The Five Characteristics of Great Sandwich Bread

wonderbread.jpg
This is NOT great sandwich bread.
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.

1. Pliability

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.

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!



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Location Info

Jeannine's Bistro - CLOSED

106 Westheimer, Houston, TX

Category: Restaurant

Central Market

3815 Westheimer, Houston, TX

Category: General

Pappa Geno's

1801 Ella Blvd., Houston, TX

Category: Restaurant

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17 comments
John Kiely
John Kiely

What's up with the single slice of white bread I often get with a hulking order of barbecued ribs?  Am I supposed to make a sandwich or something?

Mike P
Mike P

A 'tinge of sweetness'? Yuck! As a European ex pat living in Houston it took me several attempts at different sandwich bread before I realised that ALL breads here have a sugary taste. The fresh bread section is the only way forward... Who wants savoury fillings combined with a sweet overtone - oh wait... that's syrup your pouring on your bacon...

pants on the ground
pants on the ground

Is the author of this post a baker? a pastry chef? no. therefore the entire premise is invalid, flawed.

Kelli
Kelli

I never really criticize HP but i think 1-4 are pretty much saying the same thing.

JarrodJM
JarrodJM

Fly their bread in from out of state? What a waste when you have places like Slow Dough right down the street.

Doc Ricky
Doc Ricky

No such thing as the perfect sandwich bread. Heck, gua bao bread has no crunch whatsoever, and it works.. The right bread must be matched to the right filling. It's about synergy. http://food.drricky.net/2011/0...

csoakley
csoakley

A key element in the fantasticness of the burgers at Hubcap Grill is their Ciabatta-esque bun. Chewy but not too tough and durable enough to hold together a messy burger like the Greek or Philly.

Reality
Reality

It's for the sauce.  Stop wasting it on the good meat, and you eat the sauce on the bread with pickles and onions.  You're doing it wrong if you are making sandwiches.

Katharine Shilcutt
Katharine Shilcutt

I'm actually with you on this one. I hate sweet bread for sandwiches, and I'm always appalled at the amount of sugar in store-bought bread.

csoakley
csoakley

I agree. C'mon Jeff! Don't you know that on the internet you need to be certified when offering your opinion on something? Either show us your culinary school credentials or stop posting!

csoakley
csoakley

If Pappa Geno's stopped using the bread that they currently use my guess is their business drops by 15-20%. I think I'll head over today for a carbon-unfriendly Chicken Philly.

TQro
TQro

Agree. I don't like a burger that falls apart because the juices from the patty totally tear up the bun.  Hubcap probably has my favorite bun.  Other 'burger' places, please take note.

For a plain sandwich loaf, I like Slow Dough's pre-sliced whole wheat sandwich loaf.

csoakley
csoakley

I'm a sucker for the Sweet Mesquite bread found in various sandwichatoriums around town. It makes a good burger great. Personal Sweet Mesquite fave: Roast Beef and Cheddar @ Lola with an extra side of the sweet horseradish dip. It's like an Arby's beefwich without the suck.

Jftr3
Jftr3

You don't have to be a bakery or a pastry chef to appreciate a great load of bread.

csoakley
csoakley

OK, so I went to Pappa Geno's and the bread didn't seem as chewy today. I asked the woman lady if they changed bread and they said no. Maybe it's just me but it didn't seem as magical as a few months ago. Anyone else notice this? Maybe because they gave the whole sandwich a thorough toasting prior to serving. It may have cooked out the chewy goodness.

csoakley
csoakley

Yeah, probably; I was just feeling uppity today. And hey, pull up your pants. You lookin' like a fool!

pants on the ground
pants on the ground

(sarcasm, ha, ha...), but really, wouldn't this post have had more gravitas if Jeff would have interviewed a baker or pastry chef?

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