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:
“My grandmother (Norwegian decent) would make a number of sandwiches, Mayo or butter gracing her homemade "Gramma buns" with a selection of ham, cheese, perhaps chicken. There was always choice. It was the first I'd had butter as a spread for a sandwich, perhaps the only, until I traveled outside the US. May be easier to ask what isn't good with butter. People put it in coffee, sky's the limit.”
— Elizabeth F.

“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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Valerio is a freelance food writer, editor, researcher and cook. He grew up in his parent's Italian restaurants covered in pizza flour and drinking a Shirley Temple a day. Since, he's worked as a cheesemonger in New York City and a paella instructor in Barcelona. He now lives in Berlin, Germany where he's most likely to be found eating shawarma.


Jeff T. July 22, 2019
Every Friday I go to the Copley Farmers market here in Boston, Why ? Well of course getting fresh produce but more importantly it's the Ham and Cheese from Iggy's bread. A small baguette, Niman Ranch Ham and Gruyere cheese. The one ingredient that takes it over the top, European style cultured butter. It's my summer addiction. It takes me back to the small cafe near an apartment we rented in Paris a number of years ago. Sandwiches with a smear of butter and a carafe of Rose. Heaven in the afternoon.
Laurie V. July 21, 2019
I agree also! I own a small European style cafe/bakery. Since opening (10 years) every panini has a very light coating of a compound herb butter on both Slices of bread. Only time I don't is if there is goat cheese or Boursin. Not only does it enhance the fillers, it adds a bit of moisture. Win win!!!
Linda S. July 20, 2019
I agree whole heartedly with butter on sandwiches. But then again, I consider butter a food group...and easily one of my favorites.
Karen R. July 20, 2019
I think all of the diet trends over the years that make butter the bad guy have always been wrong. I stand with the late great Julia Child who was a champion of good butter! Back in the 70's I had a school trip to Paris for April vacation. That was the first time I ever had one of the most delicious sandwiches--fresh baguette spread with sweet butter and ham. No cheese. To this day, it is still my favorite! As a kid, my mom (of Scandinavian and French descent) always used butter on sandwiches, regardless of what type. My second favorite sandwich? Cold homemade meatloaf on buttered soft wholegrain sandwich bread with a little ketchup. And for breakfast, a crunchy toasted English muffin with butter AND peanut butter (and maybe a drizzle of honey on top...)
Lindie July 20, 2019
That reminds me. In my lunch box (1965) : butter, peanut butter and Lyle's Golden Syrup. Has a picture of a lion on the tin and we can still buy it here.
Lindie July 20, 2019
In South Africa we grew up with butter on our bread. When it became expensive many people settled for margarine (yuck). A buttered sandwich, with apricot jam and sharp cheddar is a local favourite. I was taught to always make sure that the corners of the bread were buttered properly otherwise the dry corners would curl up, making the sandwich unattractive and unappetising. Luckily butter has become a bit cheaper now. I would rather have nothing than margarine on my bread. I do sometimes use baking (hard) margarine for baking, only beause Mary Berry said it was ok!
Susan July 19, 2019
Hmmm, let me see, butter on your sandwich bread? Everything old is new again! Lol, I grew up in the 50’s and 60’s ( in Quebec with Newfoundland parents) I don’t think I ever saw a sandwich without butter ever! I stopped doing it because, well, too much fat! I’d rather have much more mayo ( homemade) on my bread, thank you!
Elizabeth F. July 19, 2019
It's raised eyebrows from other people, but at some point in my childhood I became enamoured of a toasted English muffin, butter on one side, peanut butter on the other. Crunchy, melty, gooey deliciousness. Still enjoy them when I have English muffins around.
Another delight is peanut butter and miracle whip, that almost sweet tangy with salty yumminess. Regular bread of preferred type, no need to toast.

My grandmother (Norwegian decent) would make a number of sandwiches, Mayo or butter gracing her homemade "Gramma buns" with a selection of ham, cheese, perhaps chicken. There was always choice. It was the first I'd had butter as a spread for a sandwich, perhaps the only, until I traveled outside the US.

