Three ingredients, all vying for the top
Just try asking out loud which ingredient in a BLT is the most important: the bacon, the lettuce or the tomato. The debate will occupy your whole evening.
And we didn’t even mention the bread or mayo.
Its history may be shrouded in mystery, but the BLT holds a proud place in American culture. BLT sandwiches can be found in every corner of the nation, a simple treat for rich and poor alike. The Southern Foodways Alliance recently celebrated the BLT at its summer event in Nashville, Tenn., and put out a call for recipes for “the post-modern BLT.”
Its secret is that perfect balance of the salty bacon, crisp lettuce and fresh tomato, but ratios vary. That, perhaps, has given rise to endless bickering about what matters most.
“You just need a really good tomato that’s not mealy, that has a really good tomato flavor,” says California chef and author Michele Anna Jordan. “That’s the difference between an average BLT and a really great BLT.”
Jordan certainly can weigh in with an informed view. Not only did she author “The BLT Cookbook,” she also holds the (still unofficial) record for the world’s largest BLT: 108 feet long. Its preparation at a 2003 tomato festival was heralded with a parade of ingredients, complete with a Mayo Queen.
For her, the need to find a fresh beefsteak tomato (they have, she says, more flesh and fewer seeds) means that the BLT is by definition a seasonal treat – arriving with the ripening of tomatoes on the vine, and retreating with the autumn breeze.
Other views hold weight, though. Edward Lee, the chef and owner of 610 Magnolia in Louisville, Ky., puts his money behind the quality of the bacon — which should be dry-cured and sliced thick.
“Your general supermarket bacon is not going to cut the mustard,” says Lee, who spent years preparing BLTs as a diner cook when he was growing up in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Bacon’s texture is a matter of preference: Some like it a bit crispy, some love it tender. The key is to get it crisp enough that you don’t come away from your sandwich with a strip dangling from your mouth. Fry up as much bacon as you can reasonably fit between slices of bread.
Don’t bother debating which bacon reigns supreme. Most states have their own top smokehouses; each has its advocates. Lee sides with Benton’s, from Madisonville, Tenn., while Jordan is partial to R.M. Felts Packing Co. from Ivor, Va., or natural bacon from Niman Ranch.
Next up: the L. Iceberg is a favorite, but brings more texture than flavor. Bibb (aka Boston) or oak leaf seem like good bets. Even arugula is just fine — anything but romaine, which is a bit too bitter and unwieldy for this task. Shockingly, food writer Ed Levine not long ago had the audacity to claim that lettuce was “superfluous.”
BLT classicists are quick to smother that theory. “You need that little bit of opposite temperature and texture,” Jordan says.
Texture’s also key for the bread. White bread like Wonder is a classic pick, but whole wheat, sourdough or a crusty country bread work fine, so long as it can be lightly toasted and doesn’t overpower the three main players. “You don’t want some whole-grain hippie bread,” Jordan says. “The bread is a stage.”
Mayo, oddly, may be the most controversial ingredient. Modern BLT lovers can do no wrong with good store-bought mayonnaise, specifically Hellman’s (Best Foods west of the Rockies). Aioli works just fine. But some BLT lovers insist the best mayo is homemade.
Growing up in the tony Belle Meade section of Nashville, Tenn., Margo Kenney was assigned a regular duty come BLT time: churning together Wesson oil and egg yolks, with a bit of lemon juice and paprika.
“I can’t tell you how many times all the other kids were outside playing and I was at the kitchen table making mayonnaise,” recalls Kenney, now a real estate agent in Santa Monica, Calif.
A countervailing opinion, notably from certain corners of the South, holds that a BLT requires Miracle Whip. But Miracle Whip has one big drawback: It’s slightly sweet, thanks to the addition of both sugar and corn syrup. By definition, that changes the BLT’s taste. “My mother used to say: If you put sugar in your cornbread then it’s cake,” Kenney says, indignant. “And it’s the same thing with mayonnaise.”
