I wish I could remember eating my first BLT. That first bite into its toasted bread slathered in mayonnaise sandwiching crisp lettuce, thick, streaky bacon, and perfectly ripe—and perfectly seasoned—tomatoes. The juice from those tomatoes running down my forearms and dripping onto the table before me. The way the toasted bread grazed and cut up the roof of my mouth, leaving me with a raw souvenir for my tongue to caress for days after the sandwich was long gone.
But I can’t. And while I may not remember my first, I have long known that the BLT is the ultimate sandwich. I’ve worked as a chef for almost 20 years, in restaurants, private homes, and test kitchens, and still, making—and eating—sandwiches is one of my top pastimes. The BLT is by far my favorite, so I make the most of eating them every year while tomato season is at its peak. Nothing beats a late-summer tomato, so you likely won’t see me partaking in a BLT outside of late July through October.
Ok, that’s an absolute lie; I’ll fuck with a BLT year-round, but will most likely complain about the mealy tomato as I down it.
It’s often said that sandwiches were invented in England in the late 1700s by John Montagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich. Of course, sandwiches existed long before that—at least since the first century BCE, when Rabbi Hillel the Elder sandwiched lamb and herbs between sheets of unleavened matzoh during the year’s Passover Seder. At best, we can attribute the name “sandwich” to the eponymous Earl, who some suggest popularized the lunchtime fixture while in the midst of a winning streak at the gambling table. It’s said that, rather than interrupting his lucky run with the typical plated meal, he was presented with a dish requiring no utensils: a bit of beef, sandwiched between two slices of bread.
For those of you living under a rock, BLT stands for “bacon, lettuce, and tomato.” As a kid, I was a nerdy smarty pants who would argue to anyone that cared enough to listen that the BLT should actually be called the BLTMB, because *pushes glasses up on nose* technically it ain’t a BLT without the bread and the mayo (and you better not forget to season that tomato with s+p).
The abbreviation is believed to have come about in the U.S. in the 1940s with the rise of diners, where waitstaff often used shorthand to quickly convey orders to the kitchen. The BLT then grew in popularity after World War II, when supermarkets began popping up across the country and seasonal ingredients, such as tomatoes, became more readily available year-round.
Any discussion of the BLT’s origins merits a nod to its sister-cousin, the club. New York’s Saratoga Club in Saratoga Springs claimed to have invented the multi-layered club sandwich (which is a close second to the BLT on my list of favorites, TBQH) in 1894. One of the first written club sandwich recipes appeared soon after, in the Good Housekeeping Everyday Cook Book (1903). I truly have no idea how the club (which typically also includes turkey or chicken and an extra layer of bread) morphed into a BLT, but not everything has to have an answer.
Let’s also take a moment to acknowledge the assorted BLT deviations, which incorporate other ingredients, such as a fried egg (the BELT), avocado slices (the BLAT), or even avocado AND sprouts (the BLAST). Meh. When it comes to sandwiches, I’m a traditionalist. What really matters is this: The allure of the BLT lies in its simplicity. Since its ingredients are so few, and since each component is as important as the next, it’s wise to ensure that you take care in choosing (and preparing) the best versions of those ingredients you can find.
We begin our BLT journey with bread, the foundation of any good sandwich. Simple flatbreads date back more than 20,000 years, though the first known leavened versions appeared around 1000 BCE in Egypt and Mesopotamia.
The far more modern squishy white sandwich bread is the common diner enclosure for a BLT, but I recommend you take a bit more pride in your homemade version. Get yourself a good loaf from your local baker or hit up that neighbor who took up sourdough baking during the pandemic. Slice your bread thick—but not too thick. I suggest around ¾ of an inch.
And sure, you could throw those slices in the toaster and get to cooking your bacon on the stovetop, but have some respect for the bread and for yourself, for god’s sake. Instead, heat up equal parts ghee and some good olive oil in a cast-iron skillet.
