Serious Eats / Fred Hardy

Say the words “club sandwich” and the only thing I can think about are the enormous sandwiches my dad ordered at a poolside restaurant each summer: Layers of lettuce, tomatoes, bacon, and turkey between three slices of bread, all precariously held together by a dinky little cocktail toothpick with its colorful cellophane sticking up in the air. As a kid, I didn’t think it was possible to eat something so big, so tall, and so very architectural. I watched as my dad polished off every single bite, and I’m still not sure if what I felt was fear or wonder.

Eating a club sandwich is no simple feat, and, it turns out, neither is making one. A perfect club sandwich requires careful consideration of every possible detail: the bread, the thinness of the bacon and poultry, and squeezing in just the right amount of filling so each mouthful is delicious yet manageable. Only by striking the right balance of each component can you climb the greatest turkey club heights—not by building it ever higher, but by combing to understand just what makes a great turkey club so special. Here are the three easiest ways to make a better turkey club sandwich.

The Club Sandwich, Defined

Today, most iterations of the club sandwich involve three slices of bread, each slathered with mayonnaise on one side. There’s a slice or two of tomato, some lettuce, crisp bacon, and cooked poultry, be it chicken or turkey. But does a club sandwich have to be a triple-decker? 

Apparently not. A quick peek into old cookbooks and newspaper clippings tells us that the sandwich wasn’t always a triple-decker, and it wasn’t always made with poultry. The Club Woman’s Book, published in 1911, advised using tongue—though it doesn’t say what kind—instead of ham if one wanted “a really delicious club sandwich.” The Woman’s Club Cook Book from 1903 involves just two slices of bread, toasted and buttered while hot, with slices of white meat, bacon, and a “firm” slice of tomato, along with a piece of lettuce coated in salad dressing. 

Though it’s difficult to pinpoint when exactly the club sandwich grew by an entire slice of bread to allow for two stories of fillings, recipes suggesting three slices of bread don’t seem to appear until the 1940s. In Ernest M. Fleischman’s 1947 book The Modern Luncheonette, he noted that the club sandwich “may be made with 2 slices of bread, open or closed, or on toast—or 3 slices of toast, closed, trimmed, and cut in three sections.” What really seems to define the club sandwich is the presence of the hallmark ingredients of a BLT, plus some kind of meat (usually poultry). 

It’s also unclear where and when exactly the club sandwich was created. According to a popular rumor, the sandwich first appeared on a menu at the Saratoga Club House in Saratoga Springs, NY circa 1894, but there’s no definitive proof this was where it was invented. Regardless of the sandwich’s origins, it continues to be a mainstay on menus today.

Serious Eats / Fred Hardy

1.) Get the Bread Right

A lot of white bread options, like milk bread or brioche, are pillowy and ultra-tender. Those make poor choices for the club sandwich, which requires bread that’s sturdy enough to maintain its structural integrity under the weight of all the toppings. The bread has such an important structural role in a club that we also want to avoid any type of bread that has large holes due to an open crumb structure—you wouldn’t construct a building with gaping holes in the floors and neither should there be on a club sandwich—which means taking a pass on those beautiful homemade sourdoughs we were all making during the pandemic.

At the same time, the thickness of the bread is important in a sandwich as tall as a triple-decker club. Using rustic and thick hand-sliced bread will create an overly starchy, overly tall, and overall hard-to-eat sandwich with an out-of-balance bread-to-fillings-ratio. When we have a 50% increase in the number of bread slices compared to a typical two-slice sandwich, each of those slices needs to be on the thinner side.

As is probably apparent from its looks and the fact that it requires a toothpick to hold together, a club sandwich is not easy to bite through; humans, after all, can’t unhinge their jaws like snakes to take it all in with ease. Loaves with a thick and substantial crust, therefore, are also less than ideal for the club—it’s hard enough to take a bite, we don’t want resistance when we do. Proving you have the strength to break through a stack of boards is better left to a taekwondo class, not a sandwich. 

All of this adds up to a very specific set of criteria: We need a load that’s tender yet structurally sound, with a tight crumb and tender crust. It also needs to come in relatively thin slices. All of this adds up to a hearty white or wheat sandwich bread, something along the lines of a pullman loaf or a heartier white sandwich bread like Pepperidge Farm Farmhouse bread (they did not pay us to write this). 

Lastly, lightly brushing the bread with rendered bacon fat and toasting it well on both sides is a critical step, as it not only develops flavor but also firms up the exterior of each slice to help the bread hold its shape.

Serious Eats / Fred Hardy

2.) Meaty Matters: Pick the Best Bacon and Turkey for Club Sandwiches

I’ve made club sandwiches with both thick and thin rashers of bacon, and as much as I love thick-cut, I don’t feel it’s the right choice here, and our testing supports that. Once again, this comes down to a question of texture and architecture. Like too-thick bread, too-thick bacon creates too much resistance when biting through so many stacked layers.

Much better for this sandwich are thinner, leaner center-cut strips of bacon, which produce satisfyingly crisp slices that shatter with ease when bitten. That crispness must not be overlooked—if the bacon is cooked less and retains some chewy bits, it can fail to break cleanly, threatening to pull the whole sandwich apart. 

