The Ten Sandwich Commandments

I’ve been in this game for years, it made me an animal
There’s rules to this shit, I wrote me a manual
A step-by-step booklet for you to get
Your game on track, not your wig pushed back.

-The Notorious B.I.G.[1]

A chicken and waffle sandwich, with roast apple and goat's cheese

 

The Ten Sandwich Commandments

  1. Thou shalt provide interest.
  2. Thou shalt provide textural contrast.
  3. Thou shalt consider the colours of your ingredients.
  4. Thou shalt balance rich sandwiches with fresh, light components.
  5. Thou shalt balance salty meat and cheese with acidity.
  6. Thou shalt cut bread precisely.
  7. Thou shalt spread to the edge.
  8. Thou shalt aggressively season meat, slaws, and salsas to compensate for the muting effect of bread.
  9. Thou shalt apply salt to raw vegetables such as tomatoes and cucumbers.
  10. Thou shalt toast bread that is more than 24 hours old.

 

The Ten Sandwich Commandments, Explained

The first five commandments help us plan delicious, well-balanced sandwiches.

1. Thou shalt provide interest.  Why are we making this particular sandwich?  Or in the case of the Elm kitchen, why would someone want to purchase this particular sandwich?  Some classic sandwiches have interest built right into them: a Monte Cristo, for instance, with its battered exterior.  Other classics need a bit of help.  Smoked ham, aged cheddar, and Dijon will make a good sandwich, though not a particularly interesting one.  One way to fix this: add onion marmalade and baked rosemary apples to the mix.  This changes the classic ham and cheese from a plain salty/savoury offering to a sweet and savoury one.  I find that interesting.

You can push the concept of interest much further, into the genuinely creative.  My favourite example is an idea by Chael MacDonald that I helped execute a few years ago, the Half and Half Pizza Sub.  When ordering pizza for groups you are often forced to request one pie with split toppings: maybe one half pepperoni, and the other Hawaiian.  Chael translated this to a pizza sub.  The entire sandwich has marinara, aïoli, mozzarella, and basil, but one half has pepperoni and mushroom, the other ham and pineapple.  This is just one of the funniest things I’ve ever come across in cooking.  We still do this sandwich occasionally at Elm.

Interest is often about more that just the physical make-up of a sandwich.  How you describe and present the sandwich to customers is important.  Egg salad, for instance, is the least sexy sandwich in the western world, invoking images of a wet, pallid, garbure of hard-boiled eggs and mayonnaise.  However, if you add bacon and call it a “Bacon and Egg Salad Sandwich” you will instead conjure hearty plates of bacon and eggs in the customer’s mind.  Much more appetizing.

One day last year we made a sandwich out of whitefish, caper aïoli, and pickles.  It was delicious, but hardly sold at all.  Our clever friend Chris Tomkee suggested adding potato chips and calling it a “Fish and Chips” sandwich.  Same sandwich (only with potato chips), different name.  The next day we sold out.

In the end, the First Sandwich Commandment is about being thoughtful, creative, and intentional in the sandwiches we choose to make.

2.  Thou shalt provide textural contrast.  Some examples:

Roast Eggplant.  Picture a sandwich on fresh bread with goat’s cheese, herbs, lemon aïoli, and roasted eggplant and bell peppers.  These flavours work extremely well together, but the components are all soft, and you end up with what we call a “squish sandwich”.  We need textural support.  Fresh cucumber is a great, cool, crunchy textural contrast to roasted eggplant.

BLT.  Bacon strips have a much firmer, crispier texture than cold cuts like ham and turkey.  The salty/smoky flavour of bacon punches above its weight, so you don’t typically use as much on a sandwich as you would with a milder meat like roast beef.  This means that a bacon sandwich has the potential to seem paltry.  We need a contrasting vegetable that will add some moisture and bulk, one that will soften the overal texture.  In fact, you need a bit of the “squish” we were trying to balance out in the roast eggplant sandwich above.  Enter the tomato.

Grilled Cheese.  The interplay of textures is not limited to the inside of a sandwich: the bread itself is an important element.  The textural contrast in a grilled cheese, for instance, is between the crispy bread and the creamy melted cheese.

