Arguments erupt around here every summer over which mayonnaise brand is the best – Duke’s, vs. Hellmann’s, vs. Miracle Whip, vs. homemade.
We will never resolve this argument, people. The best mayonnaise is the one you grew up eating.
Instead, let’s turn our attention to the two essential summer sandwiches: The plain tomato sandwich and the BLT.
Both have their place. It’s simplicity vs. indulgence.
With a batch of big, beautifully ripe tomatoes, I set out to explore the details, with four kinds of bread, three kinds of bacon and two kinds of lettuce. And mayonnaise, of course. (Which one? Nope – I’m not going there.)
Advantages: It only has three ingredients. You don’t have to cook anything. You don’t even have to dirty a plate: Eating one over the sink with juices running down your arm is one of the joys of summer.
Bread: Sorry, nutritionists, this is one time when white bread is superior to whole grain. You can go with a fancier white bread, like crusty sourdough, or you can go cheap, with the kind of white bread that comes in a plastic bag. If you only buy one loaf of soft white bread a year, this is the time.
Toasted or untoasted: Untoasted. The perfection of a tomato sandwich is the alchemy of soft bread, creamy mayonnaise and salty tomato juices.
Tomato treatment: Thin slices mean you can pile them up, but thicker are wide enough to sink your teeth into. I settled on 1/2-inch thick slices. Tip: Core and slice the tomatoes first, then sprinkle them with just a little kosher salt and let them stand for a few minutes. That will release more juices. If you have flaky sea salt, add a final sprinkle when you assemble the sandwich, for texture and a little more flavor.
Advantages: Bacon. It has bacon. Did we mention that bacon is involved here? Oh, and color: Green lettuce and red tomato are a beautiful combination. And bacon. There’s bacon.
Bread: More flavor and texture are welcome, to pull it together. A Pullman loaf is excellent if you can find one. Among the supermarket choices, we like Martin’s Potato Bread. It’s soft and slightly yellow with a subtle flavor that isn’t too sweet, and it doesn’t fall apart as easily as plain white bread.
Toasted or untoasted: Toasted. You need structure to hold it together. But if you just toast dry bread, you end up with something so rough, it will shred the roof of your mouth, and crisp bacon is rough already. Try this: Brush one side of each slice with softened butter and toast it lightly, butter side down, in a dry skillet. It’s the best of both worlds: Crusty on the outside, soft on the inside.
Tomato treatment: Thinner slices allow you to stack a couple of them. Presalting the slices while you cook the bacon will give you juicier slices.
Lettuce: Some lettuces can be a little bitter, while others are too tender to provide that essential crunch. While I usually avoid iceberg for its lack of flavor, it actually works well here. Second choice: Romaine, for the bright green color.
Bacon: I’m usually a chewy-bacon fan, but crispy bacon is better here, for the contrast with the tomato and lettuce. I tried three kinds – regular Oscar Meyer, Smithfield Thick-Cut Hometown Original and Niman Ranch Applewood Smoked Uncured Bacon – cooked four ways. The results:
▪ Preheated cast iron skillet with 2 tablespoons water, medium heat: The evaporating water keeps the bacon cooler so it cooks slower, allowing more fat to render out. The regular Oscar Meyer scorched more easily because there was less to it as the fat rendered out. The thick-cut Smithfield shrank less and developed an even crispiness. While uncured bacon often suffers in comparison, with less salty/smoky flavor, this brand was surprisingly good, with meaty, salty flavor. If you’re using thick-cut or uncured, this is the winner.
▪ Dry, preheated cast iron skillet, medium to medium low heat: It’s important to cook bacon slowly and turn it frequently, so it doesn’t burn before the fat renders out. All three cooked more unevenly, but the regular bacon fared better as long as it was turned it often.
▪ On an unlined sheet pan in a 400-degree oven, 10 minutes for regular slices, 12 for thick-cut and uncured: If you need a lot of bacon for a crowd, this is a good method, although all the bacons shrank more. The thick-cut Smithfield got thinner but kept its length.
▪ In a microwave between two layers of paper towels for 1 minute per slice on high power: Yes, it’s convenient (although you still have to wipe up a lot of splatters). But is it just me or is microwave bacon too thin? The texture is shatteringly crisp with no chewiness at all, and it tastes a little like the paper towels it was cooked in. Unless you’re in a real hurry, I’d skip it and just use a skillet.
Stacking order: Bacon, tomato and lettuce? Lettuce, tomato and bacon? The lettuce and the tomato both benefit from the creaminess of mayonnaise. Bacon doesn’t need mayonnaise to make it good. It’s bacon, after all. Go with lettuce, then bacon, then tomato, to put the mayonnaise in contact with the parts that need it most.