Towards a theory of sandwich aesthetics

What? You think we just overthink movies?

Every now and then, we like to take a break from our usual coverage of cyborg movies and dance pop to talk about something a little different.  By which I mean:  every now and then it’s one in the morning on the night before my post is due, and I’ve spent the last two hours frantically scrambling for a topic and coming up blind.  I just haven’t consumed any particularly interesting pop culture in the last week.  Makes it kind of hard to write about the stuff.

So what did I do this past week?  Well, I had a pretty good sandwich… yeah.  Okay, sandwiches.  Let’s overthink this thing.

As a general rule, food requires either quality ingredients, skilled preparation, or both.  Pulled pork barbecue and chili are way up in the top left corner because, while they both take a fair amount of skill to do well, the quality of the ingredients doesn’t matter at all.  Barbecue is quite literally a cooking technique developed in order to compensate for having terrible cuts of meat.  Have you ever seen an uncooked brisket?  It’s basically a wad of fat and gristle.  Unlocking that delicious meaty lockbox takes time, energy, and no small degree of skill.

Sashimi, on the other hand, is way out there on the lower right.  Quality of ingredients – by which I mean essentially freshness of fish – is all-important.  Not only does it determine whether it tastes good, it determines whether or not it will kill you.  But as for preparation… look, this is raw fish.  It’s not going to get any rawer.  There is a very real sense in which it has not, actually, been prepared.  Now, this doesn’t mean that the people who make it aren’t talented.  It’s one of the most elaborately presented foods in the world, and carving fish into perfect gem-like slabs is tricky business. And sushi — the difference, as I’m sure you know, is that sushi is presented on a little lozenge of rice with a thin film of wasabi paste, while sashimi is just a stack of fish slabs — is basically the Japanese equivalent of a sandwich, which we’ll be getting to later on.   But when it comes to sashimi, they are not so much chefs as sculptors whose medium is food.  The only food where preparation matters less is the apple, where the recipe consists of

1:  Open mouth
2:  Insert apple
3:  Not the whole apple, you jackass

Coffee is in the top middle.  The ingredients do matter here, some, but not nearly as much as the preparation.  It’s very easy to take some high-end small-batch free-trade shade-grown hand-roasted Ethiopia Harrar, and turn it into something that tastes like cat piss by messing up the brewing process.  Its opposite number is breakfast cereal.  This is all but impossible to screw up:  your culinary experience is determined entirely by which brand of cereal you buy… but quality of ingredients is only going to take you so far.  The most expensive cereal in the world is still going to taste like cereal, so you might be better off sticking to the Cinammon Toast Crunch, or even the Pathmark-brand knockoff thereof.  Ingredients still matter some, though… shredded wheat is pretty gross.

The lowly hotdog sits in the bottom left corner.  Now I’m no snob:  I’ll eat hotdogs and I like them.  But I have no illusions about the kind of “meat” that goes into the things.  Could you create a sort of uber-hotdog, that used no fillers and only the finest grass-raised beef?  Well you could… but it would not be a hotdog.  It would be a sausage.  The hotdog is not a distinct culinary category:  it is shorthand for the cheapest sausage available, cooked in the laziest way available. Marshmellows could go down here too.  Anything you toast on a stick over a campfire.

In the top right, on the other hand, we have eggs benedict.  To make these, you first need to make poached eggs and hollandaise sauce, and there are dozens of ways to ruin either of those.  But the quality of your english muffin, your canadian bacon, and even the egg itself is going to depend heavily on how deep your pockets are.  Which is why this foodstuff is basically never seen outside of brunch restaurants.

And finally, we have the sandwich, the origin point, the one food in which ingredients and skill are perfectly balanced.

But this is actually a radical claim.  Many people don’t think of sandwiches as taking skill at all:  you just slap some stuff between two pieces of bread and eat it, right?  Wrong.

The atrocity at left is the “Bacon Whoopee,” available at the Carnegie Deli for a mere $22.  As a bacon-delivery vector, this is superlative.  As a sandwich, it is completely incompetent.  A properly calibrated sandwich is all about balance.  It is an exquisitely tuned chord.  Allow any one element to overwhelm the others, and the sandwich is ruined.  Ruined!  You need to be able to taste every component.  At the Carnegie Deli, this is not going to happen.  This is also the problem with the sandwiches at Subway.  It doesn’t really matter what you order at subway:  they basically all taste like the bread, with a little crunchiness from the lettuce.  (This is why when I have to eat at Subway, I just get the vegetarian sub.  It tastes the same, and it’s cheaper.)