There’s a strong argument when making a BLT to press the bacon as it cooks so that the strips are as flat as possible. In a turkey club, though, we already have the very flat layers of sliced turkey (assuming we’re using deli turkey very thinly sliced on a meat slicer), so flattening the bacon doubles down on this tightly-packed format, which can feel overly dense when you eat it. It’s arguably more pleasing to leave the bacon with some waviness—those natural corrugations create space in the sandwich so that as you bite through it, you can feel the sandwich gently compress and yield. Our favorite way to achieve the perfect bacon for a club is to bake it on a sheet tray lined with parchment paper, where it can crisp in its own rendered fat.

The club sandwich is an excellent vehicle for using up leftover roast chicken or turkey, and I wouldn’t dissuade you from doing that, especially, say, the day after Thanksgiving. But unless you can expertly slice the meat thinly, I’d recommend using quality roast turkey from the deli that is sliced uniformly on a meat slicer. The thin slices are just one more small detail in the larger architectural blueprint of a great club sandwich, as thin slices are inherently more tender than thicker ones, since slicing thinly shortens the natural muscle fibers in the meat. In a sense, thin slicing is like pre-chewing: A lot of the work of breaking the meat down is already done for you so that biting through the sandwich takes even less effort.

3.) Don’t Forget About the Lettuce and Tomatoes

As noted above, a club sandwich is, practically speaking, a BLT with meat, and the importance of the L and the T in that little formula should not be underestimated. That said, because the tomato doesn’t take up quite as much of the club sandwich’s spotlight as it does in the BLT, one doesn’t have to be quite so religious about their quality here. Do they need to be juicy, decently ripe, and not mealy? Yes. Must they only come from the hills surrounding Mount Etna between the dates of August 7th and September 18th? No. A great tomato will, without question, make this a greater sandwich, but you can still make a worthy turkey club even when the tomatoes aren’t at their absolute peak.

A small but important step for the best tomatoes is to season them with salt and pepper before adding them to the sandwich. This ensures the sandwich is evenly seasoned throughout and there are no bland elements in the mix.

As for the lettuce, romaine is a great choice, with a crisp and juicy bite not unlike iceberg , but with a bit more flavor, which helps given that it has to stand up to the turkey, tomato, and bacon. Last note: don’t skimp on the mayo, it’s the lubrication that helps get this towering achievement of a sandwich from your mouth to your stomach, which is, after all, the goal.

Adjust oven racks to upper-middle and lower-middle positions. Heat oven to 400°F (205℃). Line 2 rimmed baking sheets with parchment paper. Arrange bacon slices in a single layer (slightly overlapping if needed) on prepared baking sheets. Bake bacon, switching and rotating baking sheets halfway through, until browned and crisp, 15 to 20 minutes. Use tongs to transfer cooked bacon to a paper towel–lined plate to drain and reserve rendered fat. Heat broiler.

Serious Eats / Fred Hardy

Brush bread slices very lightly on both sides with reserved bacon fat, then arrange on 2 clean baking sheets. Working one baking sheet at a time, broil on the upper-middle rack (about 6-inches from broiler), flipping bread slices halfway through, until bread is light golden brown on both sides, 1 to 2 minutes per side. Set aside.

Serious Eats / Fred Hardy

Sprinkle tomato slices all over with salt and pepper; set aside.

Serious Eats / Fred Hardy

Using a butter knife or offset spatula, spread 1 tablespoon mayonnaise evenly over 1 side of each bread slice. Place 4 prepared bread slices on a clean work surface, mayonnaise side up. Layer 2 cut lettuce leaf halves, 2 tomato slices, 2 cooked bacon slices, and 2 turkey slices—in that order—on the prepared bread slices arranged on the counter. Slightly overlap the ingredients as needed to fit within the parameters of the sandwich bread.

Serious Eats / Fred Hardy

Top the 4 sandwiches with 1 prepared bread slice each, mayonnaise-side down. Press gently to secure. Repeat layering 2 lettuce leaf halves, 2 tomato slices, 2 cooked bacon slices, and 2 turkey slices on top of the bread slices of each prepared sandwich.

Serious Eats / Fred Hardy

Top with the remaining 4 bread slices, mayonnaise side down. Press gently to secure and insert 4 toothpicks into each sandwich, spaced evenly to create 4 quadrants. Use a serrated knife to cut each sandwich on the diagonal to create triangular quarters. Serve.

Serious Eats / Fred Hardy

Special Equipment

2 rimmed baking sheets, wire rack, butter knife or offset spatula, toothpicks, serrated knife

Notes

Center-cut bacon, such as Smithfield brand, produces uniformly cooked slices that are evenly shaped to fit on the bread nicely. Using regular-cut bacon, as opposed to thick-cut bacon, ensures the bacon turns very crisp and breaks easily when biting into the stacked sandwich. 

A sturdy, thinly sliced sandwich bread, such as Pepperidge Farm Farmhouse Hearty White Bread, is ideal for this recipe. It’s sturdy enough to stack and hold the larger amount of ingredients in this club sandwich and not so thick that it will create an overly bready club sandwich.

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