The Food Lab's BLT Manifesto

The Food Lab

Unraveling the mysteries of home cooking through science.

[Photographs and video: J. Kenji López-Alt]

The grilled cheese may give it a buttery run for its money, but the BLT has more grace. It doesn't come out of its corner firing on all cylinders, like a Cuban or a muffuletta, but a BLT has stamina—each bite improves on the last. A Reuben may sucker-punch you with its one-two jab of salt and fat, but what the BLT lacks in pure power, it makes up for in subtlety and balance. The BLT is the true king of the sandwich ring, and it's my favorite sandwich of all time.

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I didn't grow up loving BLTs. In fact, I don't think I even tasted my first BLT until freshman year of college, when, on a particularly lean-pocketed evening, I ordered one from LaVerde's, the campus deli, only because it was the cheapest sandwich on the menu. I watched as they split open a cold submarine roll; slathered on a layer of gelatinous, yellow-skinned mayo; and stuffed in some pale pink tomatoes, cut on the meat slicer, along with a nest of bagged, pre-shredded iceberg lettuce and a handful of thin yet leathery bacon. I took a bite, immediately picked out the mealy tomato pieces, and made a mental note to order this sandwich tomato-free in the future. I spent the next four years eating mediocre (but cheap!) BL sandwiches, wondering what all the fuss was about.

It wasn't until I tasted my first great tomato, at the vine-ripe old age of 22, that I finally understood the true nature of the BLT (and, by extension, why I'd never enjoyed tomatoes on my sandwiches or in my salads). Here we go: A BLT is not a well-dressed bacon sandwich. A BLT is a tomato sandwich, seasoned with bacon. From this basic premise, all else follows. Indeed, a better name for the BLT might well be the Tomato Club, for it is the perfect tomato, not the bacon, that is the rarest, the most ephemeral, the most singularly delicious ingredient. A BLT is not a democracy. It is not a committee meeting. It is a dictatorship, and the tomato is King, Queen, and Supreme Leader. In the BLT universe, the Prime Directive is that all other ingredients shall be at Her Majesty's service, their only role to prop her up and enhance her best qualities.

Just like making a great Caprese salad, making a great BLT is pretty straightforward: Get yourself some perfect tomatoes, slice them, season them, and stick them in between two slices of good, toasted bread with some bacon, lettuce, and mayo. But, as with a Caprese salad, there are far more ways to f&%k up a BLT than there are ways to perfect it. Using mealy, off-season tomatoes is the primary unforgivable sin, but when it comes to BLT crimes, that's just the tip of the iceberg lettuce.

BLT Rule #1: Use Excellent Tomatoes

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There are no two ways about it: BLTs are a seasonal treat. They are the sandwich to look forward to as the longest days of summer slowly shorten and the August and September tomatoes make their way to the farmers market (or, better yet, to your backyard). Of all the fruits and vegetables in the world, the tomato is the one that shows the greatest seasonal shift. Off-season tomatoes are grown in warmer climates, picked when underripe, then treated with ethylene gas (a gas that is naturally produced by plants to trigger ripening in fruits) to produce their red color before they hit supermarket shelves. The result is tomatoes that are as bland as they are ruby-red.

Truly great tomatoes must be fully ripened on the vine, where they'll continue to develop flavor and sweetness. Look for plump tomatoes, with the heft and give of a water balloon. If you have a choice, look for substantial and meaty heirloom varieties with balanced sweetness and acidity, like Cherokee Purple or Brandywine. Avoid tomatoes that feel light for their size, which means they have more air pockets inside and are typically better for saucing or salads.

For a BLT, you want a tomato that drips juices down your forearm, like a rare prime rib, as you bite into the sandwich.

BLT Rule #2: Season the Tomatoes

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Run this little experiment at home: Get yourself the best tomato you can find, and cut off a slice. Split that slice in half and eat one half. Take a note of how sweet, fragrant, juicy, and delicious it was. Now sprinkle that second half with a little coarse sea salt, and put it in your mouth. Notice how it's not just saltier, but also seems sweeter, more fragrant, and more juicy?

