Reuben Sandwich Recipe
With the coming of the new year, we’ve officially moved into the second phase of retooling of this website. In the past four months, we’ve brought you New Orleans’s most significant sandwiches: the muffuletta, the banh mi, and the po-boy. We even threw in a Thanksgiving leftovers sandwich to coincide with the holiday. In the next six months, we’ll be expanding our view and exploring the tastiest, most prototypically American sandwiches out there. The first one we’re exploring is the Reuben sandwich recipe. Not only is it tasty, but it’s also one of our favorite American sandwiches. Let’s dive in!
As with many legends, the origins of the Reuben sandwich are contested. Some believe it started at the now defunct Reuben’s Deli in New York in the 1910s. There is also competing competing evidence, suggesting that the Reuben actually originated in the late 1920s at the Blackstone Hotel in Omaha, Nebraska by a young chef named Bernard Schimmel, who named it for the man he created it for, Reuben Kulakofsky.
Either way, the limited evidence available is only clear in that neither of the “first Reubens” likely resembled the actual Reuben sandwich that we know today. The first bonafide appearance of the modern Reuben was in 1956 when Fern Snider, an employee from one of the Nebraska-based hotels owned by the Schimmel family (Chef Bernard was the son of the owner), entered the sandwich in a national contest sponsored by National Restaurant Association.
In the end, we’d venture that the origin of the Reuben really only matters to history buffs (and maybe some business owners and family members). The point is that we have it now, and it’s a mainstay in the pantheon of American sandwiches. This year marks 60 years since the announcement of the Reuben in that fateful sandwich competition. That’s what we really should be grateful for – the contest, the catalyst that gave the Reuben its widespread popularity.
While the Reuben is deceptively simple in its ingredients list – Jewish rye bread, corned beef, Swiss cheese, sauerkraut, and Russian dressing – don’t be tempted to skimp or short cut. As with any sandwich, a Reuben will only be as tasty as the ingredients put on it. Buy the best corned beef you can afford. Splurge on a great loaf of rye bread. Treat yourself to the sauerkraut from the deli instead of the store shelf. Take the 10 minutes to make your own Russian dressing. These ingredients are literally the entire sandwich, and their quality will make a real and palatable difference. In the end, the sandwich is the sum of each individual part, and to make a great Reuben, you must start with high quality ingredients.
In an effort to try to visit as many stores and retailers as possible, this sandwich features ingredients from sources we’ve not used before for our sandwich posts. To start with, we sourced our Jewish rye bread from Hollygrove Market and Farm. Why? Because they sell Chef Susan Spicer’s Wild Flour Breads, which are amazing. Spicer’s Jewish rye has a perfectly crusty outside and a soft, flavorful inside. The bread’s preparation method is rooted in the tradition of the Jewish bakeries in New York, which gives the loaf a tanginess and texture that’s perfect for a Reuben. Another fantastic part about Chef Spicer’s breads are that they’re made by hand so they’re unique and interesting – not at all “standard.” While we’re sure that other retail places must sell Chef Spicer’s Wild Flour Breads, Hollygrove is the only places we know of, so that’s where we get it!
After the bread, the next most important items are the corned beef and sauerkraut. These two ingredients will affect flavor more than any others. Therefore, we sourced these at one of the only two Jewish delis in the New Orleans area: Kosher Cajun New York Deli and Grocery. Since we already featured Stein’s, the other Jewish deli, in a previous post, we headed to Kosher Cajun to see what all the fuss is about.
Even though they’re all the way out in Metairie, we felt it was worth the drive to procure high quality ingredients. Great news! We were right – the drive was totally worth what we got. Not only did we find high quality corned beef (at $19.99/pound – high quality, lean corned beef is not cheap), but we also acquired delicious sauerkraut from their deli and even acquired kosher Swiss cheese. Further, we each scored a Dr. Brown’s soda, which is an imperative accompaniment when serving a Reuben.
Armed with our most essential (and high quality) ingredients, the only thing left to find was the Russian dressing. Since we’re not fans of pre-made dressings, we decided to make our own using a recipe we found on Epicurious, perfectly suited to our needs and quite tasty. (For a special treat try dipping potato chips in it… oh yeah!). Using ingredients we always have on hand anyway, we made a Russian dressing far superior to anything we could have purchased on a grocery shelf. Keeping in mind that this sandwich was only going to be as tasty as what we put on it, how could we have gone any other way? Also, one other note: it has become common to use Thousand Island dressing here instead of Russian, according to preference. The main difference between the two is that Thousand Island dressing uses sweet pickle relish while Russian dressing relies on horseradish and a touch of Worchestershire for its flavor. Other than that, they’re quite similar. Go with your taste preferences, as always.
With all of our ingredients in hand, it’s time to make this bad boy. Let’s go!
The preparation for a Reuben sandwich is quite easy. It’s really just a glorified grilled cheese sandwich in many ways, and the preparation is about as complicated. Sure, you’re adding a few more ingredients, but in the end you’re just heating a sandwich on the stove. We start out carefully selecting two slices of Jewish rye bread without any holes in the middle (to prevent ingredient leakage). Butter one side of each slice with softened unsalted butter to give your Reuben a deliciously crispy outside. Do not be tempted to skip this and just use non-stick spray: use the butter. Butter is better.
