Up until recently, I just assumed "the art of sandwich making" was better left to the professionals. I don't mean the basics — like ham and cheese on white or a PB&J — but the more ornate ones, like French dips, Cubans, and spicy Italians. I guess I figured that perhaps a deli had access to top-secret restaurant ingredients, or at the very least better-quality meats and toppings.
Despite these ridiculous notions, a homemade French dip has been on my to-make list for as long as I can remember. It has been one of my favorite sandwiches since I was a child, but it was the famous Philippe's version, argued to be the original French dip, that set my love in stone. During the five years I lived in Los Angeles, I made countless pilgrimages downtown to chow on those satisfying subs. (I would even take a couple for the road, to share with envious friends if I was feeling giving.)
I finally decided the time was right, so I set out to make this classic at home. I went about my testing with two different recipes, just to make sure I ended up with the very best. For one batch, I slow-roasted beef with a very simple method, using just olive oil, salt, and pepper. While the roast was cooking, I made the jus with only beef bones, red wine, and stock. For test two (yes, on the same day, because I'm crazy like that) I followed a basic braising technique, using a similar cut of meat along with red wine, beef stock, and a few vegetables for aromatics.
I loved being able to compare the two recipes side by side, and the plain roasted beef with jus on the side was hands-down the winner. The homemade beef stock was clear and full of meaty flavor, but the best part was seasoning it to my own personal taste. (Why do most restaurants serve jus that is nothing more than a sodium bomb?) The braised version was essentially a pot roast, and the cooking sauce was thick and cloudy. It wasn't bad, but it was just not a true jus.
I will definitely be making plenty more French dips at home in the future. My favorite part is definitely the sauce; it is so incredibly easy that it's crazy to not make your own. That said, more often than not I will probably just buy high-quality, thick-sliced roast beef from my grocer's deli section. Because sometimes a sandwich should be all about ease. Either way you choose (to make or buy your meat), you'll be happy with the results.
French Dip Au Jus
For the roast beef:
1 (3- to 4-pound) boneless beef roast (top round or rump)
2 to 3 tablespoons olive oil
Freshly cracked black pepper
For the jus:
3 to 4 pounds meaty beef bones (I used back ribs)
2 tablespoons canola oil
1 cup dry red wine
2 1/2 cups low-sodium beef stock
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
For the sandwiches:
4 to 6 French sandwich rolls, split in half horizontally (although I prefer bolillo rolls)
4 tablespoons butter, softened
8 to 10 slices provolone cheese
Spicy mustard, for serving (optional)
For the roast beef, preheat oven to 225°F. Place beef in a roasting pan. Rub with olive oil and season generously with salt and black pepper. Cook beef until the internal temperature reaches 110°F. Increase oven temperature to 500°F and continue cooking until surface has browned and internal temperature reads 130°F (for medium-rare). Remove the roast from the oven, tent with foil, and rest for 15 to 20 minutes. Carve into thin slices for the sandwiches.
For the jus, heat canola oil in a large braising pan or Dutch oven over high heat until glistening. Working in two batches, add the bones to the pan and sear until golden-brown on all sides, about 5 to 7 minutes. Remove the bones from the first batch and set aside. Repeat with remaining bones.
Pour the red wine into the pot along with the bones, scraping the bottom with a wooden spoon to remove any tasty brown fond from the bottom. Lower heat to medium-high and cook the wine, bubbling vigorously, until it is reduced by half, about 5 minutes. Add the reserved bones (from the first batch) to the pot along with the beef stock and continue vigorously simmering for an additional 15 minutes. Remove the bones from the pot and cook for another minute or so before removing from the heat.
Strain the jus through a fine mesh sieve lined with cheesecloth. Season generously with salt and pepper. Cool until the fat rises to the surface, about 15 minutes. Skim the top with a ladle to remove fat and discard. Season with additional salt and pepper, to taste. Keep warm over low heat.
To assemble the sandwich, slather the bread halves with butter. Place cut-side up on a sheet pan and cook at 400°F until warm and toasted, about 5 minutes. Adjust oven to broil. (At this point, you can dip the bottom half of bread in warm jus as Philippe's does, if desired.) Pile warm roast beef slices on bottom half of sandwich, followed by 2 slices of Provolone. Place the bottom halves in the oven and cook until cheese starts to melt, about 1 minute. Cover sandwiches with top halves of bread and serve with warm jus and spicy mustard.
This post has been updated. Originally posted September 2012
(Images: Nealey Dozier)