Lessons from Kentucky’s Hot Brown: 5 Steps to a Better Sandwich

(Image credit: Tara Donne)

At (open) face value, the Hot Brown might seem too simplistic to be considered one of our nation’s most iconic sandwiches. Turkey, cheese, and bacon on white bread? What’s so special about that?

Look more closely, though, and what might seem like a hot mess of leftovers from the fridge is actually quite ingenious. And the principles of a Hot Brown can be applied to make every sandwich you put together even better. Here’s how.

1. Start with bread that’s thick and sturdy.

Because everything’s bigger in Texas, it’s no surprise that toast named after the state would be the size of a slab. The double-wide slices of white bread are the choice of professional pitmasters for sopping up BBQ sauces and juices, but they’re not restricted to a side spot next to brisket and beans.

Texas toast is a champion for open-faced sandwiches. It’s sturdy enough to stay crisp instead of dissolving into a soggy mess under a load of toppings, but just absorbent enough to soak up a little flavor of its own. If you can’t find a loaf of Texas toast, cut white Pullman bread into one-inch-thick slices.

2. Choose slow-roasted meats over deli slices.

Step away from the paper-thin deli slices when making a Hot Brown. When we’re talking turkey for this sandwich, we’re talking about the real roasted thing. Given the Hot Brown was invented in a hotel kitchen, it makes sense that a chef would pull from his resources of leftover carved turkey from a brunch or dinner buffet, but it’s a good rule of thumb to keep in mind when you’re planning your next big meal.

The same criteria that make your day-after-Thanksgiving sandwich taste so darn good or turn Easter ham into a weekday lunch miracle come into play here too. Slow-roasted meats carved from the bone retain moisture and flavor, so if you’re planning a roast beast feast, you might want to factor in a few extra ounces of meat to make some serious sandwiches after the party’s over.

Get the Simplest, Easiest Method: How To Cook a Turkey

3. Turn Pecorino into a rich and salty cheese sauce.

Whether you call it by its fancy French name or know it simply as cheese sauce, the end result is the same: an indulgent blanket that wraps everything from elbow macaroni to tortilla chips to ham and eggs in its loving embrace. As one of the French mother sauces, Gruyere is the traditional cheese used in Mornay, but that rule has been bent, broken, and extended so many times over the centuries that pretty much anything from a cheese drawer has been pressed into service at least once.

However, the keepers of the flame at the Brown Hotel, the birthplace of the Hot Brown, are adamant that the only authentic cheese for this sandwich is Pecorino Romano. Never tried it? Its tangy saltiness mellows out when blended with butter and cream, and is thick yet pourable for a open-faced sandwich topping. Try it as a Hollandaise change-up when you want to tweak your favorite brunch Benedict, or on top of a tuna melt.

Get the Recipe: The Ultimate Mac & Mornay

4. Add bacon for flavor and texture.

It doesn’t take a Top Chef to tell you that adding bacon to a sandwich (or a cookie, or a casserole) brings another level of flavor to any dish. But what makes bacon the crowning glory of the Hot Brown is the contrast in texture.

You want perfectly crisped slices to play off the soft sweetness of tomatoes, tender turkey breast slices, and luxe ladlefuls of cheese sauce. Flabby bacon is no one’s friend here. For the final touch that makes any sandwich sing, cook your bacon within an inch of its life and add it to your sandwich at the last minute to maintain its texture.

Try It 3 Ways: How To Cook Bacon

5. Finish your sandwich under the broiler.

The broiler is what really seals the deal for a Hot Brown. It does more than melt — the direct flame from the broiler caramelizes the Mornay sauce, giving it that oomph of flavor from the Maillard reaction, which you can’t get from a quick nuke or reheat. The French even have a word for this, too: gratinée. If the toasty cheese on top of a crock of onion soup is your favorite part of that dish, you know what I’m talking about.

I’ll make a bold statement and say that any open-faced sandwich topped with cheese should benefit from a quick stint under a broiler. From melts to Reubens to a cheddar-topped meatloaf sandwich, a broiled finish is a winning one. And think about what it could do to an open-faced fluffernutter!

Get a Recipe: Hot Brown Sandwich

What’s your secret to a winning sandwich?