3.  Thou shalt consider the colours of your ingredients.  We strive for interest, contrast, and balance in all aspects of our cooking, and this applies to the visual as well as the gastronomical.  We put arugula, spinach, lettuce, sprouts, or “green” in one form or another on basically every sandwich.  We showcase the vibrancy of vegetables like red bell peppers and purple cabbage and roasted pineapple by putting them next to the muted tones of nappa cabbage and shaved fennel.

Example: We once made a sandwich with roast sweet potato, chili mayo, sour cream, jack cheese, tomato, and crispy tortilla strips.  After some reflection we realized that all these components are in the yellow/orange/red/pink end of the colour spectrum, so we added black beans, driving home the “southwest” theme and adding an eye-catching colour contrast.

4.  Thou shalt balance rich sandwiches with fresh, light components.

Reuben-esque.  Our spin on the Reuben contains the classic corned beef, swiss cheese, sauerkraut, and Russian dressing, but since these components are all salted, cured, or otherwise “rich”, we add fresh cucumber and alfalfa sprouts.  These components actually help us comply with Commandments 1 through 4.

Schnit-wich.  We were keen to make a schnitzel sandwich featuring a breaded, fried pork cutlet.  “Starch-on-starch” preparations always run the risk of being stodgy.  (Starch-on-starch is putting a starchy component like potatoes or breaded fried schnitzel on bread.)  It is absolutely essential to balance the starches with fresh components.  We’ve done the schnit-wich a few different ways, but our favourite is with a fresh, bright tomato salad with red onion and herbs piled on top of the schnitzel.

5.  Thou shalt balance salty meat and cheese with acidity.  This is one of the most basic concepts of flavour dynamics.  Salty meat and cheese can be cloying, but acidity balances the flavours and refreshes the palate.  Almost all of our sandwiches contain vinegar, citrus, or perhaps a sour fermented condiment like ‘kraut or kimchi.  There are countless classic examples of this balancing act, from the mustard and dill pickle accompanying a Montreal smoked meat sandwich, to the tangy bbq sauce and sharp slaw on a Carolina pulled pork sandwich.  One of my favourite examples is the Elm take on a Monte Cristo.  To the classic components (ham, turkey, swiss, and egg batter) we add rhubarb compote, sour cream, and chive.

Fresh herbs and raw allium like red onion and chive also have the ability to cut richness to a certain extent.

The last five commandments deal with how we execute our well-designed sandwich.

6.  Thou shalt cut bread precisely.  This means cutting straight and level.  It means cutting just below the mid-line so that the top half of the bread is a bit taller than the bottom half.  It means intentionally leaving a hinge, or intentionally not leaving a hinge.  It means cutting hinged sandwiches so they lay flat on the workbench.

Commandments Seven, Eight, and Nine, have to do with “carrying the flavour.” 

7.  Thou shalt spread to the edge.  Right, right, right to the edge on every single piece of bread, without exception.  You should not be able to see the bread underneath.  We want to maximize the flavour delivered in each and every bite.

As a sub-commandment concerning spreads (let’s call it Commandment 7a): ricotta, cream cheese, chèvre, and other spreadable cheeses should be applied thicker than mayonnaise.

8.  Thou shalt aggressively season meat, salsas, and slaws to compensate for the muting effect of bread.  Though containing salt itself, bread tends to mute the flavours of the components within the sandwich.  To compensate, our ingredients need to be punchy; more punchy than if they were being served on a plate without bread.  We therefore apply salt, acidity, and sweetness aggressively.

It’s surprising how often it happens: we have a combination of ingredients that sounds absolutely delicious; we make the sandwich, we taste the sandwich, and it falls flat.  We go back and essentially over-season the components.  Re-taste, and we have a winner.

Example: Prosciutto & Melon.  The idea was to make a sandwich with speck (smoked prosciutto), canteloupe, shaved fennel, and lemon aïoli.  We had to add a good hit of honey and white wine vinegar to get the canteloupe to shine through.  I call this fortifying the natural flavours of the ingredients.

9.  Thou shalt apply salt to raw vegetables such as tomatoes and cucumbers.  This is a good practice in all branches of cooking.  You should, for instance, not just season your steak, but also the green salad that accompanies it.  The salting of raw vegetables is especially important in sandwich-making.  As explained in the Eighth Commandment, we needs to make sure we use lots of salt to carry the flavours through the bread.

