Anyone can make a good sandwich. But think about what's changed since the 18th century's 4th Earl of Sandwich put meat between bread, reputedly so that he could eat while gambling on cards (or working – it's still a matter of contention). Sandwiches have since traveled the world, bringing us treasures like Vietnamese bánh mì sandwiches, made with grilled pork, pâté, and pickled veggies on a baguette, and Puerto Rican-style jibarito sandwiches of garlic mayonnaise, meat, cheese, and veggies between slabs of flattened, fried green plantains. Sandwich technology took off beyond the earl's imagination – who could have believed the first grilled cheese was anything other than a gift from heaven or space?
At the center of lunchtime innovation are the savants of sandwichery, the deli masters and nerds who obsess over optimum condiment ratios and ingredient-layering strategies. We called a few of our favorites from sandwich shops around the country – Tommy Habetz of Bunk Sandwiches in Portland, Oregon; Michael Voltaggio of Ink.Sack in Los Angeles; Chuck Kelsey of Cutty's in Brookline, Massachusetts; and Tyler Kord of New York City's No. 7 Sub – to get their secrets for taking any sandwich to the next level. Put their wisdom to use, and your lunch (or brunch) today can be good enough to make old nobility jealous.
Fry up a crunchy topping.
Another foolproof route to killer sandwiches: a handful of crispy, caramelized, fried shallots. They're a fixture at Cutty's – so much so, chef Chuck Kelsey says, "I have to fight not to put them on every sandwich we come up with." As a bonus, the oil you fry them in is incredibly aromatic and delicious in salad dressings and pasta sauces, or over vegetables. To make the shallot topping:
• Combine 1 cup sliced shallots and 2 cups vegetable oil in a 3-quart heavy saucepan. Set over high heat and stir occasionally, until the shallots are frying rapidly. Turn heat down to a medium-bubbling simmer – shallots should be dancing but not moshing.
• Stir frequently and be patient: It can take 15 minutes to evaporate all the moisture – go too fast and you could burn the shallots before they dry and crisp. They'll get kind of stringy and look horrible, but they'll eventually turn "fluffy," and take on some color. Meanwhile, set up a big tray with a few layers of paper towels.
• When the shallots are almost rust-colored, take the pot off the heat, scoop them out, and spread them on the tray. Season evenly with salt, and let them cool until crisp. Keep in an airtight container once they're fully cooled.
Credit: Photograph by Nick Ferrari