May be easier to ask what isn't good with butter. People put it in coffee, sky's the limit.
miriam S. July 19, 2019
I have been buttering sandwiches....forever or so it seems. I use Kerry's Irish butter. It comes in a small tub and it is a softer butter and very easy to spread.
Laurence T. July 19, 2019
Absolutely!! I butter everything....even if peanut butter is going on it. The only sandwich I do not butter is a Niçoise salad sandwich...that gets good oil and garlic
Mimi B. July 19, 2019
That’s why either jambon cuit (cooked ham) and prosciutto (cured ham) in a baguette are not complete without good unsalted European butter! 😍😍
conni July 19, 2019
My cookbook collection includes a modest volume of lunches to pack for war workers during World War II. The sandwich instructions included smearing margarine/butter on the bread for all the sandwiches.
Caperteewaratah July 19, 2019

When margarine came out in my grandmother tried to trick me by cutting it into the shape of butter as it comes wrapped up in paper. It didn't food me - the color was wrong the texture wrong, and the taste - just awful - I told her it wasn't butter and I didn't want it on my sandwiches. I would not eat it if you paid me and if I buy a sandwich or wrap when out ask them not to put it on.
In Australia butter is affordable and good quality. I keep mine in a container on the bench other than when it is hot weather so always ready to spread or use in cooking. Many people use margarine or so called soft butter due to butter being too hard or melting qualities. I would never eat margarine a hydrogenated vegetable oil tainted with colors and chemicals - an unhealthy product, and bad tasting.
I use butter for spreading with honey or jam and when available spread avocado on wraps or bread for a savoury sandwich. Mayonnaise in Australia is used for savoury sandwiches with salad but can't imagine it with sweet marmalade or honey.
Butter is a great spread - fat carries flavour and the salted butters make a good base on a sandwich and help prevent the bread absorbing moisture from salads and meats.
There is no substitute for butter and its smooth delicious flavour - and France is not the only place its eaten on sandwiches.
Jacquie July 19, 2019
As a child, when my mother wasn't home I made sandwiches for my dad, PEANUT BUTTER.
He always wanted them buttered.
sue July 19, 2019
How else do you stop them from sticking to the roof of your mouth? :-)
My dad took two sandwiches, a thermos of coffee, and a piece of fruit to work in his lunch box every day. The sandwiches were on white bread from the Viking Bakery, which delivered to loaves to our house in a big blue and yellow truck every Saturday. The sandwiches always had real butter on the bread, one sandwich with ham, and one sandwich with cheese. Never did the ham and cheese mix.
He also ate the same breakfast everyday for 70+ years.
Melissa July 19, 2019
For the last few years, I’ve been making beef bone broth in a slow cooker. It simmers for 2 days with salt, pepper, apple cider vinegar, a garní made of thyme, rosemary and bay leaf. After it cools, I skim the marrow fat from the top and place it in a jar. I spread it on a ciabatta (sprinkled with sea salt & roasted garlic). It’s delish as an alternative to unsalted Plugra or Kerrygold when I have it on hand.
Jean July 19, 2019
Being a kid in a military family that moved all around the States, all we had was margarine. It wasn't until we went to Ethiopia for 2 years that we had butter in our house. Oh my, did I fall in love with European style butter. I buy the best I can find at our grocery store. Nothing like butter and PB on good bread.
Jean July 19, 2019
Being a kid in a military family, I n
Renee July 19, 2019
The first time I had butter, instead of mayo or mustard on a sandwich was during an artist painting trip to France. We were staying at the and had a ham and cheese sandwich with butter. It was excellent! I don’t know why I haven’t had one that way since. Must do this soon. Thanks for this article.
Carol July 19, 2019
Reading about the butter in sandwiches reminded me of a sandwich I first tried in the dorm in nursing school about 50 years ago. One of my classmates said that her family always ate thin sliced roast beef with butter and thin sliced sweet pickles. I have eaten my roast beef sandwiches that way since! I believe that she was of French heritage.
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:-)