Editor's Note: Aki Kamozawa and H. Alexander Talbot, the great minds behind the influential blog Ideas in Food, and the cookbooks Ideas in Food and Maximum Flavor, will be sharing their wisdom and clever cooking ideas here on Serious Eats, as they reinvent classic dishes with the aim of getting the most flavor out of them.
The turkey club is one of those iconic sandwiches on deli, diner, and country club menus everywhere. In its classic form, it has 3 slices of white bread with lettuce, tomato, bacon, sliced turkey, and mayonnaise. There are arguments about how to assemble the sandwich and whether or not to add cheese, but there is no argument that a great turkey club is a sandwich to remember. The question is: how often are you actually served a great turkey club?
Some people think the turkey club sandwich is special because it has three slices of toasted white bread, a triple-decker beast that usually comes to the table with toothpicks holding each piece together. Those people would be wrong. In our minds the two things define the turkey club are the turkey and the mayonnaise. The bacon is very important, but without great turkey and great mayo the sandwich is a bust. We decided to tackle these two elements, working in the idea of bacon as inspiration. We hit a few obstacles along the way, and used them as learning experiences to help us make a better sandwich.
Let's start with the turkey: Most of the time the turkey is either from those plastic-wrapped deli cuts, or from freshly roasted turkey breast that is so dry it cries out for mayonnaise just to make it palatable. We wanted to see what we could do with turkey thighs instead.
As it turns out, in our neck of the woods, whole bone-in, skin-on turkey thighs require a special order. So we defaulted to the boneless, skinless thighs that were available at our local grocer.
As fate would have it, there was fresh pork belly (AKA unsmoked bacon) for sale at the butcher's counter, so we picked that up too. A turkey club is topped with bacon anyway, why not incorporate some pork belly right into the roasted meat? Its natural fattiness should help keep our turkey moist and tender as it cooks.
We are fascinated by the idea of the vertical rotisseries used for Greek gyros, Mexican al pastor, and Middle Eastern shawarma. The idea of layering meats on a spit and rotating them as they brown, with juices running down the sides and pooling below, just sounds automatically delicious, plus it makes for more intense browning around the entire surface of the roast. So we decided to apply that idea to the turkey to see if we could create something even more flavorful.
Pork belly is packed with connective tissue and can be quite tough unless cooked for a long time or tenderized with mechanical means. Pounding was the way to go. We pounded the turkey thighs and pork belly into thin slices, approximately 4-inches in diameter, tenderizing them and allowing us to stack them closer. This also produced slices with a larger surface area and thinner thickness, making for easier absorption of marinade.
Our marinade is intense, featuring the classic deli flavors of brown mustard and ketchup, along with, miso, garlic, and onion to intensify the meaty flavor of the turkey thighs and pork belly, and buttermilk to help tenderize the meat.
After marinating for several hours, we stacked the meat in alternating layers, and skewered it together.
We don't have a vertical rotisserie, but we still wanted to get all-around browning. Turned out an onion came to the rescue. By sticking skewers into a large, flat-bottomed onion, we could then layer the meat and get the whole thing to stand up in a large roasting pan, shawarma-style.
It can be a little tricky to skewer the slippery slices of meat, but we found that by layering the meat in a quart-sized deli-style plastic container, then sticking the skewers into and inverting it, we could get a nice, tight cylinder with minimal effort.
We put those in a roasting pan onion-side down for stability and roasted them in a hot convection oven to maximize the amount of caramelized roasted bits on the outside.
After roasting, here's what we got:
As an added bonus, rich juices dripping from the meat collected in the bottom of the roasting pan, then boiled and steamed in the oven's heat, adding moisture to the skewered meats—a little bit of white wine added to the roasting pan before cooking enhanced this effect.
We sliced the turkey shawarma vertically into very thin strips, the way a shawarma vendor would do with their skewered meat.
This helps to further tenderize the meat. To keep things extra moist and flavorful, we then combined the sliced turkey and some of the sliced onion with the pan drippings, letting the meat re-absorb some of the juices it lost during the roast.
With the turkey cooked and sliced, we turned our attention to the other important elements: the mayo and the bacon.
Makin' Bacon (Mayo)
When it was time to make the mayo, we were again influenced by what bacon could do for us here. We'd already added some pork belly to our turkey, why not make it a running theme?
At first, we thought about making a turkey mayonnaise, flavored with the fat, bones, skin, and trimmings of the bird. But since we had no turkey bones or skin, we used bacon fat for flavor instead, blending it with peanut oil so the mayonnaise would remain spreadable when cold. (Check out a bit of the science of animal fat mayo in this Food Lab article.)
Because it was such a rich mayo, we balanced it out with a heavy dose of mustard and sherry vinegar, which cuts through the fat and accents the flavor of the turkey-pork belly shawarma.
Now to put it all together.
When we were assembling the sandwiches, we broke with one of the primary traditions of a turkey club, and decided to ditch that middle layer of bread. Putting aside how it "should be", we couldn't get past the feeling that the extra bread only made the sandwich more difficult to eat, and didn't contribute anything great that the other two pieces of toast already had. Hasta la vista, bready!
We slathered on the rich bacon mayo—so rich, in fact, that we ended up not even needing actual bacon slices (though of course, you can always add them if you'd like)—then some of the dressed moist turkey and pork belly, and finally some fresh sliced tomato and peppery baby arugula to act as a counterpoint to our enhanced turkey meat and incredibly flavorful mayo.
And then it was lunch.