How to Build the Perfect Packable Sandwich for Picnic Season

After the World’s Longest Winter, we made it to warmer weather. That means picnic season and, of course, the picnic sandwiches that go along with it.

Thanks to this past year, many of us have really learned to appreciate the benefits of the great outdoors, especially as a way to gather together with friends and family. And while a huge positive of picnics is spending face-to-face time with other people, you want the food to be on point too.

Sandwiches are a picnic go-to because they’re easy to make, easy to transport, and easy to eat without utensils (or even plates). But picnic sandwiches are going to be a little different than the ones you slap together between Zoom meetings for lunch, for a couple of reasons. Yes, you probably want them to be kicked up a few notches, but they’re also going to have to be quite a bit sturdier. After all, no one wants the sad surprise of soggy bread or a sandwich that’s completely fallen apart mid-transport.

But a picnic should be fun, too, so you also don’t want to spend way too much time stressing over your sandwiches. There’s a happy medium you can find that will help you pack delicious, simple, portable picnic sandwiches. Here’s how to get started.

1. Stick with hearty breads.

It’s the foundation of any solid sandwich, so choose wisely. A thick, crusty roll like ciabatta, baguette, or an Italian-style loaf won’t go limp and fall apart next to moist ingredients like veggies, spreads, or salad-type fillings (like chicken or tuna), Andrea Slonecker, co-author of The Picnic, tells SELF. And it won’t smush when you wrap it tightly or pack it in your bag or picnic basket, according to Damon Menapace, the culinary director at Primal Supply Meats in Philadelphia.

Also, you should always use fresh bread instead of toasted. Toasted slices might seem sturdier while you’re assembling your sandwich, but by the time you sit down to picnic, the bread will likely have turned hard and dry, Menapace tells SELF.

If you’re pulling bread or rolls from the freezer, there’s no need to bother defrosting them first. They’ll defrost on the way to the picnic and taste fresh when it’s time to eat, New Jersey–based chef and food stylist Carla Contreras tells SELF. (If they’re wrapped well in the freezer, you shouldn’t have to worry about any sogginess upon defrosting.)

2. Limit your fillings, but still make them fun.

To get a good balance of flavors and textures without overload, chef Christina McKeough of High Street Philadelphia suggests sticking with three to five elements total.

“Generally, [add] a spread, a protein, something crunchy, plus one or two more elements to jazz it up,” she says. Here are some examples of what that might look like:

  • Butter sliced ham Gruyère thinly sliced pickles mustard
  • Roasted eggplant mozzarella cheese olive tapenade fresh basil
  • Goat cheese smoked salmon mixed baby greens red onion capers
  • Avocado roasted red peppers hummus sprouts
  • Turkey provolone cranberry chutney mixed baby greens
  • Cheddar tomato achar romaine

3. Layer smart to stop sogginess.

Even with a crusty roll, putting wet ingredients with a high water content, like raw veggies, next to your bread is the fastest way to Mushtown. So pile your fillings strategically. Start by slathering your spread on the inner sides of both bread slices. The fat content in most spreads acts as a barrier to keep the wettest, middle ingredients (more on them below!) from sogging up your bread, McKeough says. (Hearty breads can usually hold up to the moisture of spreads.)

After that, add another layer of protection in the form of a sturdy leafy green like romaine lettuce, Tuscan kale, or baby spinach, if you’d like. Slices of hard cheese like cheddar or provolone work well here, too, Slonecker says.

Finally, tuck your wettest ingredients all the way in the middle. Think lunch meats, salad-y things like chicken, tuna, or egg salad, moist cheeses like mozzarella, hummus, sliced pickles, or kimchi. Veggies can work, too, but cooked ones like roasted red peppers, roasted eggplant, grilled onions, marinated artichoke hearts, or sautéed mushrooms tend to be better than raw, which tend to have higher water levels. “A lot of the moisture has been cooked out, but you still get lots of flavors and textures,” McKeough says.

Crave the crisp of raw veggies? We hear that. Things like sprouts, sliced red onion or radish, or shredded carrots can give you some crunch without too much moisture. If you insist on cucumbers or tomatoes (which tend to have high water content), slice them thin and make sure they’re in the very middle of the sandwich, not directly in contact with the bread.

4. Assemble strategically.

Making more than one? You’ll save time by having all your ingredients prepped and ready to go before you start building, McKeough says. Then put your sandwiches together assembly-line style, adding the same ingredient to each sandwich before moving on to the next one. It’s faster than making each sandwich from start to finish, Menapace says. That means less time for your sandwich to start soggifying. Plus, it cuts down on quality control issues—you get a great sandwich, but your friend, uh, doesn’t—that can happen when you’re slapping things together and not really paying attention to the layering mentioned above.

5. Pack with care.

For a sustainable option, try compostable parchment paper sealed tight with a piece of tape, or go for reusable beeswax wraps, like Bee’s Wrap. “They’re great for holding sandwiches together,” says Contreras. Slonecker is also a fan of plastic wrap, which helps you get a tight seal that’ll keep your sandwiches from falling apart mid-transport.

Tuck your wrapped sandwich in a reusable silicone bag (like Stasher Sandwich Bags) or plastic zip-top bag for extra protection against leaks. And place them near the top of your picnic bag or cooler, since they might get smushed on the bottom. “I’ll wrap sandwiches in a dish or tea towel if there’s a lot of other food or drinks in the cooler to give them some cushion,” Contreras says.

Grab a cold pack, too, if you won’t be eating your sandwiches ASAP. Sandwiches can generally sit at room/outdoor temp for up to two hours tops, but if it’s a really hot day (above 90 degrees F), an hour’s the limit, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Perishable ingredients can start to harbor bacteria that could make you sick if they’re held above 40 degrees F for more than two hours.

6. Keep your eye on the clock.

Outdoor hangouts are supposed to be chill, so don’t feel like you need to scarf down your sandwich the second you set out your blanket. But don’t wait around forever either. You’ll get the best flavor and texture experience if you eat your sandwich within a couple of hours, Slonecker says. (Plus, it’s safer.) So it might be best to eat your lunch first, and then feel free to hang around and spend extra time with your family and friends after.

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