The French Way to Sandwich Is All About This One Ingredient

June 13, 2018

The construction of a sandwich is seemingly simple: Meat or cheese or vegetables—or some type of Venn diagram configuration of the three—get bookended by bread. The crusty, crumbly, sliced loaf is the necessary handhold that keeps the whole affair together; and then, a cool swipe of mayo or mustard, something tangy and wet, for moisture. Sandwiches, it seems, we have down pat.

But what if there’s something missing? What if we’ve been denying our sandwiches the lusciousness they so desperately deserve? And what if that thing has been under our noses the whole time?

Recently, our Senior Lifestyle Editor, Hana, got back from a trip to France and, naturally, the first thing I asked her about was the food (have you seen where we work??). We talked pastries and pâté and then she started telling me about the sandwiches. They were comprised of all the usual suspects: a baguette, maybe a slice of French ham or prosciutto, a hunk of cheese, a smattering of arugula. But then she said the magic word—beurre.

I faltered. Butter? Did you just say butter? I couldn’t believe it, but Hana was resolute:

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Top Comment:
“Their classic sandwich is jambon-beurre (ham-butter). Neither is really attainable here in the USA because French butter is vastly superior to American butter. This simple reason is why pretty much any French dish that prominently features butter is inferior here in the USA than in France. Also, the French have better bread. Spreading typical American butter on typical American bread will not result in the same experience as one gets in France. Sorry to bring this up, but this is part of what Tony Bourdain was trying to get across. Spreading American butter on American bread does not equal the same experience as it is in France. YOU NEED TO GO. And pretty Instagram pictures of your $12 tartine from some high falutin' trendy café in NYC doesn't cut it either. Just something to think about...”
— 702551

“Everyone should butter their sandwiches. You don't realize you need that luscious barrier until you have it in your sandwich! Even buttery cold cuts like ham and prosciutto are improved by a silky pat. It's flavor, it's mouthfeel, it's everything. Make your sandwich delicious. You deserve it!”

I like what she’s serving. And you know what? It’s not the first time someone on our site has asserted that cheese and bread are made better only by a friendly smear of butter.

Gabrielle Hamilton, too, in her memoir Blood, Bones and Butter espouses the benefits of a fat triumvirate—butter, oil, and lardo (the fat on prosciutto)—in sandwiches. Butter lends sandwiches heft and, when salted, can help enrich the flavors of everything else in the mix.

The question, then, is how much? Is it a thin smear or something more substantial like, say, a few pats of butter scattered across the bread? Honestly, the choice is yours.

Are you a butterer of sandwiches? Tell us your winning combination in the comments below!

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Karin Byars
    Karin Byars
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Valerio Farris

