A few weeks ago, I got a hankering for a BLT. I don’t crave BLT’s all that often — maybe twice a year — but when I do it comes on strong. I need that sandwich, usually the same night.
In this over-excited BLT fervor, I challenged two of our writers, Vince Mancini and Zach Johnston, to a cheffing smackdown. I did it because 1) I knew it would make me take my BLT prep seriously; 2) Vince, Zach, and I argue about cooking a lot and I thought it would be fun to do a mini-Top Chef together; and 3) I felt certain that I’d win and the victory would feel as nourishing for my ego as the sandwich would for my belly.
What I forgot is that Vince and Zach are both serious cooks sure to take our little competition every bit as seriously as me. They brought the ruckus and I’m sure our commenters will reward their efforts with yellow participation ribbons (though I will admit that I clearly take the worst photos).
The BLT is, and should be, a quick and simple sandwich with just a few ingredients. So I’m going to try to resist the urge to add creative flourishes with extra ingredients. Mostly it’s about really good versions of the basics. I’ll list the basics, along with what I used, below.
Avocado (not exactly traditional, but pretty close)
Nothing too crazy. I like the thick-ish, applewood-smoked kind (pepper bacon is too peppery, hickory-smoked is too… hickory-y). I like to bake mine rather than pan fry — it takes a smidge longer, maybe, but you get a more even cook, and the fat renders without getting too hard. I used my baking pan with a raised rack to give the fat room to render off (I don’t mind a little grease, but you don’t want a soggy sandwich). 375 for let’s say 10-15. I bake it until the bacon is crispy crunchy and done enough that you don’t pull it out of your sandwich when you bite, but not so crispy that it shatters inside the sandwich and goes ham on your sensitive upper mouth. NO ONE WANTS THIS.
Butter lettuce. Crunchy and light tasting like iceberg, but not quite as nutritionally bankrupt (that’s right, I said it, iceberg, you ain’t sh*t). I also like green leaf.
Heirloom, nice and ripe. Like a beefsteak, but a little better. It sounds poncey but I don’t care, heirloom tomatoes are delicious.
You could use aioli, I guess, but that seems both overly laborious and too watery to me (mayo is important on a BLT, but I don’t want it sogging up my sandwich). Of course, not all mayos are created equal. I like this Spectrum canola oil stuff. It’s thicker, more custardy (less creamy) than your standard American Hellman’s/Best Foods stuff, and tangier and more vinegary too. I add a little Sriracha to it, which adds a little heat but not too much. It also gives it a nice color. I have a theory that mayo haters mostly hate the color. I suspect it reminds them of jizz. Anyway, Sriracha (and not that off-brand Sriracha either, which is garbage) and mayo, super easy.
Needs to be reasonably like white bread — no seeds, no wheat (gross), not too crusty (no rolls or baguettes sliced lengthwise, too hard to bite through). I used a loaf of “Japanese Milk Bread” from the fancy nouveau bakery down the street. Which, I know, sounds oh-so-f*cking-precious. I actually didn’t know what it’d be. But it turned out to be a slightly denser version of brioche that was a little sweet — sort of a cross between brioche and King’s Hawaiian, but slightly less airy — which was perfect. To toast or not to toast? Untoasted is a little flabby, and toasting can make it too scratchy if you’ve got crunchy toast piled on crunchy bacon. Me, I go grilled, on one side. So the outside is a little crunchy (and not flabby), while the inside makes a little pillow for your bacon.
Here it is just before I put it together:
I put the bacon between the tomatoes and the bread so the tomatoes wouldn’t sog up my bread. Just seemed logical.
And added a little pepper, because why not.
DOUBLE TOMATO LAYER! I dunno, they were nice tomatoes, so why not.
Okay, so I added some chives, thus breaking my own “no unnecessary flourishes rule.” But I just had some laying around and they were going to go bad otherwise, so I figured why not. If they’re good enough for Jacques Pepin, they’re good enough for me. Do you ever watch Jacques Pepin? The man is a treasure. Also, motherf*cker LOVES chives. I honestly wish to one day love anything with as deep and abiding a love as Jacques Pepin reserves for chives.
That’s it! I didn’t cut it in diagonals, because I’m a REAL MAN and I eat my sandwiches whole, dammit.
Steve on Vince’s sandwich:
Sriracha? Hey Vince, 2008 called, it wants its trendy condiment back. Also, did you scrape the insides out of those tomatoes or something? They look damn near hollow. There can’t be much flavor without any seeds. I like the chive move and I will admit that both the bacon and bread look good.