We like to build our Reuben in the skillet as it heats, but feel free to build it on a cutting board if that’s what you want to do. The reason we go straight to the skillet is because once that outside is buttered, it’s easier (and cleaner) to just start working in the skillet. Once you have one slice of bread placed butter side down in the skillet, put one tablespoon of Russian dressing on the inside of the slice. Carefully spoon it in and spread it to cover the whole piece of bread. After that, pile on about a quarter pound of thinly sliced corned beef, again being mindful to spread it out so that it covers the bread evenly. Top the meat with two slices of Swiss, overlapping but making sure the cheese covers the entirety of the sandwich. Carefully spread about a quarter cup of sauerkraut on top of that. Again, key here is proper ingredient distribution: every bite should be perfect. Now here’s the tricky part: take the top bread and carefully spoon on and spread the second tablespoon of Russian dressing. Since that bread is already buttered, it might be a little messy, but with practice, you’ll be an old pro.
Place the top slice of bread on the sandwich, with the buttered side out, of course. After you’ve finished this building process, the butter that’s on the bottom of the sandwich is probably most of the way to getting that side of the sandwich crispy. Peak under there with a spatula. If it’s golden brown, carefully flip the sandwich. If not, wait about a minute longer and recheck. Once the sandwich is flipped, it should take another minute or two to get the other side crispy and golden brown. When you remove the sandwich from the skillet, remember to flip it again before cutting. This way your corned beef is at the bottom of the sandwich and the sauerkraut is on top. This makes for a good, sound sandwich structure, one that makes it easy and more enjoyable to eat. Also note that after cooking, the corned beef may not be heated all the way through. That’s common for a Reuben. However, if you prefer your corned beef heated through, pop it in the microwave for 15 to 20 seconds before placing on the sandwich to cook.
Finally, in keeping with tradition, serve your Reuben with potato chips, a Dr. Brown’s soda, and a kosher dill pickle. We somehow forgot to use pickles in our photos, even though we had them in our fridge! Do as we say, not as we do, we suppose. Of course, your Reuben will still be tasty without the pickle and the soda, but it just won’t be as special, it won’t provide that cultural experience as completely as when you go that extra mile. You’re going this far, might as well go for the gold!
There are two reasons this sandwich is important in American culinary culture. First, it’s firmly rooted in Jewish culture and Jewish immigrant food (by virtue of the rye bread, corned beef, and sauerkraut), but it’s also totally American in that it also uses cheese (it’s not kosher, by the way, to mix meat and dairy) and a creamy dressing. We Americans cherish cheese and dressing. In the end, as with so many dishes in the American canon, the Reuben is a melting pot of older cultures. The history of the Reuben, as vague as it may be, lay out its cultural development pretty clearly: by combining traditional ingredients found in Jewish immigrant neighborhoods with the tastes and preferences of a booming post-World War II America, the Reuben embodies American cultural changes.
The sandwich remains relevant and popular today not only because of its meaningful history, but because it’s a legitimately delicious combination of seemingly disparate ingredients. Most Americans aren’t usually fans of sauerkraut, Russian dressing, or even rye bread or corned beef for that matter. These ingredients are not common in “white bread” America and are not often found among the preferred flavor profile of American tastes. However, when they are combined and toasted, these unusual ingredients somehow become greater than the sum of their parts. The Reuben has become iconic because it is well constructed of well-balanced flavors informed by rich cultural culinary traditions. At the center of these traditions are little pieces of American history, a disputed series of inconsequential stories that describe the way we’ve come to eat, all hidden within this combination of otherwise under-appreciated ingredients.
Add this classic American sandwich to your week night dinner rotation for a delicious and easy-to-prepare treat.
- 4 slices Jewish rye bread
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
- 4 tablespoons Russian dressing (we used this recipe)
- 1/2 pound thinly sliced lean corned beef
- 4 slices Swiss cheese
- 1/2 cup sauerkraut (if using jarred kraut: for better flavor, rinse and drain it well)
- Butter one side of each slice of bread with about one tablespoon of butter. Scrape away any excess because the bread should be covered, not caked, with butter.
- If you have a skillet large enough to make two sandwiches at a time, feel free to do so. Otherwise, proceed with making the sandwiches one at a time.
- In a skillet that’s pre-heating over medium high, place the bottom bread slice of each sandwich butter-side down.
- Next, spread one tablespoon of Russian dressing on each bottom slice of bread in the skillet.
- On top of that, carefully place about a quarter pound (three ounces) of corned beef, fanning as necessary to cover the whole sandwich bottom, careful not to extend beyond the bread too far.
- Cover the corned beef with two slices of Swiss cheese, overlapping as needed but extending to the ends of the sandwich.
- On top of that, place, about a quarter cup of sauerkraut on each sandwich. Carefully spread that over the sandwich as well.
- Finally, take the top of each sandwich and spread the other tablespoon of Russian dressing on each. Remember, this bread also has butter on one side so this may be a little messy. Just take your time.
- Carefully place the tops on the sandwich, butter side facing out, and cook until the bottom is browned, about two minutes.
- Use an offset spatula to flip the sandwich carefully. Continue to cook on this side for another two to three minutes or until the outside is golden brown and the Swiss starts to melt.
- Transfer the sandwich to a cutting board, taking care to flip the sandwich back to where the corned beef is on the bottom and the sauerkraut is on top.
- Cut the sandwich in half diagonally and serve with chips, a kosher dill pickle, and a can of Dr. Brown’s soda.