asked chef Gabrielle Hamilton in a recent New York Times piece.
We’re thrilled to work with sandwich maestro and chef Mason Hereford, whose New Orleans shop Turkey and the Wolf is devoted to the cult of the sandwich. He’s a member of our Chefs’ Collective, his tomato sandwiches piled high with dill are incredible, his leftover turkey sandwiches with miso gravy mayo are pure inspiration, and he has some strong feelings about his craft. We asked Mason—whose new cookbook lands in six months—why we should respect the sandwich and most importantly, how to improve yours.
What don’t people think about when it comes to sandwiches?
Sometimes the sandwich doesn’t get enough respect. If you have a really nice composed plate of food, you can put a price tag on it that people are familiar with. You plate four ounces of meat and vegetables, really thoughtfully cooked to match up the flavors. Add a sauce, and people charge $20 for it. Put two pieces of bread on the side, it would actually increase the value. But if you put those two slices on a sandwich with those same ingredients? Different story. My argument would be that when someone’s sitting down to eat a meal, people are going to match bites, add some sauce, a little bite of steak. … I would say that when you compose a really good sandwich it’s like the person who created the sandwich created the perfect bite for however many bites there are of the sandwich. A good sandwich takes just as much thought. So step one, give the sandwich the respect it deserves. (Although I’m not a sandwich crusader.)
What’s the first thing to consider when building a great sandwich?
Meat, cheese and bread is a very delicious thing, you can do that really well, but I think there’s more to it. The first thing people do wrong is get bread and make a sandwich instead of thinking about what they want to eat. Bread has flavor and all bread tastes different and has different structural integrity. Reuben is good with rye bread. Seeded rye has caraway seeds. Pastrami on white is a totally different direction.
What else should we consider about bread?
People will come in and say, “I’m gonna get it on wheat because it’s better for me.” But really consider the bread. And consider how you’re gonna cook the bread. Blank-canvas bread is white bread for me. Nine times out of 10 times I’m gonna take white bread and room-temperature butter and put it in a pan. Ham on white bread sounds pretty good. But consider texture: Do you want a soft-chew stick-to-back-of-teeth sandwich, or something that’s a little more comforting?
Any bread-frying tips?
When you fry bread in a pan, you’ve got direct heat on the bread, and some brown-butter flavor caramelization. It makes for a crispy sitch, plus a chewy center, soft in the middle. With thick slices of bread, after you fry them you have to let them hang out for a minute, like a steak. If you slather on sauce, meat and cheese, you’re steaming it. So use a resting rack, or lean them up against each other like an A-frame just for a minute, so the steam goes away. It adds structural integrity. Thick-sliced white bread will need that. Thin-sliced rye, like we use here, the thickness of my pinky, won’t have as much possibility of soggy. Colleen Quarls on my team taught me that.
What is another big item to think about?
Sauce is pretty important. If it doesn’t have enough lubrication, you’re gonna have a big, dry mouthful of stuff. Mayo is great but not everyone likes it. A really good thing to put on sandwiches is cream cheese. Add stuff to cream cheese. Think about the herb cream cheese at a bagel shop. Put chimichurri in a cream cheese. Feta cream cheese. Giardiniera: Chop up pickled vegetables and put them in a cream cheese. Or use sour cream.
Any other major basics to consider?
Acid is so important. Half of our sandwiches are finished with lemon juice squeezed all over the interior of sandwich.
What do we need to think about with texture?
Your pantry need not contain the only go-to ingredients of the sandwich pantheon. The sandwich doesn’t have to be only these obvious ingredients that everybody uses. Obvious sandwich thing we all grew up with doing: potato chips. Not a master stroke in chefdom. We have some sandwiches we put club crackers on. A torta we put a tostada in the middle of. Things that are crunchy that can go in the sandwich. Think outside the bun.
Don’t stay confined to rules. Don’t make things from scratch if you don’t want to; people make some very good sh*t. Follow your heart, but I use Ocean Spray Cranberry sauce at thanksgiving for all sorts of things. I can make cranberry sauce, I can really make it, but I love that stuff. Incredible.
Any more secret ingredients?
Make a tomato sandwich with a big spoonful of bacon fat, pinch of salt, and as much lemon as you can handle, and some mayo. When making bacon, always save your fat; it can exist at room temp or put in the fridge. Pour it right out of the pan into some mayo or whisk it. Remember acid. Lemon or red wine vinegar. Malt vinegar is super-underrated and belongs in people’s pantries.
You often use herbs; how to use them?
Don’t be afraid to go huge on herbs, to the point where you’re using herbs instead of lettuce. People garnish with them, but sandwiches with the bread and all that stuff can handle a literal pile of herbs. If you buy them at the market, buy in bulk, or use a whole one of those grocery store things—basil, parsley, cilantro, dill—all of one of those packs can go on to a sandwich, like a tomato sandwich.