10.  Thou shalt toast bread that is more than 24 hours old.  A cold sandwich on fresh bread is a beautiful thing, but if the bread was baked yesterday, it absolutely needs to be toasted, even if the sandwich components will all be added and served cold.  Toasting refreshes the bread.  Do not over-toast.  The exterior should be lightly crisp, but the interior should still have plenty of give.

In the immortal words of hockey legend Don Cherry: toasted tastes better.

11. Never get high on your own supply.

 

Footnotes

  1. Notorious B.I.G. was murdered twenty years ago today.  The idea for The Ten Sandwich Commandments came from listening to Biggie’s song The Ten Crack Commandments while telling a new hire to “Spread to the edge.”

Burger Freak-Out

Originally published September 29, 2012.

Burger: A Sneak PeekThis summer I had a little burger freak-out.  I thought about hamburgers more in the last few months than my entire life previous, and I came to realize that, despite eating them for about twenty five years, I knew very little about them.

The following burger info will be obvious to many of you, but circumstances conspired to stunt my burger knowledge from a very young age.  For instance, the burgers I ate growing up were a bit like squished meatballs: they contained bread crumbs and eggs and were mixed to bind the ingredients together.  They were tasty and comforting, but they hampered my understanding of proper hamburger flavour and texture for years.  To aggravate the situation, I make sausages at work every week, and in days past I would often apply the same theories and practices to hamburgers.

In other words I had to unlearn everything that I thought I knew about burgers.

Let’s start at the beginning.

 

Beef.  The best burgers are made from quality beef that you’ve ground yourself.  Chuck usually forms the bulk of the mixture.  Fat is important as a source of beefy flavour and moist mouthfeel, so I usually spike the mix with a bit of brisket.  I aim for roughly 25% fat by volume.  There’s no science to this: you have to eyeball it.   I trim my chuck and brisket of all connective tissue, then give it one pass through a 1/4″ plate.  If you’re using meat from which you can’t remove all the silverskin, like shank, you’ll need at least two passes through the grinder to tenderize properly.

Of course, you can make good burgers with pre-ground meat, just make sure it’s not lean or, God forbid, extra-lean.  I’ll say it again, in case the recent E. coli outbreaks haven’t already convinced you: only buy quality beef from trusted producers!

Other Ingredients.  As I mentioned above, I grew up on homemade burgers that contained eggs and bread crumbs.  Some burger joints swear by Worcestershire and granulated garlic.  For reasons that will be discussed in the “Mixing” section below, I currently add two ingredients to my ground beef: salt and pepper.

One big way that burgers differ from sausages is salt content.  If you season a burger mix as you would a sausage mix, for some reason the burgers taste way too salty.  The right amount of salt is also important for the final texture of the patty.  Salt aids in protein-extraction, and helps bind the ground meat together.  This is something that we encourage in sausage-making, but discourage in burger-making.  Again, this will be discussed further in the “Mixing” section.  For sausages I take the weight of the meat and fat, divide by 60, and that is the amount of salt I add.  For burgers I divide by 90.  In other words my burgers have 2/3 the amount of salt that my sausages do, about 1.11% of the weight of the beef.  Even this is fairly aggressive seasoning for a burger.

If you want to taste pepper in the final patty, add 0.2% of the weight of the meat in freshly ground black pepper.

Mixing.  This is where my sausage-making background seriously affected my understanding of burgers.  Sausages are ground meat, combined with salt and water, then mixed to develop a cohesive, springy texture.  The large dose of salt helps extract proteins.  The water and the mixing develop those proteins into a strong network, very much like kneading bread.  Sausages are usually stuffed into casings.  Sausage patties are not stuffed into casings, but they are still combined with salt and water and mixed prior to shaping, so that they have the resilient texture of a sausage.

Burgers are emphatically not sausage patties, because they have not been mixed.  They have a texture all their own.  To quote Harold McGee: “the gently gathered ground beef in a good hamburger has a delicate quality quite unlike even a tender steak.”

The most critical part of burger preparation, once the right grind has been selected, is to season and shape the patties without developing a protein network.  We have lowered the amount of salt added because salt extracts protein from the meat.  We have omitted all liquids, whether egg yolks or Worcestershire sauce, to discourage protein development.  Now we must minimize mechanical agitation.

