I have an older page about how to make a BLT, but a recent Dave Chang podcast inspired me to update the recipe at a horrific level of detail similar to the discussion in the show.
In the Northeast (to the extent that PA is in the Northeast), late summer is the time for the BLT. You can’t really good get tomatoes before August (don’t argue with me, you can’t) and it’s also the peak of the corn on the cob season, which is key. I’ve broken the process of this sandwich down into some simple rules. They mostly mirror all the correct things that Kenji says in his piece on this over at Serious Eats. But there are some small differences here too.
Rule 1: It’s a Tomato Sandwich
The key to a great BLT sandwich is to remember this most important fact: this is a tomato sandwich with some lettuce and bacon in it. The tomato is the heart and soul and center of the sandwich. Everything else is just texture and dressing in service of each drippy, juicy, salty and most importantly acidic bite of tomato in your face each time you stuff the sandwich in your mouth hole.
To this end my first piece of advice in constructing the perfect version of this sandwich is to avoid any of the currently trendy and popular heirloom tomatoes. They are almost all too sweet, watery, tasteless, weak, and useless.
In my factual opinion the best tomato for this sandwich is a very ripe beefsteak style tomato. Large, red, juicy and full of acid. It’s been hard to find these, even at the height of summer, because the useless hippy tomatoes have taken over. But try.
If you can’t find any good red tomatoes, Black Zebra and Purple Cherokee tomatoes can be good to great in this sandwich. But they are not nearly as good as a good big red thing.
For two sandwiches slice an entire large tomato into 4 or 5 medium-thick slices. Cover them with a few pinches of salt and pepper to bring out the acid even more.
Podcast Note: In the podcast Chang is on the right track when he also rejects heirlooms for this sandwich. But his notion that one should use cardboard hot house tomatoes instead is also wrong, because they will also not bring enough acid to the game. But if you find a good juicy one it will still probably be better than the heirlooms.
Rule 2: Decent White Bread
The next key to this sandwich is the bread. You want bread that is not too fancy but is structurally strong enough to hold the sandwich together. I like any decent toasted white sandwich bread. Toasted potato bread is also OK. A light non-fussy sourdough might be OK…but usually sourdough bread is too heavy and calls attention to itself too much to be good in this sandwich. You want the bread hold the sandwich together but otherwise disappear into the background so you can concentrate on the tomato (see rule 1).
Rule 3: Good bacon, Almost Burnt
You want good bacon that is a little sweet, a little thick, and a little salty. Some fancy bacon is too strongly flavored to get out of the way of the tomato. If you have that just use less. In Pittsburgh these days you can get this sort of thing from various farmer’s markets. Any of the thicker cut bacon at Giant Eagle is probably fine. Benton’s is also a favorite, but a bit too smokey for BLTs sometimes. Just don’t get bacon at Whole Foods. All their stuff is weird.
The most important thing about the bacon is that it not be chewy at all. It must be crunchy all the way though, like a potato chip. Burn it if you have to. A little bit burnt is better than undercooked.
I have made bacon for these sandwiches in the oven, in the microwave, and on the stove. They all work. Pick your favorite. Just cook the bacon enough.
Rule 4: Iceberg
There is not much to say about this rule. What you want from the lettuce is a nice wet crunch. This is not the place for the the artisanal bitter salad greens that will just fall out of the sandwich when you bite into them. It’s about some contrasting texture to go along with the tomato and a bit of bland to contrast with all the salt and acid coming from everywhere else. Iceberg is perfect. It’s always been the perfect sandwich green. Just go get some.
Rule 5: A Bit of Mayo
Mayo holds everything together. You can leave it out if you must, but your life will be worse.
So, toast your bread (Kenji grills the bread in the bacon fat … that is a good idea), then put all this together in the following order:
Mayo on bottom slice of bread.
Cover the bottom slice with 2 slices of bacon (break them in half if you need to).
Put 2 (or 3) slices of tomato on top of the bacon.
Put lettuce on top of the tomato. Shredding the lettuce can help keep everything flat, which helps to hold it all together. But some people object to this. I am neutral. Usually you can find pieces of lettuce that are flat enough to manage.
Mayo on the top slice of bread.
Cut the sandwich in half and serve with fresh corn on the cob. There is no better meal for late summer than a BLT and corn.
When you get it right, it looks like this:
Go get it.
Editorial Update: I am going to apologize here to the Black Zebra and Purple Cherokee tomatoes. At their best they are great, and they will usually be fine. I still miss my really good red tomatoes though. So a few weeks after I originally posted this I updated that section of the page to reflect this.