Zach on Vince’s sandwich:
Watery aioli? Who hurt you Vince? Aioli should always be thicker than standard mayo. Also, doesn’t adding 2006’s favorite mediocre hot sauce (it’s all about the sambel oelek!) water down your mayo? While broiling the bacon in the oven is a way to cook bacon, you lose out on cooking the bacon in all that well-seasoned and delicious fat which helps keep those flavors infused. You can always drain the bacon after in paper towels. You may as well be using turkey bacon at this point!
As with all food you cook, the quality of the ingredients is going to have biggest effect on tastiness. I’d argue it’s worth an extra buck or two to make a truly splendid dish, even a sandwich, which is as utilitarian food wise as you can get.
Fresh baked white bread
Black Forest Bacon
Sioux Heirloom Tomato
When it comes to the bread, fresh baked is essential. First of all, bread from a bakery isn’t going to be packed with unnecessary additives, and second, it’ll taste far better. A BLT should be made with two slices of bread, not rolls or baguettes or wraps. I mean if you want to do that, fine. Potato bread works great, or Hawaiian bread for a nice hint of sweetness. I’m using a fresh baked standard white that I know has three ingredients — wheat, salt, and water.
I drizzle a little extra virgin olive oil on the bread and grill it in a cast iron skillet a la Texas toast. I also recommend using a spatula to lightly crush the crust to make it easier to eat. By grilling the bread, you’re making a solid layer that doesn’t allow any moisture to destroy the integrity of the slice when the wetter ingredients are added. Crucial.
Living in Berlin, bacon options are pretty varied. Ze Germans know their way around a pig. I go for the real deal and hit up a deli so I can get the bacon strips sliced straight off a fully cured and smoked pork belly. The Black Forest variety actually means something in Germany compared to the boring ham available in the U.S. The belly is salted and seasoned with garlic, coriander, black pepper, and juniper berries before it’s hung to cure for two weeks. Then it’s cold smoked for about a month until the outside turns almost completely black. Finally the whole belly is air dried for another two weeks. The final result is a richly satisfying and deeply smokey bacon that I always get cut extra thick. The point is to get a high-quality ingredient you feel sure about.
Cooking the bacon can make or break a BLT. I made a weave because I like a solid layer of bacon. It’s not at all necessary. What is necessary is a properly seasoned cast-iron skillet. All those years of frying, baking, and seasoning give the bacon an extra layer of flavor you can’t fake. When that fat starts to render out of the bacon it’s taking with it all that smoke and flavor that spent years settling into the pores of the pan. Always put bacon into a cold pan and turn the heat on. Eventually enough fat will render out and quasi-deep fry the bacon, cooking it all through as you can see in the assembly pic.
Inside The Sandwich
While the bacon is cooking, I get the sandwich ready. I feather out the avocado to make an nice, even layer on one slice of bread. I make my own aioli (this recipe is pretty good) that’s super thick and loaded with lush, raw garlic to the point where it’s spicy. I don’t really like to mix mayo with other sauces because it thins them out and then they tend to liquify when the heat of the sandwich hits and it all drips out when you’re trying to eat it. You need a nice, thick condiment here.
Next, I tear off a few pieces of iceberg from near the stem because you want some serious crunch when you bite in and that whiter and more flavor intense part of the iceberg head is the best place for that. The last component are the tomatoes. I like the Sioux Heirloom because they’re ripened in very high temperatures that boost the flavor massively. Four medium thick slices will do.
Don’t forget to keep an eye on the bacon. You want it crisp, but not hard. Put some paper towels on a plate and blot away all the excess bacon fat. The hot bacon will continue to sweat bacon fat as it cools anyway, so get as much fat off as you can before you make your sandwich.
As for the assembly, bacon on one side, iceberg on the other, tomato in the middle. That way you have nice layers of crunch with a soft center. Wrap that bad boy up in a piece of paper, and serve with a nice sour pickle on the side.
Vince on Zach’s sandwich:
That sandwich is too thick. When I’m eating a sandwich, I don’t want to have to unhinge my jaw like Steve’s mom. I wasn’t born with that functionality. Not to mention, what’s my reward for nearly pulling a jaw muscle here? Extra bread? Also, when we’re talking about grow temperatures of tomatoes I think we’ve overthought the BLT. And the “white part of the iceberg?” If you want something flavorless that adds crunch, you might as well make it with water chestnuts. I also don’t think the pan flavor you think you’re imparting to your snooty bacon makes up for the much cleaner render on the baked bacon, not to mention that the weave is going to leave uncooked sections. In conclusion, I wish I had an extra hand so I could give this BLT three thumbs down. May God have mercy on your soul. The aoili sounds good.
Steve on Zach’s Sandwich:
Listen, I don’t trust that bacon weave for a second. The places where it overlaps means that you had sections of bacon that never touched a pan (if it’s two layers thick in those spots, the inside sections weren’t exposed to direct heat). Seems like a catastrophic call. I’m going to give you the benefit of the doubt on the tomatoes, because you made them sound nice, but they don’t look that great to me.