And yet these two options – giant overpowering stack of meat; giant, flabby, overpowering bread – seem to be the dominant paradigm in modern sandwich making.  So here, as a public service, I present Stokes Sandwich Algorithm.  I don’t pretend that it’s a perfect formula, but it’s better than a hell of a lot of the stuff out there.  And I think it’s proof that anything – even a sandwich – can be overthought.

Cheese:  the trick here is that the slices should be very, very thin, and no more than two layers.  The flavor won’t come out right otherwise.  If you want more cheese, don’t put the layers next to eachother.  I list cheese first because it’s  the sandwich’s limiting factor.  You can’t use too much cheese, and none of the other elements can overwhelm the cheese. Of course, if you’re not putting cheese in your sandwich, the rest of this formula is basically useless.  Sorry about that

Meat:  About two to three times the size (by thickness) of your cheese layer.  Thin slices are important here too:  this is the one thing that the standard deli sandwich gets right.  But it’s not so much because of the flavor.  It’s because a thick slice of meat is hard to bite through.  You run the risk of dragging the whole slice of meat out of the sandwich, all slimy and covered with mayonnaise, and at that point the aesthetic experience is more or less ruined.  If you can’t cut the slices thin, you’ll want to cut them lengthwise as well.  (Incidentally, this is the way that chicken salad works.)

Lettuce, Tomatoes, Pickles, Cucumbers, and the like:  What exact kind of vegetables you want to use is up to you.  The combined layer, though, should be exactly the same size as the meat layer.  Obviously if you’re using something very strongly flavored – pickles, hot peppers, raw onion – you want to use less.  One slice of cheddar, three slices of roast beef, and a single near-translucent slice of red onion makes for a very fine sandwich indeed.

Condiments:  Again, less than you think.  Nothing is more revolting than taking a bite of the sandwich and winding up with a big blob of mayonnaise in your mouth, unless it’s biting into a sandwich and having mayonnaise squirt out the sides and all over your hands.  Spread thin, using just enough to moisten the surface of both slices of bread, and let it go.  Grinding a some fresh black pepper onto the bread after you apply the condiments is often a nice touch.

Bread:  must be firm enough to hold the sandwich together, must not be so coarse as to scratch the roof of your mouth.  The two slices, together, should be about the same thickness as the meat layer, or slightly thicker.

Now, this is the formula that works for me.  Your results may vary.  But use this as your starting point.  Then maybe the next time you make a sandwich, use a little more meat.  Use a little less cheese.  Use a little less mayonnaise (but not more, because that squirting out the sides of the sandwich thing is really, really gross).  And once you’ve arrived at your own platonic sandwich ideal, remember what it is.  Do it that way every time from now on.  Life is short.  And the people reading this website (not to mention writing for it) are wasting too much time already to waste any more eating imperfectly balanced sandwiches.

15 Comments on “Towards a theory of sandwich aesthetics”

  1. Sharper #

    I would like to add the general rule:

    Add only one of cheese, avocado, or mayonnaise

    Given that each of these ingredients contributes a strong flavor and creamy texture, it’s stupendously easy to throw off the balance of the rest of the sandwich, turning your work into a fat fight. Few cheeses complement avocado *and* the other fixings, in fact; the most common sandwich to incorporate both is the grilled cheese, avocado, and tomato, which entirely does away with balance in favor of showcasing strong flavors.


  2. Tom #

    The best sandwich I have ever made myself contained the following:

    1) Sea salt filone bread, from my trusty local Safeway.
    2) Prosciuttio
    3) Fresh mozzarella cheese
    4) Fresh basil
    5) One medium-sized tomato

    Cut the bread lengthwise, so it opens up, hinge-like. Cut the mozzarella into eighth- to quarter-inch thick slices, and place in one layer inside bread. On top of that, two layers of prosciuttio. Then one layer of fresh basil leaves, and a row of tomatoes. Do NOT ruin this with mayonnaise.

    I have yet to top this, and I don’t particularly feel like I need to try.


  3. Chris #

    I have to disagree on your assessment of Subway sandwiches, or at least provide an exception. If you ever get the sweet onion sauce, usually reserved for sweet onion chicken teriyaki, you will taste nothing but that, unless you bite into a jalapeno or banana pepper, which I always get on my Subway sandwiches.

