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Are Shooter's Sandwiches Really Worth a Damn?
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If you don't know what a shooter's sandwich is by this point, then I can only assume that you are accessing the internet via a potato to read this article. Its invention, according to Tim Hayward in the Guardian, came about when a clever cook decided to make a portable version of a beef Wellington by hollowing out a loaf of crusty bread, slathering it with mustard and horseradish, stuffing it with cooked steaks, mushrooms, and onions, then sealing them inside, wrapping the whole shebang in paper, and weighting it down overnight. The result is a flattened, compact sandwich firm enough to be packed in a saddle bag and sliced into wedges that can be consumed neatly, without any danger of it falling apart, even when you're simultaneously tracking a pheasant in the sights of your shotgun.
The original sandwich is an involved, but conceptually simple affair—steak, mushrooms, condiments—but since Hayward declared it "the best sandwich ever" in 2010, it's gone on to lead a life of its own, totally dominating the world of "look what I made!"-style blogs and Reddit posts, with each iteration one-upping the previous one with an ever-increasing number of toppings. The end result is something like this, a monster of a sandwich packed with Italian sausage, a bacon weave (an internet meme in and of itself), turkey, generic deli salami, muenster, pepper jack, and Swiss cheese slices, shredded Kraft mozzarella and cheddar cheeses, mustard, mayonnaise, basil, and dried oregano, all inside a loaf of tomato basil bread.
You can see the problem, right? More and more low-quality ingredients packed into one sandwich might be fun, but it's not the path to excellence, and these types of over-the-top creations (of which I am equally guilty) are rightfully getting called out in comments sections for what they are: stunts.
But here's an important question: Is the original, simple shooter's sandwich really all that good?
The very first time I saw it, I was as impressed as anyone. I had my moment of OMG I must make this immediately and did exactly that, following the same basic instructions that the original Guardian article did. Was it fun to do? Yes. Did it make me feel all manly like an Edwardian lord headed out on a hunt? Indeed. Did it taste as amazing as I expected? ...no. No, it did not.
The mushrooms were not quite as intensely flavored as I'd've liked, and they awkwardly squished out from between the steaks. I also wished that there was a little more beefiness infused into the bread, and the ingredients just didn't harmonize like they should. Since then, I've made the sandwich about a half dozen times, each time improving on the individual elements, trying to capture what it is that Hayward so eloquently described.
This version represents my final, no-holds-barred attempt, using the best possible ingredients and the craftiest techniques in my arsenal. If this version of the shooter doesn't do it for me, then it's time to re-examine the worthiness of the very concept.
Here's how I did it, step by step.
You can't make a good sandwich with low-quality ingredients, and with a three-ingredient sandwich, those selections are even more important. The bread is a homemade loaf of my No-Knead Bread, which includes a three-day cold fermentation stage to improve flavor. The steaks are Prime grade dry-aged boneless New York strips, and the mushrooms are a mix of maitake (my favorite), shiitake, and cremini.
The goal here is to optimize each ingredient before putting them all together. Only when each ingredient is in its finest form can we hope to pass decent judgment on the worthiness of the final product.
Most shooter's sandwich recipes rely on button mushrooms, but I'm going with a blend to bring more flavor to the party. Shiitake and maitake are relatively inexpensive and both bring their own brand of earthiness to the mix.
I cut them all by hand into thin slices.
Mushrooms go through distinct phases during the cooking process, and you need to let them pass through each phase to maximize their flavor. Initially, they'll sit around doing nothing but absorbing a bit of oil into their porous innards. As they heat, their cell structure will start to collapse, leaking out moisture and causing them to steam. As the moisture evaporates and the 'shrooms further collapse, eventually they'll also shed their absorbed fat and begin to brown.
Only after they've fully browned is it time to add aromatics. I use a combination of shallots, garlic, and fresh thyme leaves. The moisture from the aromatics should be enough to begin loosening the tasty browned bits on the bottom of the sauté pan.