As with any food, simplicity breeds invention. Variations on BLTs are everywhere, including versions with salmon and trout. Jordan has devised recipes for BLT pasta and BLT soup. Lee serves a foie gras-laced derivation at his restaurant. “It’s like a BLT on prom night,” he says. “It’s all dressed up.”
Sometimes, though, simplicity has its virtues. Sprinkle a pinch of salt on the tomatoes, slice your sandwich in two, and enjoy.
- 4 slices white, wheat or sourdough bread
- 10 to 12 slices dry-cured bacon
- 2 ripe beefsteak tomatoes
- 4 leaves Bibb or oak leaf lettuce, washed
- Mayonnaise or aioli
- Kosher salt
- Pepper to taste
1) Core and slice the tomatoes into medium slices (a bit bigger than 1/8-inch).2) If possible, find slab bacon that you can slice yourself. Once you have the slices, cut them in half and fry over low-medium heat, making sure not to overcook. Don't drain the fat, and don't overcrowd the pan or overlap the slices. When ready, take the slices out and, says chef Michele Anna Jordan, drain them on a plain brown paper bag.3) When the bacon is almost done, toast the bread until it's just slightly golden — not fully brown.4) Set the four pieces of toast out before you. Spread the mayonnaise on all the pieces. You can either make your own mayo or aioli, or use a good store-bought one like Hellman's/Best Foods.5) Put the tomatoes on one side of the bread for each sandwich. Sprinkle lightly with salt.6) The bacon comes next. Use as much as you feel you can fit on the sandwich. Then add the lettuce.7) Place the remaining slices of bread on top. Cut sandwiches in two, preferably on the diagonal. Serve.
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 1/2 cup diced onions
- 2 pounds bacon ends (we recommend Benton’s bacon in Tennessee)
- 1 cup fruity red wine
- 2 lengths scallion
- 4 tablespoon Dijon mustard
- 1/4 pound foie gras
- 2 tablespoons sherry vinegar
- 1 teaspoon. ground black pepper
- Good quality hard grating cheese (aged gouda is nice – we like to use a cheese called Myrtlewood from Sweetgrass Dairy in Georgia)
- Oven-dried cherry tomatoes
- Good quality cereal or multi grain bread sliced very thin
There is no lettuce in our BLT. We replaced the lettuce with foie gras — hence the L stands for liver. We make our sandwiches with what is essentially a bacon paté.My first job in a restaurant was in a greasy diner in New York called The Big Apple Restaurant. We served all the classic diner dishes in the most awful manners possible. But I loved those cheap incarnations of classic American foods: BLT, corned beef, turkey club, milkshakes and—my personal favorite—pancakes.Years later, I find myself in Louisville at a major crossroads: finding inspiration from those classic dishes from my New York youth, incorporating the techniques of the European cuisines that I have been studying for the past ten years, and living in the South where the proclivity to insist on genuine, hand crafted ingredients is both natural and expected. To me, this recipe neatly embraces all three stages of my life and my career. For the bacon paté:1) Warm the butter in a sauté pan over medium heat. Add the diced onions. Cook slowly until the onions become translucent. 2) Add the bacon ends and the red wine. Simmer slowly over low heat until most of the wine is reduced away. Remove the bacon and onions. Drain off the extra fat and discard.3) Transfer bacon and onions to a food processor. Add the chopped scallions, Dijon, foie gras, sherry vinegar and black pepper.4) Puree until a rough paste forms. For the BLT:1) Arrange the sliced bread on a work surface. Smear a little Dijon on each slice. Hand-grate the cheese over each slice. 2) Place the paté in an even layer about 1/2" thick over every other slice of bread. Place the oven-dried cherry tomatoes over the paté. Close the sandwich with the other slice of bread.3) Press gently and cook on a heavy black skillet over low heat with a little olive oil until the bread gets crispy. Flip sandwich and repeat on other side.4) Remove and drain on paper towels.5) Cut the sandwich using a serrated knife into one-inch squares. Serve warm.