    Also, I’m a fan of going heavy with my condiment of choice; spicy brown mustard. Not falling out of the sandwich heavy, but heavy enough that I can distinctly taste some of it in every bite. Then again, maybe if I spread my condiments, which I don’t, I wouldn’t need as much mustard to achieve that goal. You’ve given me a lot to mull…


  4. mlawski OTI Staff #

    Yeah, I need to concur with Chris on the Subway sandwich thing. They’ll taste like bread unless A) you add jalapenos and B) you make them put on a lot of chipotle Southwest mayonnaise (clearly the best Subway condiment). Then you get a sandwich that tastes like jalapenos and chipotle mayonnaise, a nice combination.

    But let me say, I love this idea of overthinking sandwiches. I mean, we already overthought Chipotle burritos–this is the next logical step.


  5. Jon Eric #

    Man, the google ads had a field day with this post.

    Stokes, I can definitely appreciate your concern for the aesthetic experience of a sandwich (especially with regards to the meat needing to be sliced thin so as not to fall out of the sandwich when bitten), but I think you got a little too scientific on it. A sandwich isn’t a formula. If you like cheese, then heck, put more cheese on the sandwich. And if it overpowers the rest of the ingredients, then so be it; if you didn’t like cheese so much, you wouldn’t have put so much on your sandwich.

    But on the matter of sandwiches, I suppose we can agree to disagree. :)


  6. Rob #

    First off, let me say: Mmmmmmmmmmmm – Mmmmmmmmmmeat.

    Now – I would argue that the question of proper sandwich balance is really a question of customer demographics.
    The Carnegie Deli caters to goyische tourists who come from out of town to see Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals. (Not that I’m stereotyping.) So they’re just serving their clientele. But folks looking for a true Jewish Deli experience go to the 2d Avenue Deli (now on E 33d near 3d ave) for a triple-decker of Corned Beef, Pastrami, and Chicken Salami on rye – no bacon here because it’s not Kosher. The meats are well-balanced and tasty, and they go great with coleslaw and pickles. I recommend that you try it, even if you’re a goy.

    Similarly, kids’ tastes are different from adults. When I was little, my parents took me now and then to a small make-your-own-sundae shop in Cobble Hill. I used to load my sundaes up with multiple flavors of ice cream, and as many different types of candy as possible – sprinkles, M&Ms, gummy bears, etc. – and a couple of types of syrup (caramel and butterscotch). My sundaes were a saccharine mess, and I couldn’t even taste the ice cream. But these days I won’t even have Moose Tracks ice cream because it’s too complicated. Chocolate and peanut butter in vanilla ice cream? Better to go with peanut butter in chocolate ice cream, or vanilla fudge swirl, or even chocolate chip cookie dough. The cookie dough is neutral and adds texture to contrast the chocolate chips and vanilla ice cream. Mmm, cookie dough ice cream…

    P.S. your graph is awesome, and reminds me vaguely of an old XKCD:


  7. Greg #

    I think something that needs to be considered is the kind or ‘shape’ of the sandwich. A a sub needs a different approach than a square sandwich like that depicted in the scatter plot. When a sandwich expands in size, the dynamics of deliciousness begin to change.

    Also, every scatter plot automatically reminds me that grapefruit sucks.


  8. Rob #

    It occurs to me that my prior comment may come off as culturally insensitive. By no means do I think bacon an inferior food – in fact, I agree with your “I liked bacon before it was cool” T-shirt, and I think it goes well in many foods such as Carbonara sauce, or atop a barbecue cheeseburger. Furthermore I don’t mean to say that Kosher food is intrinsically better (I’ve always been confused by the Hebrew National hot dog slogan, “We answer to a Higher Authority” — they’re still selling industrially-processed, nitrate-laden beef by-products!); rather I mean simply to say that the products served by Carnegie Deli and 2nd Avenue Deli are better suited to the customers who eat there.

    I am now reminiscing on the two best violations of kosher laws I’ve ever perpetrated – one, which I think Stokes himself may have prepared, was a Chicken Cordon Bleu that was breaded in matzah meal (!); and the other, a ham-and-swiss on Yom Kippur. =)


  9. Jonathan #

    How does toasting fit into this algorithm? My dad makes a killer sandwich, to my view, but toasting is an intrinsic part of the process (the bread, that is, not the whole sandwich).

    I also disagree with the cheese assessment because it all depends on the kind of cheese. You’re going to want a thicker cut of mozzarella than old cheddar, and for that matter, what about spreadable cheeses.

