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[Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

Muffulettas are nothing like the super-band of the sandwich world. Sesame-crusted bread isn't David Crosby, olive salad doesn't compare to Stephen Stills, and a few sliced cold cuts sure as heck ain't no Graham Nash. But like most great and simple foods, it's the magic that happens when you combine these basic elements in a very specific way that elevates the sandwich to true greatness. Anybody who doesn't include the muffuletta in their list of the Five Most Important Sandwiches In The History Of Life, the Universe, and Everything ought to have their head examined, or at the very least their palates.

Originally created at the Central Grocery in New Orleans when the enterprising owner suggested that customers place their typical lunch of sliced cured meat and preserved vegetables inside the bread instead of alongside it, the sandwich can now be found all over the city, and indeed the country (in varying degrees of deliciousness). As one of the few foods that actually gets better as it sits around at room temperature, it's ideal party fare. Make a few sandwiches, wrap 'em up, and slice them open as needed. Late-arriving guests will enjoy the best bites.

With only four ingredients, it's exceedingly simple to make. Here's how you do it.

Ingredient 1: The Bread

This is the only ingredient that is truly difficult to source outside of New Orleans. True muffuletta bread is a wide, round, flat loaf covered in sesame seeds with a soft crust and a texture somewhere between focaccia and ciabatta. It's not commonly made anywhere else in the country (or the world, as far as I know), but your next best bet is to use some good soft ciabatta or focaccia.

If you live in New York, I like using the sesame seed-crusted semolina rolls from Parisi Bakery, which happen to be just the right texture and are big enough to make a sandwich that easily serves two.

If none of these options are available, a good hoagie roll or submarine-style roll will work in a pinch as well. The key is that the crumb can't be too soft (or it'll get too soggy to eat and fall apart), and the crust can't be too hard or tough (lest it squeeze out the fillings as you bite down).

Ingredient 2: The Olive Salad

The muffuletta is a Sicilian-American sandwich through and through, and it really shows in the olive salad mix, which combines the sweet, sour, and olive oil-rich flavors anyone whose been to Sicily can tell you about. It's reminiscent of every Sicilian antipasti spread you'll see.

Recipes vary, but pretty much all of them contain chopped olives, chopped pickled celery, cauliflower and carrots (giardiniera), garlic, olive oil, and vinegar. To this mix, I like to add some capers, along with roasted red peppers and chopped parsley. If you like your sandwiches hot, some pepperoncini with the seeds left intact would do the trick. Other options are fresh or dried oregano, or even anchovies.

The olive salad should be spread on the cut bread generously—you should almost not be able to see the bread through the salad.

Ingredient 3: The Cold Cuts

Again, the actual cuts used are not 100% strictly defined, but most sandwich-makers will use a combination of three cold cuts, along with some cheese. The cold cuts fall into these categories, and it's best to use one from each:

  • Coarse-ground Cured Sausages: Soppressata (hot or sweet), Soppresa, salami, or pepperoni.
  • Emulsified Sausages: Mortadella or bologna.
  • Cured Whole Cuts: Capicola, coppa, prosciutto, or speck.

For the best texture, you want the meats sliced as thinly as possible, then stacked. Some shops will do a single thick layer of each meat. I prefer to build up my sandwich in thinner layers, ending up with eight layers total, two of each meat and the provolone to give it a more uniform layer.

Ingredient 4: The Waiting

The final ingredient is one that is often overlooked, but ought not to be. It comes in two stages. The first is for the olive salad. Letting it rest overnight in the fridge will improve its flavor, and thus your final sandwich. Unless you make one single muffuletta per year, this is actually not as difficult as it may seem: just make the olive salad in a huge batch and store it in a sealed container in the fridge to be used whenever the mood strikes. Under a protective layer of olive oil, it'll stay good for months. (It also makes a great pizza topping).

The second wait is the more difficult one. After you've constructed that sandwich, those painstaking layers of meat and olive salad, the urge may be overwhelming to cut it open and bite right into it. I know the feeling! And you can do that, and your sandwich will be totally delicious. I promise. But if you wait... that's when things get really magical.

Stay strong. Wrap the sandwich up, set it aside, then go and listen to your favorite album twice. come back, and your sandwich will have improved by leaps and bounds as the olive salad's juices slowly get absorbed into the bread and the whole thing forms a cohesive, delicious whole. I mean, can you imagine Tom Petty without the Heartbreakers?

The waiting is the hardest part.

And you will be rewarded for your patience.

Get The Recipe!

Classic New Orleans Muffulettas »

About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.

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