Add Sherry or Brandy
Once the aromatics soften, I add a shot of brandy or sherry to my mushrooms, which I let further reduce. This adds a touch of acidity and plenty of aromatic depth. A small splash of soy sauce further enhances the savory character of the mushrooms.
Add Cream and Deglaze
Finally, a small glug of heavy cream reduced down in the pan binds everything together. The resultant mixture should be rich and glossy. If the mushrooms were chopped more finely, it'd be what the French call duxelles, a preparation commonly used for stuffings of various roasts, and a traditional layer in a classic beef Wellington.
In the case of the sandwich, I wanted to make sure my mushroom mixture stayed in place during pressing and eating, so larger slices were the way to go.
Beef Wellington uses tenderloin, but a shooter's sandwich uses a manlier cut. Ribeye or strip, with plenty of marbling. These guys are Prime grade, dry-aged for 28 days.
I salt my steaks very heavily. In some cases, I'd salt them a night or two in advance and let them rest uncovered in the fridge so their surfaces can dry out, allowing them to sear more efficiently.
But not today. Today I'm using the reverse-sear technique I developed back at Cook's Illustrated magazine (read more about it here). The idea is that you put raw steaks on a rack set in a baking sheet in a low oven, allowing them to slowly come up to close to their final temperature.
Temp Steaks and Rest
Once they get there (about 120°F for medium-rare or 130°F for medium), I pull them out. At this point, they should have a dry, leathery surface and be very evenly cooked internally.
I let the steaks rest just a minute or two, then place them into a ripping-hot cast iron pan with a combination of oil and butter.
Because of their dry surfaces, they should sear in just a matter of moments, but a little blowtorch action can help to add some of that signature steakhouse charring. The torch is totally optional.
Check the Crust!
Just check out that crust! This level of color was achieved in just under a minute of searing.
Get the Edges
I make sure to sear off the edges as well to maximize flavor.
After letting the steaks rest (and you do let them rest, right?), I finish them off by drizzling the smoking hot pan-drippings over them for one last blast of flavor and texture.
I used a loaf of my No-Knead Bread, made with a three-day cold ferment, a process which intensifies its flavor and adds some pleasing sour notes.
Remove Upper Crust
I cut the top of the loaf off, about an inch down...
Cut Around Crumb
...then used the tip of the knife to cut a well down the sides into the crumb...
Lift Out Crumb
...before scooping out the innards.
Ready to Stuff
My wife got excited because she thought I was making bread bowls for soup. She's easily excitable that way.
Slather Mustard, Horseradish, and Beef Juices
Remember those pan drippings we poured over the beef? The ones that intermingled with all the juices? Well I start my sandwich by painting some of those drippings into my bread with a pastry brush (that should give it more of that beefiness I was looking for) before slathering the interior with spicy mustard (English if you've got it, but a hot Dijon would be fine) and prepared horseradish.
I had to trim my steaks a bit to ensure that they fit. Notice how nice and even their cooking is from edge to edge over there?
Next up, a layer of the mushrooms. I started with a pound and a half of mushrooms which cook down to just a couple of cups.
Trim and Tuck Steaks
Next, the steaks go in. It's a pretty tight squeeze, but all the moisture they give off is going straight into that bread.
More Mustard and Mushrooms
Another layer of mustard and horseradish, followed by mushrooms.
In some versions of this sandwich, two thinner steaks are used and the mushrooms are sandwiched in between them. I've tried it like that in the past and don't like the way the mushrooms squish out from between the meat slices. A perimeter-only mushroom approach is closer to the beef Wellington origins of the dish, and makes for a neater package in the end.
Close Her Up
Finally, I close the sandwich up, making sure to brush some more pan drippings onto the inside of the upper crust. Now comes the hardest part, which, as any Tom Petty fan can tell you, is the waiting.
Wrap in Foil
I've used various wrappers for these sandwiches, ranging from parchment or wax paper to brown paper bags and plastic wrap. Foil is the neatest and, more importantly, holds in aromas the best. This is important for two reasons: a) whatever aromas escape from the sandwich during its overnight rest are not in there the next day when you eat it and more importantly, b) my wife gets pissed at me when the apartment smells like resting sandwich.
