Let Chef John Currence Take Your BLT to the Next Level
The James Beard Award-winning chef and cookbook author offers his tips for making this classic American sandwich the best it can be.
There’s not much to a classic BLT: bacon, lettuce, tomato and a schmear of mayonnaise. The sandwich is as basic as it gets. But those three letters offer a comforting dose of nostalgia for many people.
“It is truly an American icon,” says John Currence, the James Beard Award-winning chef and cookbook author who helms the City Grocery Restaurant Group in Oxford, Mississippi. “You don’t eat a BLT anywhere else.”
He grew up eating the sandwich at his childhood home in New Orleans and his fondness for it has endured. And even with such a limited ingredients list, he contends that the BLT has plenty of room for improvement—within reason, of course.
“With something as elemental as a BLT, getting the best ingredients at the best time of year and just making the best version of it will transport you to a joyful time in your life,” he says.
So, here are Currence’s tips on how you can take the classic BLT to the next level.
When it comes to the best kind of bread to bookend your BLT, Currence typically goes one of two ways. “There’s part of me that reverts to my childhood and loves nothing more than Sunbeam or Bunny Bread, like the cheapest bread that there is,” he says. “But the chefy part of me loves a really eggy brioche, also toasted and cut a little bit thicker, but not to where it’s unwieldy.”
Whatever kind of bread it is, “it has to be toasted,” says Currence. “Texturally, if the bread is not toasted, it’s not a BLT. The flavor that toasting the bread provides is absolutely essential.” While he typically just throws his bread in a toaster, when he has time he’ll toast it on the stovetop with a pat of butter in a pan.
While the mayo is often overlooked (it doesn’t even contribute an initial to the sandwich’s name), Currence thinks it’s a key ingredient. He recommends using homemade mayo, but if that’s a bit too ambitious, he also likes southern favorites Duke’s or Blue Plate. “Having grown up in New Orleans, that means I can also go with Blue Plate mayo, which is a locally made mayo that tends to the sweet side.”
No matter which way you go, an easy way to give your BLT an upgrade without going overboard is by mixing garlic and basil into the mayo. “A little bit of really finely minced fresh garlic works well with basil,” he says. “Those add another dimension to the sandwich without making it too too.”
Currence’s first rule for finding the perfect BLT bacon is to avoid any brand that has too much smoke flavor. “It totally overwhelms everything, and then that’s all you’re going to taste for the rest of the day,” he says. However, he doesn’t mind a bacon with mellow smokiness, like the ones made by Wright Brand Bacon and Nueske’s.
You should also avoid slices that are cut too thickly, since it makes it difficult to bite through the sandwich and “you’ll end up with a whole piece of bacon coming off the rest of the sandwich.”
To achieve perfect bacon each time, either keep a close eye on slices that are cooking on the stovetop and constantly turn them to avoid over-crisping, or bake the meat. The latter method is not only “more consistent,” but also significantly less cumbersome.
Yes, the type of lettuce you use does make a difference. Ideally, you want a variety that has a nice crunch.
“I go for iceberg lettuce, because I’m just really looking for that texture,” says Currence. However, he’s also amenable to arugula, which “has a nice peppery flavor,” or romaine “in a pinch. It’s a more than adequate substitute for iceberg.”
Another solid option is frisée, a (rather appropriately) frizzy looking lettuce that belongs to the chicory family. It lends a bit of crunch as well as a slightly bitter flavor to the sandwich.
On his “chefy version” of the BLT (which is served on brioche toast), he likes to use frisée, since it pairs so well with the bacon. “Some of the most delicious salads I’ve ever had in my entire life were frisée aux lardon in the French countryside. That flavor works well for me.”
A good tomato should give a touch of sweetness and acidity to a BLT. Currence prefers the flavor of a Cherokee Purple, a meaty, deeply colored heirloom varietal with a rich flavor. When those aren’t available, he’s also happy to make do with equally hefty varieties like Mortgage Lifters and Jetsetters.
“I sort of have this perverse tradition that I will not eat my first BLT until I pull the tomato off the vine in my own garden,” says Currence. “I really believe that anticipation is almost a virtue now.”
However, if you’re craving a BLT before tomato season is in full swing, he recommends lightly roasting slices with a little bit of salt and pepper and olive oil on a SILPAT. “It will concentrate the sugars,” he says. The chef prefers kosher salt and medium ground pepper, and recommends investing in a good mill, like one from Peugeot or Vic Firth.
“My recommendation is that when you put the amount of pepper on that you think you should, double that amount,” he says.
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