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.
The Ten Sandwich Commandments
- Thou shalt provide interest.
- Thou shalt provide textural contrast.
- Thou shalt consider the colours of your ingredients.
- Thou shalt balance rich sandwiches with fresh, light components.
- Thou shalt balance salty meat and cheese with acidity.
- Thou shalt cut bread precisely.
- Thou shalt spread to the edge.
- Thou shalt aggressively season meat, slaws, and salsas to compensate for the muting effect of bread.
- Thou shalt apply salt to raw vegetables such as tomatoes and cucumbers.
- 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.
- 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.”