No one can seem to agree on where and when the Cuban sandwich originated, but most can agree that it's delicious. This humble sandwich is workingman's fare for the cigar makers and sugar cane field workers in Cuba, and among the Cuban communities in Florida. Walk down Calle Ocho in Miami's Little Havana neighborhood, and you'd be hard-pressed to not find a café selling "sandwich mixto" along with little cups of intense Cuban coffees.
An authentic Cuban sandwich is made with Cuban bread, ham, roast pork, cheese, and pickles. In Ybor City, Florida, salami is added. If you can't find Cuban bread, substitute a "crispy on the outside and soft on the inside" white sandwich roll. Do not use a French baguette.
I talked with Ana Sofia Pelaez, author of The Cuban Table, before getting down to business and making my first Cuban sandwich, and I'm so glad I did. While it certainly wasn't my first time eating this satisfying sandwich, making it at home was uncharted territory.
She told me this: "A great Cuban sandwich has the right balance of citrus marinated pork, sweet ham, and sharp swiss cheese. The bread should have a delicate eggshell crust and airy interior that gives way under the press. If a little cheese peeks out and crisps on the grill then so much the better. Though it's tempting to add heat, the only bite should come from thinly sliced pickles and yellow mustard, and please hold the mayo."
Cuban sandwiches are typically made using a sandwich press, a tool which I don't own. Thankfully Ana Sofia had a pro tip for getting around this since the press is key in making this iconic sandwich. In place of a sandwich press, she says that after smearing the outside of your bread has a healthy layer of butter (essential for the golden crust), "wrap a large can or brick in aluminum foil or use a heavy, cast iron skillet to apply equal pressure" on the sandwich.
Ellen Silverman, who is also no stranger to Cuban cuisine, suggested a wonderful variation of Cuban sandwich to me, a Media Noche. "The Media Noche, a variation of a Cubano, is my favorite Cuban sandwich. It is made with Pan de Media Noche, a slightly sweet egg-rich bread instead of the traditional Pan de Agua or Cuban bread used for the Cubano. For me, the sweetness of the bread perfectly offsets the ham, pork, pickles, and melted Swiss cheese. A generous amount of mustard makes for perfection."
Ingredients: 1/3 loaf of Cuban bread (approximately 7 or 8 inches) or a soft white sandwich or hoagie roll with a crispy crust 3 thin slices roast pork (shoulder or tenderloin)
3 thin slices of ham
3 thin slices of Swiss cheese
3 or 4 slices dill pickle (sliced lengthwise)
Cut the bread in half lengthwise. Spread a thin layer of yellow mustard on the inside of each half of the bread. To assemble the sandwich, add a layer of pickles on the bottom piece of bread. Add the slices of roast pork, then add alternating layers of ham and cheese. Top with the other piece of bread.
Spray a skillet, griddle, or sandwich press with cooking spray, like canola oil, and warm over medium-high heat. Place sandwich in pan and lightly spray top of the sandwich with canola oil or spread it with a little butter. Place a heavy weight on top of the sandwich, like a cast iron skillet, and press the sandwich.
Cook the sandwich for about 4 minutes, then use a spatula to flip. Cook another 3 to 4 minutes, until the cheese is melted and the bread is toasted.
This recipe has been updated — first published April 2010.