Salt heightens your perceptions. It allows you to taste your food better. Salt helps draw more moisture out of that tomato slice and gets your submandibular gland working overtime, producing the saliva that delivers the tomato's flavors to your taste buds. Salt crystals add a light crunch, which in turn makes the tomato seem juicier. Salt suppresses our sense of bitterness, making that tomato taste sweeter. Salt takes that flavor dial and turns it up to 11. When your tongue senses that salt, it sends out a signal that says, "Hey! Brain! There's something real special going on here, so spread the word!"

Your brain, in turn, shouts out, "Hey! Nose! Wake up and smell the Solanum lycopersicum!" To which your nose responds: "Thanks for letting me know, I'm going to pay extra-special attention to it now, but Brain, why can't you just say 'tomato' like everyone else? Do you always have to be such a smarty-pants?"

If you want to go the extra mile (and you do), some freshly cracked black pepper can also help accentuate flavor by contrasting the tomato's cool sweetness with its sharp bite. (And, for the love of good taste and all that is holy, leave that can of dusty, flavorless pre-ground stuff in the very back of the pantry, where you found it when you moved into the place, and where it should remain until you move out.)

BLT Rule #3: Use Not-Too-Much Good-Enough Bacon

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With the tomato sufficiently pampered, let's move on to the bacon, starting with picking it out.

Bottom-of-the-barrel supermarket bacon is injected with a brine, because it's a quick and dirty way to set the pink color and deliver the salty, smoky flavor we crave, cutting a days-long curing process down to a matter of hours. The problem is, it also adds a ton of moisture, causing this so-called "pumped bacon" to curl, spit, and spatter as it cooks, which can lead to uneven browning and crisping. The flavor of injected bacon is often one-dimensional, though a few brands fared well in our blind taste test. Personally, I avoid it, and an easy way to do so is to look for ascorbate or sodium erythorbate on the ingredients label—antioxidants required by law in injected meats to stem the formation of nitrosamines, which are believed to increase the risk of cancer.

On the next rung up the bacon ladder, you have bacon that's "immersion-cured," meaning it's been soaked in brine for several days rather than injected. You can find some truly excellent bacons made through this method, especially if they're subsequently naturally smoked, which can help dry out the meat while adding flavor. Nueske's and Wright make brined-then-smoked bacons, and I'm fond of both.

Bacon aficionados will swear by "dry-cured" bacons: pork bellies that have been rubbed with a curing mixture before smoking and are thus never exposed to extra moisture. These bacons tend to have a denser texture and a more pronounced saltiness, and exhibit relatively little shrinking and shriveling as they cook. Benton's and Tender Belly make great dry-cured bacons.

I'm going to go out on a limb here and suggest that you save the dry-cured stuff for eating on its own. Because of the extended curing and smoking processes, it tends to have a flavor that I find overwhelming and distracting in a BLT. Most dry-cured bacons are extra thick-cut and extra meaty, which gives them a chewier texture that can crush tomatoes or make the sandwich difficult to bite through. There's nothing that can ruin a perfect-looking BLT like a slice of bacon that pulls out of the sandwich as you bite into it, dragging out tomato innards that fall and splatter on the table like guts in a slasher film.

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Remember the Prime Directive? All other ingredients shall be in service of the tomato. I stick with a high-quality, not-too-meaty brined bacon for my BLTs. As for quantity, three slices is the magic number for me. It means I get to split each slice in half crosswise and stack the pieces on the sandwich in two layers of three half-slices each, alternating their direction for maximum stability.

BLT Rule #4: Cook the Bacon Flat and Crisp

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There are a few different ways you can cook your bacon for a BLT. If you're cooking for one, the microwave is an attractive option because the bacon will cook fast and evenly, but don't do it! There's no good way to collect rendered bacon fat using the microwave method, which throws a wrench into my plans for the bread (we'll get there momentarily).

In my book, I recommend cooking bacon with a little water in the skillet. This is a great method for bacon à la carte: It helps fat render before the bacon starts to crisp and keeps your slices juicier and more tender. But for a BLT, the bacon should be shatteringly crisp to contrast the soft juiciness of the tomato (and to prevent that dreaded bacon-pull). A better approach is to cook it dry on the stovetop, sandwiched between a heavy griddle that heats evenly and a grill press or—better yet—a construction trowel, to keep it flat as it renders.