Ghee (or clarified butter) has a higher smoke point than butter while still adding plenty of excellent buttery flavor, but you can also use butter if you’re so inclined. The olive oil will help cut through some of the ghee’s rich flavor. Frying your bread in a skillet as opposed to the toaster is a game changer. I don’t even own a toaster anymore, that’s how strongly I believe in toasting bread in a skillet (also, I live in an NYC apartment and counter space is a luxury). Melt the ghee with the oil over medium heat in the skillet and toast the bread, flipping once, until golden and crisp, about 2 minutes per side, et voila! Bread perfection. (I also season the bread with a pinch of flaky salt afterwards.)
Anyway, let’s move on to the real MEAT of the sandwich.
(You see what I did there?)
Bacon dates back to about 1500 BCE, when the Chinese first started preserving pork belly using salt from the mines in Zhongba, in the Three Gorges region of China’s Yangzi River valley. Still made today, the chewy preserved meat, known as lap yuk in Cantonese, is frequently eaten around the Lunar New Year.
The word “bacon” comes from the Middle English “bacoun,” a salted, pressed, and dried—but unsmoked—pork product made in Medieval England. During the 17th century, they were finally smoked, resulting in a version of bacon similar to what you know and love today.
Some might advise you to cook your bacon in the oven at 400 degrees Fahrenheit, arranged neatly on a cooling rack set over a sheet tray, until crisp, for anywhere from 15 to 20 minutes (depending on the thickness). But why on earth would you want to turn your oven on in the summer? Cook those slices right there in the skillet over medium heat; it’s gonna be just fine (although you may have to give your stovetop a bit of a wipe afterwards).
You’ll want to be sure to start the bacon in a cold skillet; this allows the fat to render more slowly while also ensuring you get super crisp bacon. Either bust out a second skillet, or just cook the bacon first then wipe out the grease before toasting the bread.
And now, lettuce talk about the greens of the BLT
(I’m on a roll, aren’t I?)
As early as 2700 BCE, murals depicted Min, the Egyptian god of fertility, eating lettuce for increased stamina in the bedroom. Eventually, the Egyptians began cultivating the leafy greens for food.
Some people prefer iceberg on their BLT. While I love iceberg on a turkey club or in a cold wedge salad, I find that green leaf lettuce adds a nicer color and texture to a BLT. Besides, the bacon and bread bring all the crispy crunch this sandwich needs.
Moving on to…
It’s believed tomatoes were first cultivated in what is now Peru. From there, the fruit eventually made its way up to the Aztecs and Mayans in Central America, then on to Europe via Spain’s conquistadors in the 16th century. Initially, many Europeans feared the tomato, which was primarily cultivated as a decorative plant and many believed to be poisonous. The fact of the matter is that European aristocrats ate off of pewter plates, which had a high lead content. In all likelihood, the otherwise harmless tomato’s acidity leached lead from said servingware, resulting in its deadly reputation.
I’m sure your knife is not sharp enough to slice through the skin of a ripe tomato (and if it is, give yourself a pat on the back right now—you are an exceptional human being and deserve it). The rest of us mere mortals, who rely on knives as dull as this article, should use a serrated blade to slice a tomato. I love a Jersey beefsteak or another heirloom variety from the farmers market, but I’ve also grown some cute little cherry tomatoes on my roof this summer, and, thinly sliced, they have been a real treat on a BLT. Whatever variety you use, you’ll want to slice the tomato about ¼-inch thick, and don’t forget to season with salt and pepper.
Ok, you’ve made it this far; it’s time to talk assembly. (I won’t argue with you on mayonnaise brand—that’s another story for another time.) First, slather one side of each of your toast slices with mayo, then top one slice with some lettuce leaves. I like to add the tomato next, followed by the bacon, and then another slice of bread. We all know that if you make a sandwich with the bread touching the tomato, the juices will turn that bread soggy. Nobody wants a soggy sandwich after all that work. So please, PLEASE, layer your sandwich with the tomato in the middle, then call it a day.
With its fuzzy origins and few ingredients, the BLT will always hold the top place in my heart. It remains one of the most popular sandwiches in the U.S.—and with good reason. You can go to any restaurant or diner with a BLT on the menu and nearly always sit down to a sandwich that will make you happy. There is, however, no pleasure greater than making one yourself, using the ideal bread, bacon, lettuce, and tomato—and also sharing the love with someone special (because no sandwich tastes better than one made by someone who cares). This one is uniquely satisfying and gorgeous… and worth cutting up the roof of your mouth for.
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