I’ll give you this: Looking at your sandwich in the photo, the ratio seems dead solid perfect. There’s no shortage of lettuce, plenty of mayo, and tomato in every bite.
Don’t overdo it. Cooking is a lot of fun and I think it’s a very natural temptation to try to chef everything up. But the BLT doesn’t lend itself to fanciness. In fact, I can’t think of many BLTs I’ve had that were better than the first BLT I ever had, 30-some years ago, made with Franz White Bread, Oscar Mayer bacon, and Miracle Whip.
As a chef, my mantra is to follow my own tastebuds. So that’s what I’ve done here.
Applewood smoked bacon
New Amsterdam cheese
Mayo (more on this later)
I like something rustic, with air pockets. Something that is a little more robust and won’t get soggy. I got this bread from the bakery and it was perfect. Rather than toasting it, I put it in a cast iron skilled with browned butter. All those nutty flavors from the browned butter transferred into the bread and it developed a nice outer crunch, but the slices were relatively thick and the insides stayed soft.
This was probably more out of habit than anything else, although I do think you want some crunch. I thought about using Romaine, but in the end, iceberg just feels more BLT to me.
You’ll see that I bought a ton of tomatoes. I’m Italian, I knew they wouldn’t go to waste. I cut them all and picked out the very best slices. There are six heirloom, organic tomatoes there and I only used the very best cuts — seems obsessive, right? In my experience, focusing on tomatoes is always wise. A good tomato is a revelation, a bad tomato is basically red cardboard.
This is the one place where I really allowed myself to go off-book. First of all, I use the Japanese mayo, Kewpie. It’s sweeter, smoother, and richer than what you’re used to. It’s also got MSG — which has made it a favorite of superstar chefs who want to enhance umami flavors. David Chang, every famous chef’s favorite chef, called it the “best mayonnaise in the world.”
Because I’m umami-obsessed, I took this concept a little further and added about half of a tinned sardine. Sardines are unctuous and add umami like it’s nobody’s business — you don’t taste the fishiness at all (this is very similar to adding a little fish sauce to your taco meat, which is a thing you should definitely be doing).
I wanted a little heat, but I didn’t want to use raw chilies or Sriracha. Instead, I mixed in a little bit of Korean gochujang sauce. Gochujang is also umami-heavy and it’s got great tang. They heat is unusual and doesn’t last too long, so you don’t have to drink a glass of milk between bites.
Lastly, I chopped up garlic chives and regular chives and mixed them in. So yeah, I took the mayo pretty seriously.
Putting it all together
I layered the bacon in opposing order so that you never get too much fat in one bite. I also made sure to get the best (crunchiest) pieces of lettuce I could find. The fact that I had so many tomato slices to choose from made it easy to create a “tomato layer.” I also added a few of the seeds to my mayo, because I didn’t want to waste them and some had bled out.
At the last second I added the finest dusting of New Amsterdam cheese because it’s nice and sharp and… look, I probably don’t need to explain why I added cheese. The fried egg? The most obvious BLT tweaks are fried egg or avocado and for me fried egg is always going to beat an avocado in a sandwich. If you’re keeping track at home that’s a lot of umami flavors, but the tomatoes cut through it perfectly. It was never too heavy but the flavors ran deep.
Sorry boys, come at the king and you best not miss.
Vince on Steve’s sandwich:
First off, adding fish sauce to taco meat sounds like a lesbian pick-up line. Secondly, for a guy who claimed not to want to chef this up, you really seemed to think you needed to keep adding umami to a god damned bacon sandwich. It’s a BLT. It doesn’t need a truffled MSG anchovy pancake. It should taste like bacon and tomatoes. I’ll grant you the egg, even though I think it’s kind of cheating, AND I don’t really enjoy egg yolk running down the heel of my hand while I’m trying to eat a damned sandwich. Cheese seems like overkill though. I dare you to list all that sardine crap on a menu and see how often it gets ordered. Finally, look at the toast on that bread. That is going to destroy the roof of my mouth. Why don’t you garnish with some thumb tacks while you’re at it? You have destroyed this sandwich. I think you need to write a full retraction explaining to the readers why you’re so viciously anti-sandwich.
Zach on Steve’s Sandwich:
Okay. I’m in love with that mayo blend. You had me at sardines. That being said, I’d melt that cheese on the opposing slice of bread to give a little more texture and flavor if you have to add cheese in the first place (which, adds unneeded fat at this point with the mayo, fish, and bacon already being fat forward). No offense to your bread, but with all those holes and a runny egg, there’s definitely a little yoke-y mess on the horizon — another reason to melt that cheese to make a protective layer from all those bread holes. Lastly, dude, where’s your egg game? That sh*t needs to be sunny side up!