Place in Pan and Weight Down
To press the sandwich, I place a firm cutting board on top of it, topped with my heaviest book (thank you to my dear wife for the wonderful Calvin and Hobbes box set!).
You can press the sandwich on its own, but you run the risk of having it topple over in the middle of the night. I place my sandwich in a skillet to prevent that—the edges of the skillet are low enough that it doesn't prevent any compression, but they'll still catch the cutting board if it threatens to topple.
The Next Day
Yes, there's a small health risk involved with leaving a sandwich out overnight to compress, but if your steaks went in hot, the danger is really quite minimal. You can find a way to refrigerate it overnight if you're really nervous, but I leave mine out, as bread stales far more rapidly in the fridge than at room temperature.
Slice it Open
When all is said and done, you can slice the sandwich open to reveal a cross-section that looks like this. The layers get tightly compressed, and the sandwich becomes quite easy to pick up and consume by the wedge.
So is it Worth it?
Tell me the truth: looking through this series of images has you a bit excited, doesn't it? Making this sandwich sure had me a bit excited, and it was a time-consuming labor of love. This may actually go a long way towards explaining its popularity. It's a form of effort justification: People tend to attribute greater value to outcomes they had to invest effort into achieving. It's the same powerful psychological effect that makes hazing such a powerful motivator in group solidarity.
And, of course, the primal nature of the ingredients—their sheer manliness (for lack of a better word)—must factor into this. I haven't done any formal studies, but I'd bet my sharpest knife that the vast majority of shooter proponents are male.
So what's actually wrong with it?
Here's the problem. I can't complain about the steak. I used some high-quality strips cooked to a perfect medium rare, and even a cold steak is a tasty one. It was tender, moist, well-seasoned, and had a great complex flavor from the intense crust it developed. I can't complain about the mushroom mixture either. Lots of flavors, balanced aromatics, a touch of acidity, and plenty of savory richness. Nor can I complain about the bread or the mustard or even the horseradish. I can't even complain about the compression factor because it's a well-known fact that pressing any sandwich will instantly improve it.*
*Special case exception: peanut butter and jelly.
So what's the problem? It's simply this: the shooter's sandwich violates the primary directive of a great sandwich, and that is that a sandwich must be greater than the sum of its parts. It must combine flavors and textures in a synergistic way. Other than its portability, a shooters sandwich is no better than consuming a great steak on its own, or some good sautéed mushrooms on their own. Indeed, I would've been much better off simply eating them all the night before with a knife and a fork while the steak was still hot and juicy, with a nice crisp crust. Some may argue that cold, compact steak is superior to hot, juicy steak, and those folks can have a seat right over there on the bench next to the folks who prefer refrigerated pizza to fresh.
It all reminds me a bit of when a buddy of mine decided to make the most expensive ham sandwich ever by buying $50 worth of hand-carved jamón de bellota from the Spanish shop and slapping all the slices into a single sandwich. decadent, perverse, and fun, yes, but not the best way to enjoy some fine ham.
Now, there's without doubt some merit to its portability—a gentleman needs to be well-fed while he's out on a fox hunt, after all—but if portability and deliciousness are what we care about, then there are certainly better ways to make large-format, heavily-pressed, eminently portable sandwiches than this particular combination. Ways that elevate and combine less costly ingredients in a synergistic manner rather than debasing expensive ones.*
*Lest we forget, unless we're talking steaks, high quality doesn't have to mean expensive!
Here's my advice: if you have an urge to make this sandwich, go ahead and do it. You'll probably have fun, and it will taste just fine at the end. You may even love it. But if you want a truly great sandwich, one where the combination of ingredients is greater than each taken individually, then look elsewhere. This is not the sandwich you are looking for.
What's that? You want ideas for shooter's-style sandwiches that are better than the steak-and-shroom original? Stay tuned...
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.