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Why would I use a construction trowel when Amazon sells a whole slew of bacon and burger presses for just about the same price, or even a little cheaper? It's really a matter of weight. Burger presses are heavy, which limits their usefulness. They automatically compress gently formed burger patties or soft bread. A light trowel, on the other hand, compresses only as much as you'd like it to, allowing you to adapt its use to a wider range of cooking scenarios. It's also great for installing that new tile floor in the laundry room.

I lay my bacon slices out on a cool griddle or pan, place the trowel or weight on top, then slowly cook them over medium-low heat, rendering out fat and browning each slice evenly.

I'm of the mind that BLTs taste best when eaten in solitude, but if you like your sandwiches with company, I'd suggest using the oven to cook the bacon, sandwiching the slices between two sheets of parchment paper that are placed between two rimmed baking sheets. Cooked this way, the bacon stays flat, cooks evenly without needing to be flipped, and keeps your oven spatter-free.

BLT Rule #5: Skip the Fancy Bread

I love sourdough. I love a crusty French boule. I love a classic San Francisco Dutch Crunch. I love ciabatta. I love bagels almost more than life itself. But get them away from my BLT, please. Breads that are too hearty and chewy violate the Prime Directive, and not in the charming and roguish way that makes a good feature film, but in the clumsy, heavy-handed way that crushes the life out of the tomato and the joy out of the sandwich, even as they cut up the roof of your mouth.

A good-quality presliced supermarket sandwich bread is a great vehicle for a BLT. At the standard supermarket, my favorite BLT bread has been Oroweat/Arnold Country Buttermilk, but if you have access to a Japanese bakery, I highly suggest you pick yourself up a loaf of shokupan, a Japanese-style, dairy-rich white sandwich loaf that makes the kind of toast that butter dreams of being spread on. I'm currently in the midst of developing a recipe for shokupan that will be featured in my second book, but of the recipes I've seen online, this one, from Dreams of Dashi, produces the best homemade results.

BLT Rule #6: Toast the Bread...in Bacon Fat

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I know some folks—most of them degenerates, Southerners, or both—who insist on untoasted white bread for their BLTs. The rest of us use toast.

Here's my idea: We're making toast, and we've got rendered bacon fat sitting in front of us. Why not put two and two together to make five here?

Just like with a grilled cheese, you want rich, even browning, which means toasting low and slow in the bacon fat. A good rule of thumb: If you can't karaoke your way through at least one song before the bread has browned, you're browning it too hot and fast.

BLT Rule #7: Use Your Favorite Mayonnaise

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We're past the most essential territory now and have started veering into the realm of personal taste, and mayonnaise is an arena in which expressing the wrong opinion is liable to get you in some serious trouble.

If you've never made homemade mayonnaise, I highly suggest you try it. Using our two-minute immersion-blender technique, it's a simple, inexpensive task. If you're going to use store-bought (and I often do), then go with whatever brand inspires you most, whether you like the creaminess of Duke's, the classic flavor of Hellmann's, or even the tangy zip of Miracle Whip. The only really important part is to slather it on both slices of toast, and be generous with it.

BLT Rule #8: Use the Right Lettuce

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A decade ago, Serious Eats Founder and Overlord Ed Levine, in what might have been the most iconoclastic move in a life defined by iconoclasm, suggested that the L in a BLT is superfluous. We often have friendly disagreements over the objective truth in completely subjective matters, but rarely do we disagree as strongly as we do on this subject.

The L is not superfluous. It's not just pretty garnish or filler. It plays a vital role in the texture and flavor of the sandwich. The right lettuce adds a moist, refreshing crunch that is complementary to the fatty crispness of the bacon and the juicy softness of the tomato. I think of its flavor as the sound track to the film: It's not a main part of the action, but without it, everything else feels somehow empty. It provides the neutral backdrop for the other flavors to mingle.

