When I was growing up, I had the good fortune to spend a great deal of time with my paternal grandmother, who was an absolutely amazing cook. She had boxes filled with recipes on index cards I swear I will turn into a cook book someday.
But, one of my favorite things she made -- and there were quite a few of them -- was bread. She made fresh loaves every week and, particularly during the summer, I was there to help make and, more importantly, eat them. Of course, as a kid, bread and butter or toast with jam was a great, simple way to enjoy fresh baked bread, but my preferred usage was for sandwiches.
Maybe it is this early introduction to great bread that lead to my nearly lifelong love affair with sandwiches. And while I'm not a snob who's above cramming some bologna between slices of Wonderbread in a pinch, to make a truly great sandwich you need truly great bread.
There are five key characteristics of great sandwich bread.
Just this week, I stopped into Jeannine's Bistro to have one of my favorite sandwiches in Houston, the baguette au poulet. It is an amazing blend of seasoned grilled chicken, carmelized onions, melted Swiss cheese, Jeannine's homemade mayonnaise and a hint of Dijon mustard. Unfortunately, as divine as the filling may be, the bread is moderately tough and sadly mediocre. My first bite resulted in something I hate: half the filling came out the back side of the sandwich and spilled all over my plate.
Great bread should be tough enough to hold up to moist filling, but pliable enough to bite through easily. Without that pliability, messes like mine happen, destroying an otherwise fantastic sandwich.
2. Moderate density
Since we're on the subject, the opposite can also be a problem. When I pick up a sandwich and the bread on the bottom is nearly soaked through because the moisture of the meat or condiments have seeped through, I'm thoroughly disappointed. I am not a fan of dry sandwiches. Whether it is oil and vinegar or mustard or the juices from grilled meat, a good sandwich, has is at least a little juicy in the middle. But that means it must have bread that can soak up some of that moisture while still maintaining its shape and texture. If not, the result is a soggy mess. If a bread bowl can hold soup, sandwich bread sure as hell can handle a little mayo.
3. Interior softness
I feel like great sandwich bread should be similar to great french fries: It should have some crunch on the outside, but be soft in the middle. That interior softness gives great sandwiches enough starch to hold up to the fillings, but no so much that all you taste is bread. A softer interior tends to be lighter and airier making it easier to chew as well.
4. Exterior texture
Like french fries, good bread also needs a little crunch on the outside. A solid, but not overly hard crust is essential in baguettes, rolls and sandwich slices, allowing the sandwich to maintain its shape and hold everything together while adding that mild crunch that is so satisfying. When it is too hard -- as is the case with far too many "artisan" sandwich shops -- it is impossible to bite through. I had the hardened crust of a French loaf from Central Market actually cut my gum line when I bit into the sandwich they made for me a few weeks ago. No, no and NO!
5. Gentle flavor
There is a general rule with fish that, if it is fresh, it won't taste fishy. Fresh bread is the opposite, which is what makes a bakery or kitchen where it is made smell so enticing. Sandwich bread, when fresh, adds an earthiness and just a tinge of sweetness to any filling. Bland bread becomes simply a way to hold the meat in the sandwich together at which point you may as well use rice cakes. On the other hand, if it has an overly strong taste or aroma, it can balance poorly with the fillings and even overwhelm the whole experience.
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There is one other thing I should mention that is more about the whole sandwich, but still important: bread-to-filling ratio. As much as I love a good slab of bread, too much of it overwhelms the meal and, at that point, why not just have some cinnamon toast? Same goes for sandwich fillings. I really enjoy many things on the menu at Kenny & Ziggy's, but I nearly always have to scrape half the meat off of the sandwich just to fit it in my mouth. That's too much.
In case you might be wondering, at the moment, probably my favorite bread used on a sandwich in Houston is Pappa Geno's. They apparently fly their light, airy bread in from out of state to use with their delicious cheesesteaks. I normally opt for the Chicken Philly. Yum!