Grilled vegetables, whether the main filling or a garnish, can help a sandwich go upscale or more ethnic.

The worldwide popularity of sandwiches is not surprising; many cultures had comparable dishes long before culinary records were kept--steamed buns with a meat filling in China, falafel in pita in the Middle East or gyros in pita in Greece. Old English literature oftentimes refers to a dish called “bread and meat,” which probably was a sandwich-like preparation.

Around for a Long Time
Compared to how long sandwich-like dishes have been around, their current name is a novelty, named after John Montagu, the fourth Earl of Sandwich. Known to be a hardened gambler who liked to play uninterrupted for hours at a time, he asked his valet to bring him a slice of salted beef between two toasted slices of bread. Others would follow his example and order “the same as Sandwich.”

In the American diet, sandwiches became very popular during the early 1900s. Bakeries started selling pre-sliced bread, making sandwiches very easy to prepare. They became an easy, portable meal for workers and schoolchildren alike. Nowadays, sandwiches are oftentimes seen as the ultimate comfort food; they can be eaten anywhere, at any time, without following complicated restaurant etiquette.

From a purveyor’s perspective, sandwiches are as appealing as they are to the customer; most ingredients are relatively inexpensive, and the more expensive ones are used sparingly. In addition, sandwiches can be a perfect vehicle to make use of leftover meats or similar items at a handsome profit.

Styles, National and International Favorites
A sandwich constructed with a top and a bottom slice of bread is known as a closed sandwich. A third slice of bread would create a club sandwich. Still others have only one slice of bread acting as a base; these are known as open-faced sandwiches.

Sandwiches can range from delicate finger sandwiches served as hors d’hoeuvres or snacks for an afternoon tea served on a silver tray, to a “grinder,” “sub” or “hero” served wrapped in paper in a deli. They can be served hot or cold. Hot sandwiches may feature a filling, such as pastrami or barbecued, pulled pork. Sometimes they are grilled or cooked on a griddle. Cold sandwiches oftentimes feature a filling or topping based on cold cuts, cheeses or a salad.

In the U.S., there are few dishes more popular than sandwiches. “Fast food” is oftentimes synonymous with sandwiches. In many quick-service operations featuring sandwiches, the choice is often endless, limited only by one’s own imagination. However, classic favorites maintain their place on the menu. American favorites, like the Reuben sandwich (grilled rye bread filled with sauerkraut, pastrami or corned beef, with Swiss cheese) are popular all over the country. In the South, the Po’ Boy is a traditional, submarine-style sandwich from Louisiana, usually consisting of fried seafood served on French bread or a baguette. Travelers in the Northeast are sure to sample a New England Lobster Roll, a soft hot dog bun filled with lobster salad.

Classical sandwiches are enjoyed worldwide. Paninis from Italy, literally unknown 15 years ago, have made their way onto many mainstream menus. Go to Denmark and one will find smørrebød, a lunchtime favorite on home dining tables, as well as in high-end restaurants and inexpensive take-out shops. Literally translated as “buttered bread,” it is commonly an open-faced sandwich with a variety of toppings, from cold cuts over pickled herrings to cheese. Even France, known for its haute cuisine, has its favorite sandwiches. A classical example is the croque monsieur or croque madame, a hot ham and cheese sandwich popular countrywide.

The Elements
No matter where they originate, sandwiches consist of four basic components: the bread, the spread, the main item and the garnish. Understanding how to combine the elements and how they interact greatly helps to prepare a delicious, classic favorite, as well as a memorable novelty creation.

The Bread
Bread is one of its most important elements. It should be firm and thick enough to hold the filling. If it is too firm, however, the sandwich will be dry, and the bread will distract from the other elements, rather than highlight them. Fresh bread is of great importance, especially for cold sandwiches; cold, stale bread has a very unpleasant mouthfeel. Grilled or griddled sandwiches, on the other hand, may even benefit from day-old bread; its firmer texture holds up much better.

White or whole-wheat Pullman bread is a favorite for sandwiches. Its tight crumb allows it to be sliced very thinly without crumbling, ideal for elegant tea sandwiches or classical ham and cheese sandwiches. Special breads, buns, rolls and wrappers are used to create certain sandwiches, including foccacia, pita bread, tortillas, Kaiser rolls and peasant-style breads, such as sourdough or miche. It is important that the bread supports the overall theme of the sandwich--for example, a foccacia-style bread for an Italian-inspired sandwich or pita bread for an eastern Mediterranean-style sandwich.

