Are you stuck in a lunchtime rut? When you are busy working, it is easy to find yourself making the same sandwiches over again for a quick lunch, especially if you’re working from home. Sandwiches offer infinite variety, though.
Even the most simple peanut butter and jelly or grilled cheese can be made to taste gourmet with a few simple adjustments.
Here are five tips from some of the best sandwich shops around the state to make your lunchtime a little more exciting.
Jazz up your condiments
One of the easiest ways to upgrade your sandwich is to add a little spice to your condiments. Mayonnaise makes a great base for any other flavors you might want to include, from wet ingredients to cheese to anything you can think of out of your spice rack. That is all an aioli is, after all.
“[Add] some Frank’s RedHot, now you have a spicy mayonnaise, crush some fresh garlic you have a nice garlic mayonnaise,” said Zack Richardson, co-owner of Harvest Moon Deli which has locations in Bangor, Brewer, Orono and Newport. “Black pepper would give it some kick. You can dice up some olives and mix a little of the olive juice in there that would be pretty tasty. Mayonnaise is very accommodating. One ingredient changing the flavor profile can change the entire sandwich experience.”
You can mix and match your homemade aioli to best suit your mood or your sandwich. For example, Richardson said that a mayonnaise combined with pesto would be best on a poultry, which has a lighter flavor, and a spicy mayonnaise might be better on something more overpowering like roast beef would do better with a spicy aioli.
You don’t have to stop at mayonnaise, though. Mark Clausen, co-owner of The Deli & Company in Saco, suggested reducing berries or other stone fruit and using that compote as a base for dressing and sauces.
“Don’t forget the mustard,” Clausen said. “It will not only hold your vinaigrette and creamy sauces together, it helps give balance to even a sweet condiment.”
There is some science to the order of condiments as well.
“Mustard should go on the top piece of bread and mayo on the bottom because of which flavor receptors are at the top of your mouth — the trigeminal receptors experience ‘spicy’ and ‘hot’ flavors,” said Pete Leavitt, co-owner of Leavitt & Sons Deli in Falmouth and Portland.
Get the right bread
Fresh baked bread from a respected baker will always make your sandwich feel more gourmet.
“I think any good sandwich starts with your bread,” said Nancy Gilks, manager of the Coffee Pot Sandwiches in Bangor. “If you are a sandwich person, I would buy bread from the bakery.”
However, the “right” bread might depend on the sandwich. Malcolm Bedell, chef and owner of Ancho Honey in Tenants Harbor, said that he wouldn’t use a seven-grain bakery bread for his restaurant’s American cheese, fried bologna sandwich and kimchi slaw sandwich.
“It kind of depends what you’re going for,” Bedell said. “If you’re doing a more gourmet version of a sandwich we use a crustier bread. If you’re going for straight nostalgia pinging, squishy, nutrient-free white bread is what we all grew up on. Sometimes we intentionally use really crappy bread because it matches.”
If you are making a specific kind of sandwich, the type of bread might be important to bring everything together.
“A great po’ boy needs to be on Leidenheimer,” said Christopher Bettera, owner of Po’ Boys and Pickles in Portland. “Seafood needs to be on a soft loaf.”
If you are experimenting, though, think about the contents of your sandwich. Richardson said that richer, more flavorful breads will help punch up a sandwich with lighter flavors — a simple turkey and cheese sandwich will taste much more gourmet on an herbed bread, for example — while a more muted, simple bread will complement a heartier sandwich.
“If you want the innards to be the focus of the sandwich, as in a steak and cheese with some type of flavored aioli, it’s typically better to go with a lower flavor profile bread [like] typical white bread,” Richardson said.
Mix textures, temperatures and flavors
The best sandwiches will have a mix of textures, temperatures and flavor.
“There’s always something crunchy, there’s alway something acidic or hot and, of course, there’s always a melty cheese element,” Bedell said. “Make columned lists. You can pick one from each column and as long as you have those elements, you’re going to have something pretty awesome.”
A classic way to add texture to a squishy sandwich is by putting crushed potato chips on a sandwich.
“First of all it adds that crunch element that I think all sandwiches need but it also hits that nostalgia thing that is a little bit unexpected,” Bedell said.
In addition to contrasting textures and temperatures, contrasting flavors will also make for an exceptional sandwich experience.
“We like to mix sweet with salty, adding some spice whenever we can,” Bettera said. “A layer of mayo, preferably garlic, with a gooey cheese with some stretch, and then a sweet pickled jalapeno is usually our jumping point for specials. You want that first bite to leave tastebuds satisfied, but your mouth watering for more.”
Leavitt said to think about the balance of your sandwich, even for simple sandwiches like grilled cheese or peanut butter and jelly. Don’t just lay meat flat on a sandwich.
“The flavor comes from the air between the meat, and it makes for a better bite when you can really chew through the sandwich, rather than chewing on it,” Leavitt said. “You want a nice thin slice, but not falling apart, and folded.”
Try fresh, new toppings
There is no limit to what you can use as toppings for sandwiches. The quality of your ingredients does matter, though.
Make sure you use the freshest deli meats possible.
“Their flavor profile changes pretty quickly,” Richardson said. “I don’t like deli meats even after three days of being sliced. I would prefer to go to the store twice in a week and get a half pound of turkey each time than a pound of turkey once [but] I know that’s not possible for everybody.”
Gilks said to avoid pre-packaged meats and opt for the deli, or make your own.
Think beyond lettuce and tomato. Gilks recommended bean sprouts for crunch in place of lettuce. Clausen recommended fresh herbs to brighten up a mix of greens. Bettera suggested fresh cucumbers, as well as jalapenos and roasted red peppers for “a little somethin’-somethin’.”
Consider grilled vegetables as well.
“Grilling asparagus, onions and even lettuce can bring out completely different flavors you never thought were possible,” Clausen said.
Pickling vegetables, fruits and even mushrooms in white vinegar and sugar can also add a kick, according to Bedell.
Sandwich-ify something else you love
If you have another dish you love, you can experiment with different ways to make it into a sandwich.
For example, Bedell said that he loves Chinese food from mall buffets.
“That’s something we used recently to make a fried chicken sandwich,” he said. “I need a sticky orange glaze, hot mustard slaw, or a gochujang barbecue or a hot mustard aioli. Take elements from another dish that you love and try to translate those into sandwich form.”
A great place to look for inspiration is in your leftovers. Think of the classic post-Thanksgiving turkey sandwich. Why not apply that philosophy to your everyday lunches?
“Sandwiches are a great way to get rid of leftovers,” Richardson said. “Meatloaf, potato and asparagus the night before, sounds like a pretty good sandwich to me. With the right condiments, it’d be great.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the number of sandwich hacks.