When grinding my own meat for burger mix, I add the salt and pepper to the cubed meat, before grinding.  This way the salt is evenly distributed through the grind, without my having to mix the meat and develop the protein.

Working with pre-ground meat, I add the salt and pepper, then, instead of folding and compressing the meat, I pretend I’m tossing a delicate salad.  I lift the ground meat, then let the individual strands fall between my fingers so that they don’t get pressed together.

A raw beef patty

Shaping.  Gather the desired amount of seasoned, ground beef, then gently compress it between your palms, using your fingers to maintain the round shape of the patty.

The diameter of the patty should be tailored to the diameter of the bun.  The height of the patty should be tailored to the size of the diner’s mouth.  A lot of people like tall, messy burgers that you can barely get your mouth around.  I don’t.  I find that once the bun and condiments are in play, a final patty height of 3/4″ is all I can handle comfotably.

Remember that the burger will shrink in diameter and grow in thickness as it cooks.  The raw patty should therefore a bit wider than the bun, and very thin.  I start with a patty that is 5″ across, and 1/2″ tall.  After cooking it will be 4″ across, and 3/4″ tall.

Cooking.  The cooking of hamburgers is taken very seriously.  Anthony Bourdain says to order a burger anything besides medium-rare is “un-American.”  On the other hand it is actually illegal to serve a burger anything less than well-done in Canada, though apparently a few places are doing it.

Frankly I think the whole issue is overblown.  Well-done burgers can be moist and tender, as long as they contain the right amount of fat and haven’t been over-mixed.  Medium-rare burgers are safe to eat as long as the meat as been handled properly.  I would never buy factory-raised, ground beef from a grocery store and eat it anything but well-done.  At home, using quality beef that I have cut and stored myself, I aim to cook my burgers through, but if there’s some pink meat in the middle, I don’t freak out.

If you subscribe to Bourdain’s jingo and absolutely must prepare a medium-rare burger, here’s Harold McGee’s suggested method:

Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil, immerse the pieces of meat in the water for 30-60 seconds, then remove, drain and pat dry, and grind in a scrupulously clean meat grinder.  The blanching kills surface bacteria while overcooking only the outer 1-2 millimeters, which grinding then disperses invisibly throughout the rest of the meat.

Note that if you’re cooking a burger mid-rare, there will be less patty-shrinkage.

While there is a time and a place for cooking burgers on the barbecue, most afficianados maintain that very hot griddles or skillets are the ideal cooking surface.  These methods don’t develop the open-flame char flavours of the barbecue, but you can get a very heavy, uniform crust on the flat sides of the burger.  The crust has good flavour and a distinctive crunch.  Burger-freaks call this “burger candy.”

Bun.  My childhood burger was placed on a lean kaiser roll.  We have gone to great length to avoid developing the protein in the meat so that we have a loose, tender amalgam of beef.  If we put this burger on a kaiser bun, with its lean, glutenous chew, we have ruined dinner.

True burger buns are a bit like cake: pains have been taken to avoid the development of gluten.  Fat and sugar have been added to the recipe to interrupt gluten strands.  The batter has been mixed only to combine the ingredients, not a stroke further.  Burger buns are therefore rich, sweet, and tender.

I’ve never tried my hand at baking my own burger bun.  My understanding is that the dough is quite runny, and very hard to work with by hand.  Many joints around town use brioche batter for their burger buns.  I use commercial hamburger buns (sorry…)

Whichever bun you decide to use, show it some love and toast it.  One of the advantages of cooking your patty on a griddle or in a skillet is that you’ll have a bit of burger fat in which to fry the bun.

Condiments.  These are obviously a matter of personal taste.  My own thoughts:

Some form of tomato is necessary.  If I have fresh tomatoes, I use fresh tomatoes.  If I don’t, I use ketchup.  I don’t like using both.  If I use fresh tomatoes, I add mustard.  Raw onion and dill pickles are also required.

While I do have a soft-spot for processed cheese, I usually use gouda, Gruyere or Emmenthal for cheeseburgers.  The younger versions have better melting properties.  I find that the cheese-flavour is stronger if the slices are only partially melted.  Overheating will thin out the cheese and make it run off the burger.

