It's good to live a tidy, orderly life. Clean shirt, clean face, sensibly organized underwear drawer (I subcategorize alphabetically by superhero!), and so on. People like tidiness; they trust it. It makes things easier. Food, too, can be tidy: the neat, clean geometry of sushi; the artful towers of nouvelle cuisine; the perfect 180-degree turn you execute when you see Guy's American Kitchen and Bar in front of you. Tidy. Neat. Clean.
The problem with the tidy, orderly life, as anyone can see, is that it doesn't leave much room for a Reuben sandwich—which, factually, is as neat and clean as the average tropical storm. All that wet sauerkraut and gloopy Russian dressing; the melty, runny cheese and the greasy meat: The Reuben is the freight-train-derailing-into-a-fireworks-factory of sandwiches. The enemy of the kempt. The scourge of the tidy. The bane of the shirtfront.
This is particularly true if, as any right-thinking morally upstanding individual inarguably must, you insist upon eating a Reuben with your hands because you are not a goddamn fascist. Just you try and get that fucker to your face without some rogue cheese-strand or a wayward dab of Russian dressing or a kamikaze beef-slice leaping free to apply itself to your breast pocket, or to the crotch of your pants, or, somehow, to creep behind you, where it will write SLOB across the back of your shirt in permanent grease stains.
And that is a problem, because the other scientific fact about the Reuben, in addition to its thermonuclear capacity for mess-making, is that it is the best goddamn sandwich in the world. As we shall see. Let's make one.
The first step is to acquire corned beef. If, for you, this means brining an entire beef brisket for two friggin' weeks, then braising it for a few hours and slicing it thin across the grain, good for you. On the other hand, if it means resting your elbow on a glass deli counter, raising a jaunty finger, and saying, "A pound of corned beef, my good man, and slice it thin if you please," that is also good. Having corned beef is good. Knowing how to make corned beef is good. Talking like Clarence the Guardian Angel is kinda weird, and probably not as sexy as you're hoping—but, saving yourself the hassle of brining a beef brisket for half a month is definitely good.
Now, preheat your oven to 400 degrees, because you are going to cook your Reuben in it. That's right, dammit! You're gonna roast your goddamn Reuben like some kind of madman!
Lookit. If you worked at your basic crappy-yet-delicious lunch-counter joint and somebody came in and ordered a Reuben, you would of course high-five that person because that right there is a person with good taste in sandwiches—but also, you would cook their Reuben on the griddle, because that's a quick way to achieve toasty bread and a hot sandwich. The corned beef would be lukewarm and the cheese only semi-melted and the sauerkraut distractingly cool, but, hell, the Reuben would still taste OK, because it would still be a Reuben.
Likewise, if you worked in a wiener-y post-Starbucks middlebrow chain bread-boutique with a bunch of random accent symbols over all the vowels in its unidentifiably Euro-flavored name and Norah Jones music playing on the speakers 24 hours a day, and someone came in and ordered the annoying gluten-free macrobiotic "Reubenti" with alfalfa sprouts in place of sauerkraut and pages from a Michael Cunningham novel in place of corned beef, you would smash it in a hot panini press, because that, too, is a quick way to accomplish a toasted sandwich. And the sandwich would be 85 percent bread (horrifying gluten-free "bread"), because that is the only way to fit it in the panini press without squeezing all the fillings out, but it would still taste OK—or, well, no, it wouldn't, but no one would care, because when people go to those places the food is just a garnish for bourgeois self-congratulation.
The point, here, is that while the flattop griddle and panini press are more familiar tools for preparing a Reuben, you should not make the mistake of thinking of them as the correct tools. You, courageous home cook, have an advantage over the sandwich-counter guy and the chain bread-boutique grad student: You have the time to deploy a Reuben-preparation technique that will produce uniform heat throughout your sandwich, and all the exquisitely melty cheese and gloriously runny dressing this entails. So. Preheat your fucking oven, and quit with the backtalk.
Now, while your oven is preheating, haul out a good-sized bowl and make Russian dressing in it. This is ridiculously straightforward, so we will embellish it somewhat by making fun of food weenies while we work: Whisk together some mayonnaise (but mew mew mew fresh egg yolks mew m'pew pew!), some ketchup (bork bork bork homemade tomato purée bork!), and roughly 72 gallons of the most ferociously piquant jarred horseradish (clucky cluck freshly grated horseradish cluck clucky cluck!) you can find. Go crazy with the horseradish here. Your completed Russian dressing should make you acutely fearful for your life, just like a real Russian person would; if it does not do that, you have not added enough horseradish yet.
If you want to gussy up your Russian dressing with pimentos or chopped chives or a dash of hot sauce or whatever, go for it—but be careful, because too much gussying will leave you with thousand Island dressing instead of Russian, and Reubens are not made with thousand Island dressing, and we are making Reubens here and not some whole other goddamn sandwich. Russian dressing should mostly taste like fiery, angry horseradish. Keep that in mind. Спасибо.