    Too much is left to chance in your analysis.


  10. Dan #

    One possibility is that you need to assign meats some sort of “flavor rating” which must be multiplied by the thickness of the layer.

    So bacon, which is a very highly flavored meat, would get a high flavor rating, meaning that you need a thinner bacon layer.

    On the other hand, turkey breast, just about the most boring sandwich meat available, would get a lower rating, so you’d need more of it, all other factors being equal. (Which is why I generally put a ton of mustard on turkey sandwiches)

    The ranking from most to least flavor rating would be something like:
    Hot Salami
    Corned Beef
    Roast Beef

    So a very thin layer of salami is the flavor equivalent of a much thicker layer of ham.


  11. Bob #

    @ Jonathan – Toasting makes sandwiches 71.43% better. Its a fact. You can wikipedia it! But seriously – I found an old George Forman in my offices kitchen, cleaned it, then started ‘toasting’ my sandwiches in them. At the time (Approximately 3 months ago) I was the only one who brought food to work. Now around lunchtime, everyone in my office becomes the Swedish Chief around the Forman, just because it makes everything better.

    One ingredient which ‘Pops’ – Garlic salt/powder.


  12. perich OTI Staff #

    @Jon Eric: “Man, the google ads had a field day with this post.”

    Best. Comment. Ever.


  13. Genevieve #

    @Jon Eric – I think the balance of ingredients in a good sandwich is akin to the “red wine with red meat” rule. On the surface, sure: drink/eat what you like. If you really enjoy a nice chardonnay, have it with your steak and “rules” be damned. Once you’ve eaten/drank enough, though, it becomes hard to deny that the rules are there for a reason: to provide the *ideal* experience. If you really, REALLY love cheese, you’ll find that it tastes *better* when it’s well-aligned with its fellow ingredients. You’re actually doing your favorite ingredients – and your palate – a disservice by piling them on assuming the more, the better. If someone loves chardonnay so much, or is craving cheese so badly, then they should enjoy them independent of their meal… they’ll taste much more pleasant.

    On the issue of thickness: I am of the opinion that the thickness of the meat and cheese and other ingredients is directly proportional to the thickness of the bread. Not only is it more aesthetically pleasing (and easier to make!) to use paper-thin slices on, say, a wrap… but I believe it tastes better, too.

    As a vegetarian, I also must speak up in favor of the veggies-&-cheese combo. I personally like to slice my cheese ridiculously thin, so as to have as many different flavors on my sandwich as possible w/o being overpowering. I’ve found that 3 is the ideal number of different flavors, and it should go: bread, spread, cheese, veggie, cheese, veggie, cheese, veggie, spread, bread.

    Incidentally, I work in a deli (at a SuperTarget, but still… I’ve worked in several delis over the years, both corporate and independent) so I definitely appreciate the love for sandwich-makin’! (I almost said “sandwich-craft,” but it sounded so pretentious that I wanted to punch myself in the face.)


  14. Gab #

    @Genevieve: I highly doubt you need worry about sounding pretentious, at least as compared to other comments and the piece itself. Ham it up! Get it?

    ANYhoo, I’m kind of wary of the idea that there is little-to-no skill involved in sandwich making. I mean, okay, maybe it isn’t necessarily something you can’t even attempt without cullinary school, no, but I know if I gave the same ingredients and proportions of spreads or whatever to a sample of people I know, myself included, the results would be as divergent as the personalities- which is to say, all over the board. There *are* some things that taste the same no matter what, but those are all pre-packaged, insta-meals like boxed mac ‘n’ cheese or Hamburger Helper or ramen noodles. Something made out of fresh ingredients, I think, inherently will involve a level of skill in execution that will effect the end result and taste.

    But as I begin to pontificate, I ask myself, does this also stem from laziness? What I mean to say is, does having a sandwich made by someone else make it automatically taste a little better? Or do we psych ourselves into taking more pleasure out of it in our heads because we didn’t have to put the labor into it, and we confuse this psychological stimulus for the physical sensation of taste? Could *that* be why I always thought my dad’s turkey-and-cheese sammiches were so much better than mine, even when I tried to copy him exactly? :(


  15. Diana #

    Sorry for the late comment, but: SO MUCH love for this post. It would have been a useful thing to have when explaining the deliciousness of a new sandwich I created two weeks ago. It’s called the hi-low: breaded chicken cutlet, brie, thinly sliced apple, honey, and mayo on a toasted bulkie roll.


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