With this in mind, I have a few suggestions for lettuce. First of all, take a look around and see if you can spot your inner chef peeking out from the corner, a handful of arugula or baby spinach in hand. Then, gently but firmly, tell them that they aren't invited to this particular party. This is neither the time nor the place for any greens described as "grassy" or "peppery" at the farmers market.

Instead, look for mildly sweet, extremely crunchy greens. The easiest and most classic option is iceberg, and I know I'm gonna get some guff for suggesting it, but shredded iceberg is nearly ideal for a BLT. People who call iceberg "flavorless" seriously need to get their taste buds checked. Iceberg has a sweetness that is unparalleled by any other lettuce I can think of, and a firm-yet-giving, crunchy, almost cucumber-like texture that is unique in the world of leafy greens. Shred that lettuce, and it performs another vital role: It provides structural support to the sandwich, preventing slippery slabs of tomato from sliding around, while also offering a buffer zone in which juices can collect instead of sogging out the toast.

If you are a dyed-in-the-wool iceberg-hater, I would suggest using only the crispest, sweetest interior leaves of a head of romaine, green leaf, or Bibb lettuce, stacking several of them together and pressing them down to build up a layer of crunch that can rival iceberg. I've been growing lettuce in my garden, which means I get my pick of the litter when it comes to the crispest baby greens.*

*Yes, I've officially graduated to full-on California produce snob.

BLT Rule #9: Layer Carefully

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Layering the BLT is the point at which I have the most internal conflict. A part of me says that the lettuce should go against the toast on both sides, with the tomato and bacon in the middle. After much painfully delicious experimenting, I've determined that this is the most structurally sound way to build a sandwich, and the way most likely to guarantee that you can finish it before it falls apart.

On the other hand, there's a voice inside my head that screams, There must be direct tomato-on-mayo contact! I've tried every workaround I can think of, from adding an extra layer of mayonnaise to the center of the sandwich (too much mayo!) to filleting whole tomatoes so that they can be placed directly against the toast without getting it overly soggy (what was I thinking?!?), with no perfect results. The only real solution here is to keep making and eating BLTs with different stacking orders until I make up my mind, even if that happens to be never.

No matter how you layer the sandwich in the end, the next rule is perhaps the most immutable, universal rule of food...

BLT Rule #10: Triangles Taste Better

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Triangles taste better. A slice of pizza or a slice of pie, a quesadilla cut into wedges, Japanese onigiri, and, of course, sandwiches. I could offer all sorts of explanations—the tips of the triangles fit into our mouths better; the triangle represents the golden power of the Triforce (or the Holy Trinity, if you aren't Hylianly inclined)—but none are satisfactory. Triangles simply taste better. If I could get this message emblazoned on a T-shirt, I would.

BLT Rule #11: Dont F&%k With It

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Like I said 3,000 words ago, there are many more ways to f&%k up a BLT than there are ways to perfect it, but there's an easy way to avoid that possibility: Just leave it alone. I can't stop you from adding that sriracha mayo or that roasted-tomato jam. If you want to add a runny egg or throw a slab of cheddar cheese on there, who am I to say no? It sounds delicious, in fact, but it's not a BLT. The Huffington Post once compiled a list of "35 BLT Recipes." Thirty-five! I'm sorry, but adding a crab cake to a BLT is not a "BLT variation." It's a crab cake sandwich with bacon, lettuce, and tomato. To paraphrase the infamous words of Reddit user /u/Fuck_Blue_Shells, respect the BLT, stop changing it into whatever you like, and love it for what it is. Or, stick melted cheese in your BLT and call it what it is: a grilled cheese with bacon, lettuce, and tomato.

If you feel the urge to shove extra things into your BLT, I won't scream, Stop! Wait! But know this: You are toying with something simple, pure, and beautiful, and there are scarce few simple, pure, and beautiful things on this earth as it is.

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Given that I'm now a Californian, the only exception I'm legally required to make on this matter is the addition of avocado, smashed with a fork onto one of the toast slices. I have to admit, it's quite tasty, and perfectly justifiable once you realize that the avocado is nature's mayonnaise.