Money Shot

The finished burger, top bun removed for full photographic affect

My burger, half eaten

 

Addendum: Cherry Coke

Traditionalists will argue that I’m ruining coke; locavores will say I’m ruining Evans cherries.

This is my perfect cherry Coke, the ideal accompaniment for burgers, Montreal smoked meat, and fried chicken:

 

Sources

My two main sources of burger info were Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking and Heston Blumethal’s In Search of Perfection episode on the burger, which you can watch here.

On Cured Beef, Montreal, and the Gout

I have a certain old friend.  Technically we went to high school together, but I first got to know him in Lister Hall, then at the Kappa Alpha house on university row.  He studied philosophy, and after graduation he followed a girl to Montreal.  There he fell victim to many of the city’s seductions: strong beer, girls, and cocaine, yes, but above all these, smoked meat.

For a while he lived only a few blocks from Schwartz’s, that Mecca of Montreal smoked meat.  For a while he ate there every day: a sandwich, a pickle, and a cherry coke.

Montreal smoked meat is that city’s version of New York’s pastrami: beef brisket, cured with a concoction of spices reminiscent of corned beef, then rubbed with black pepper and coriander, hot-smoked, steamed, and finally cut to order.  At Schwartz’s and most other Jewish delicatessens the meat is stacked a few inches high on thin slices of rye bread slathered with prepared mustard.

There are many ailments with apocryphal causes.  Mononucleosis, “the kissing disease,” is commonly attributed to promiscuity.  When I heard that gout was often caused by excessive consumption of cured meat and red wine, I assumed that this, likewise, was a Victorian misconception.

My friend ate at Schwartz’s almost every day for the better part of three months.  One morning he woke with a violent start.  The weight of his bedsheet on his left big toe made him shriek in pain.  He was dumbfounded.  What was happening?  The only logical explanation he could conjure was that, in the wasted stupor of the previous evening, he had somehow broken his toe.  On this hypothesis he hobbled to the doctor.  Within thirty minutes he was diagnosed with gout.

His recovery was slow and cruel.  For one sober month he lived mostly on raspberry yogurt.  He had to go without Unibroue’s many Belgian-inspired ales.  No more crepuscular visits to La Banquise for poutine italienne.  No quail from Toqué or blanquette de veau from Hotel Nelson.

No Montreal smoked meat.

He never confided this in me, but I imagine that he went through the same convulsing withdrawl symptoms of a heroine addict.

What I admire most about this friend is that he is able to turn the most painful, squalid memories into great stories.  He now jokes about swapping gout stories with his octogenarian grandma.

 

Anyways.  That happened years ago, but it has been on my mind this week because we made Montreal-style smoked meat at work.  (“Montreal smoked meat” isn’t a protected designation, yet, but because I’m a gentile living maybe three thousands kilometers from la belle province, I add the word “style.”)

As mentioned above, Montreal smoked meat and pastrami are both usually made with beef brisket.  We were curious to try using other cuts.  We ended up curing an entire forequarter of beef, except for the neck, shank, and standing rib.  We cured, smoked, shaved, and served it all.

Foodies, generally, and I, specifically, often wax eloquent about the importance of fat in a piece of meat.  That being said, I much preferred the bottom blade, with its judicious fatty marbling, to the brisket, with its thick slab of external fat.  The blade was also a darker, richer burgundy colour than most of the other cuts.

The leaner, more tender cuts, like the cross-rib, benefited hugely from the curing and smoking.  Aficionados would no doubt argue that the deli meat made from this cut can not properly be called Montreal smoked meat or pastrami, but regardless, it really was good.

A slab of Montreal-style smoked meat

A late night snack

Chicken Salad Sandwiches

It’s amazing how a dish that is considered boring, almost proverbially boring, can be so good when it’s made properly.

Yes, chicken salad is boring when you buy it in a tub.  But when you have the cold leftovers of a properly roasted bird, and thick, homemade mayonnaise, nothing beats the clean flavours of a chicken salad sandwich.

Sure, the chicken skin is no longer crisp, but it’s still tender and salty. Besides, the crispiness comes from the celery.

And the round creaminess of the mayo is spiked with raw onion, and black pepper, and vinegar, and herbs.

It’s good when the leftovers are as coveted as the original dish.

Leftover chicken

Making the chicken salad

The finished chicken salad on toast, with tomatoes and lettuce