Written by: Valerio Farris


Karin B. June 11, 2019
I buy pound blocks of UNSALTED Plugra, keep it in the refrigerator and peel off thinish sheets of it with my cheese plane.
I was born in 1941 in Germany, my mother was packing a care package for my daddy on the Russian front when I grabbed a quarter pound of butter and bit a chunk out it, she sent it as it was.
After 1945 butter was rationed, to make it go further most families mixed it with margarine. I made my mother keep my ration separate so I could eat it where it mattered, on toast with a homegrown soft boiled egg or on spinach from our garden. When my butter was gone I ate lard from our pig on rye bread with salt and chives. I must have been a horrible child.
We soon had enough milking goats to make goat cheese and goat butter.
Leslie June 9, 2019
My French mother would always pack buttered ham and cheese sandwiches in preparation for a long car trip. I still remember those sandwiches pulled from the cooler and eaten at a roadside picnic table as being one of my favorite foods. While I love mayo (on and in too many things) the memories those sandwiches evoke has made it impossible for me to use mayo in a ham and cheese sandwich. That special request gets a raised eyebrow at most delis:-)
Giggles June 8, 2019
Growing up we always had butter on our sandwiches. Besides being delicious, it creates a moisture barrier so those packed sandwiches don’t get soggy.
Kevin June 7, 2019
My favorite sandwich is one I came across in Holland. Baguette, Butter, tomato, basil, and Brie. Heaven on earth.
Deborah June 7, 2019
It's not only the French, I grew up buttering sandwiches in Switzerland. When I moved to the US I couldn't believe that Americans didn't seem to butter their sandwiches!
sue June 7, 2019
My Scandinavian father never put mayo on a sandwich. Butter only at our house.
Randy June 7, 2019
This brings back wonderful memories of my Mamaw who ,as a child, would fix me a butter spread on white bread with Ham slices-yum! Guess what I'm having for lunch soon ?
MBE August 14, 2018
Ok so no mayo on my peanut butter and it would be ok with additional butter but not necessary for me if the PB is good (a purest here as well-no jelly or honey on my PB-but slices of banana on toasted bread oh yeah
MBE August 14, 2018
I distinctly recall my Finnish mother in-law putting butter on my sandwich (her dad was a Land 'o Lakes butter maker in northern Minnesota). Sorry as much as I love good butter it was just too much for me! Mayo (Best Foods) for me please!!
bronwyncarlisle August 14, 2018
What if it's not a savoury sandwich? Or is a sandwich something different in the US? Here, a sandwich is anything between slices of bread, and that could be jam or honey. Butter with those is delicious, can't imagine mayo.
ChefJune August 9, 2018
The caveat is that the butter has to be REALLY good. Land 'o Lakes just won't do (Sorry. :( )
Did you know you can get Bordier butter (oops, I mean beurre!) at Le District in the WTC shopping center in New York? Yes, it's pricy, but it's the best butter you can get here (imho) and maybe anywhere.
Oh, and my favorite sandwich? Jambon/beurre. Duck confit/beurre is pretty good, too!
Hollis R. August 6, 2018
(1) baguette with butter and smoked salmon
(2) baguette with butter, dried thyme, and sliced provolone
(3) baguette with butter, med. roast beef, Black Forest ham, Emmental Swiss, provolone, mixed spring greens, roasted red pepper, fresh parsley, Himalayan pink salt (having this one TODAY!)
Rhonda35 July 21, 2018
My mother's peanut butter and jelly sammies were always the best. It wasn't just the homemade jam and freshly baked bread that made them so delicious, but also the butter she spread on each slice before adding the peanut butter and jelly. SO good!
Barb June 22, 2018
Can I just mention, due to the ad in this article, that if you kitchen is 79F or above, a French butter keeper is a total waste of time and effort? The butter falls out of the little cup when the top warms up. As for butter, I don't use it on a BLT but it's on every other sandwich in my home.
Ron S. June 22, 2018
Today's salted butter will rarely spoil, even if you leave it unrefrigerated all the time.
Barb June 22, 2018
Yes, but it liquifies on my counter top. I also prefer unsalted butter for everything.
Ron S. June 22, 2018
Unsalted eating lard
Barb June 22, 2018
LOL, when you've been on a low-salt diet for more than 40 years it doesn't take much salt to be noticeable.
Ron S. June 22, 2018
point taken Barb....I feel your pain.......
pierino June 21, 2018
I couldn't agree more about the butter. Perhaps it's because I am old school but vinegar does not belong on a sandwich unless maybe part of olive salad.

bronwyncarlisle June 20, 2018
Is NOT buttering bread for sandwiches some peculiarly USA thing? Butter on the bread is something I have always taken for granted.
Barb June 22, 2018
Born and bred in the Midwest here, butter went on every sandwich. It is not only wonderful, but keeps the bread from getting soggy if you're packing it for later. I don't understand which Americans don't butter their sandwiches.
Outi July 20, 2018
I’ve lived in various places on the East Coast (Massachusetts – Florida) for nearly 30 years and I have yet to see a buttered sandwich. It’s mayo and/or mustard all the way. I grew up in Europe so most often I butter but it depends on the sandwich fillings.
Ron S. June 16, 2018
Oh, by the way......only French butter will do.. Beurre d'Isigny Butter
Ron S. June 16, 2018
Seriously ??? You just discovered this ??? I'm 70 years old and have been buttering my bread for ages.. This story is just a joke, right ???
Victoria C. July 21, 2018
I agree. When I read this I thought "say what?" Who doesn't butter the bread for their sandwiches? (And when I make tuna sandwiches, I add softened butter along with mayonnaise TO the tuna.)
Becki June 7, 2019
OoOohh!! I’m gonna have to try that! I’ll bet that makes amazing tuna salad!
Roberta U. June 15, 2018
From the bottom up, white bread with a thin spread of butter, sprinkled lightly with kosher salt and fresh ground black pepper; thin spread of mayo, sprinkled lightly with kosher salt and fresh ground black pepper; 2 slices of fresh tomato about 1/4" thick and patted dry and sprinkled lightly with kosher salt and fresh ground black pepper; 2 slices of crisp fried bacon broken in half; a fried egg, fried hard; 2 slices of sweet onion about 1/4" thick, sprinkled lightly with kosher salt and fresh ground black pepper; 2 slices of crisp fried bacon broken in half; lettuce, and topped with a slice of white bread that has been prepared as the first slice with butter, mayo, kosher salt and fresh ground black pepper.
Beverly August 3, 2018
Oh my!
ChefJune August 9, 2018
You're making my mouth water!
Raine S. June 14, 2018
In Great Britain, we've been buttering our 'sarnies' (sandwiches) for ages. It really does taste better.
Sadako666 June 14, 2018
One item I won't give up. The French are right and some of us already knew it.
VTboarder June 14, 2018
I have been spreading butter on sandwiches for many years. A roast beef sandwich with butter becomes exquisite. The butter keeps the wet ingredients from soaking the bread, while adding the great taste of butter. It is elementary but is not and American ‘thing’. It should be...