The Spread
Many sandwiches call for a spread applied directly to the bread. Commonly based on fat, it keeps the bread from getting soggy (by forming a water barrier) and provides moisture and lubrication for overall eating pleasure. Some sandwich fillings, especially mayonnaise-based salads, include the spread in the filling mixture, making it unnecessary to apply more onto the bread. Spreads can be very simply and subtly flavored to provide only moisture and mouthfeel, or they may themselves provide a strong flavor. Besides the classical butter, mayonnaise or mustard, there is a wide choice of sandwich spreads. In recent years, creamy salad dressings, like Caesar’s or Thousand Island, have been added to sandwiches.

For an ethnic approach, try tapenade-, hummus- or tahini-based spreads. Guacamole will give a nice Latin American appeal. Ricotta cheese, with its relatively low fat content, is very popular among health-conscious diners. As with the bread, the spread needs to be compatible with the other components. A vegetarian pita with falafel and tomatoes, for example, will go better with a tahini- or hummus-based spread than with guacamole.

The Main Item
The featured element of a sandwich is its filling or main item; it is important to have a perfectly grilled beef patty for a burger or the cold cuts for a hoagie sliced at the right thickness. The main item takes center stage; it determines the theme of the sandwich; all other components support and highlight it. Choices for fillings include sliced meats, cheeses, grilled or roasted vegetables, salads, fried fish or seafood, or pâtés for a more elegant sandwich.

The Garnish
The garnish for a sandwich should never just be an afterthought; it needs to be considered as an integral part of the overall structure. As with other components, it needs to support or even reflect the main item. Classical garnishes include sliced tomatoes, lettuce chiffonade, pickle spears or olives, grilled vegetables or sliced fruit. More creative garnishes include paper-thin slices of prosciutto, grilled red peppers or perhaps crumbled feta cheese. Garnishes should have a purpose besides enhancing eye-appeal; their role is to add a complementary flavor and/or texture. Try some crispy, fried capers or substitute the iceberg lettuce with some arugula, to supply a pleasant crunch and a distinct flavor.

Efficient and safe assembly of sandwiches is a key to a successful operation. Some sandwiches, such as tea sandwiches or canapés, are cut into special shapes. For this task, the bread is often cut lengthwise to get the largest surface area and the best possible yield. Straight-edged shapes result in the best yield with the lowest cost. One can create these shapes by cutting the sandwich with a bread knife into squares, rectangles, diamonds or triangles. Cutters in various shapes may be used to cut rounds or ovals. The yield in these shapes is lower, however, making these sandwiches more expensive to prepare. Ideally, sandwiches are prepared to order. However, if they have to be prepared for a larger function, keep them covered with plastic wrap to prevent drying out.

For efficiency and for food safety, it is paramount to have a carefully organized work station. Have all mise en place ready before assembly and arrange the station so all ingredients are within arms’ reach. Maximize the work-flow by eliminating unnecessary movements; arrange the direction in which the work moves. By avoiding possible friction points, it also minimizes the risk of cross-contamination. Food handlers’ gloves must be worn at all stages during the production of a sandwich, not only during the final assembly. Sandwiches are a ready-to-eat food, and sanitation is crucial; even grilled or baked sandwiches are not necessarily heated sufficiently to eliminate the risk of pathogens.

Sandwiches Everywhere
Sandwiches can be found everywhere and are enjoyed by people in all stations in life. Even in elegant hotels, they are the most popular item on the room service menu, providing comfort for the guest who is far away from home. Sandwiches can be found in every lunch box, as well as in fine-dining restaurants, where skilled chefs profile themselves with their signature sandwich. A well-prepared sandwich is not only delicious; it provides comfort and is undeserving of its sometimes poor reputation among the nutritionally conscious. Sandwiches, if marketed properly, can be offered to a very diverse target group, opening the doors to an almost limitless market. Many successful quick-service restaurants are proof that the sandwich will continue to enjoy its well-deserved popularity. pf
Founded in 1946, The Culinary Institute of America is an independent, not-for-profit college offering bachelor’s and associate degrees in culinary arts and baking and pastry arts, as well as certificate programs in culinary arts and wine and beverage studies. A network of more than 40,000 alumni has helped the CIA earn its reputation as the world’s premier culinary college. The CIA, which also offers courses for industry professionals and food enthusiasts, has campuses in New York (Hyde Park), California (St. Helena) and Texas (San Antonio).
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