So now your oven is heated and your Russian dressing is prepared and you may start assembling your Reuben. But first! Here is a step that you may freely skip, and not just because this is an internet food column and therefore powerless to stop you. Lightly toast two slices of rye or pumpernickel or marble rye bread. But wait, you are sobbing: Why should I toast my bread if I'm just gonna cook this stupid thing in the oven? That is a fair and reasonable question, buttface. The answer is that there's gonna be a fair amount of Russian dressing going on this bread, and that giving the bread a pre-toasting before it goes in the oven will help protect it against dissolving to bread pudding as it soaks up that dressing. It's fine not to give a shit about that: Your Reuben is going to be a friggin' mess anyway, and maybe you don't want to take any measly half-measures to mitigate that, and that's OK. On the other hand, pre-toasting the bread will help to ensure that you may avoid the terrible, disgraceful scenario of eating a fucking sandwich with a knife and fork, which is something worth considering.
(Note the word "lightly" in the preceding paragraph, though. Don't fully toast your bread. You don't want to have to bite through stone to eat your Reuben—unless you do want that, in which case you are an insane person, or a Goron. Toast the bread juuuuust enough to give it some crispiness, and no more.)
Let's pause to talk about the bread here. Traditionally and typically, a Reuben is made with light rye (or sissel) bread, and that is absolutely the best choice. However, pumpernickel rye is damn tasty, too, and so is splitting the difference and using marble rye. What's not OK is swapping out the rye altogether and using, like, focaccia or ciabatta or brioche, or friggin' challah or a bagel or a croissant or a sliced goddamn cronut or two rafts of fucking ramen noodles, or whatever other cutesy foodie bullshit you're just dying to post to your fucking Instagram, you fuckin' schmuck. Not because it's nontraditional or unorthodox to do so, but because the rye flavor is a core ingredient of the Reuben sandwich, and we are making a Reuben sandwich and not some other sandwich. OK? Rye bread. Rye.
Assemble your Reuben! You have some latitude, here, for how you want to organize things and in what proportions, so long as your Reuben contains the following between its slices of some variety of rye bread: some of that corned beef, some sliced Swiss cheese (preferably the lacy kind, because, fuck it, it's just better), a generous portion of sauerkraut, and a bunch of your Russian dressing.
Typically, delis like to heap 94 pounds of corned beef onto a Reuben and dress it with a thimbleful of the other ingredients, so that unimaginative gluttons can
- A) be protected from scary, scary stuff like sauerkraut and Russian dressing—y'know, the stuff that gives a Reuben its actual character, for chrissakes;
- B) feel like they are getting a lotta fuggin' meat for their money.
The problem with this approach is that it yields an unwieldy, unbalanced, chewy, overly salty sandwich that lands like a grand piano in your stomach and makes you feel parched and like you are going to die for the rest of the day. A smarter approach is to aim for a more reasonable ratio of meat-to-other-stuff, so that you can enjoy the Reubeniness of your Reuben, which is after all a Reuben and not a corned beef sandwich. Shoot for, say, a 2:1 or 3:1 meat-to-cheese ratio, and a 1:1 cheese-to-sauerkraut ratio, and a whoa-that-sandwich-is-literally-just-floating-in-a-big-bowl-of-Russian-dressing:1 ratio of Russian dressing to everything else.
The best way to assemble your Reuben is to give each slice of gently toasted bread a hearty schmear of Russian dressing, then top one of the slices with, in order: half of the cheese, then all of the meat, then another schmear of dressing, then sauerkraut, then the remaining half of the cheese, and then the other slice of bread. If the slices of Swiss are so large that there's Swiss cheese hanging over the edge of your sandwich, tear those dangling edges off and stuff them inside the sandwich; the cheese is gonna melt during cooking, and if it's hanging outside of the sandwich when it melts, you're not gonna get to eat it. Some of it is going to escape anyway, and that is just a goddamn tragedy. Let's try to minimize it.
Now, wrap that sandwich in a sheet of aluminum foil and cram it in the oven for, oh, 20 minutes or so. Set a timer. In about 10 minutes, your cooking Reuben will begin to emit a beefy, cheesy, sauerkrauty, Russiany aroma that will absolutely vaporize your shirt; try to refrain from diving into the oven after it. Maybe handcuff yourself to something?
So 20 minutes have gone by and your timer has gone off. Extract your Reuben from the oven and unwrap its aluminum foil sleeping bag. It is done. Behold. Cut it in half, pick it up with your goddamn hands, and eat it.
Would you just fucking look at that sloppy piece of shit. It has melted cheese all running down its sides and mixing with the dressing and the liquid from the sauerkraut and the small amount of liquid fat that has rendered out of the corned beef; the steam from the hot liquids makes it look like some dangerous thing that just staggered out of a burning building. Your face. We are talking about your face. That is what the Reuben sandwich has done to your face.
It has also—the salty corned beef and tart sauerkraut, the punchy dressing which is spurting all over your goddamn shirt and the rich, pungent cheese and the slight bitterness of the rye, oh man oh man oh man—made your eyes roll about and your hair stand on end, your cheeks flush and a series of indecent guttural noises erupt from your throat. You can clean your face and your shirt and your kitchen later. For now, embrace the squalor. It's awfully tasty.
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Albert Burneko is an eating enthusiast and father of two. His work can be found destroying everything of value in his crumbling home. Peevishly correct his foolishness at email@example.com, or publicly and succinctly on Twitter @albertburneko. You can find lots more Foodspin at foodspin.deadspin.com.
Image by Sam Woolley.