Cheese Makers Forum FAQ Equipment part 1 Equipment part 2 History

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

It is finally here, the Ultimate Reuben

The Reuben is the king of sandwiches. It isn't a meal you should have on a daily basis, but the complex mingling of flavors is in my opinion unmatched. That probably has to do with my love for fermented, cured, and transformed food. I am a big fan of transformation--taking simple, honest ingredients and turning them into something completely different.

This attitude of transformation is a little bit at odds with many people who cook nowadays who want to preserve and enhance the essence of what something already is. Most of the time that is exactly how I cook, with quality ingredients so the ingredient tastes like, well, the ingredient. How do you prepare a carrot so it really, really tastes like a carrot? How do you prepare a steak so it has a big beefy flavor that doesn't need to be hidden by sauces? Those are the kinds of questions I usually ask myself.

But the flip side is just as intriguing, flavorful, and valid. And it's also really, really hard. Many of the techniques that transform food were originally not done because people wanted to, they were done out of necessity. Produce was pickled so it would last. Meat was cured so it would last. Cheese was made so it would last. It just so happens that many of these techniques also delicious.

The reason this particular sandwich, the Reuben, has captured my attention is that it is the penultimate expression of transformation. It is much more than flour, egg, oil, cabbage, curd, and cow. Every single ingredient without exception is transformed radically from what it once was. The flour is fermented and transformed into bread. Egg yolks, oil, and chiles are emulsified into Russian dressing. Cabbage is salted and soured by naturally occurring bacteria turning into sauerkraut. Milk is curdled, innoculated with bacteria, pressed, aged, and finally emerges as cheese. Beef is cured with nitrates, spices, and smoke.

All these ingredients are then assembled into a humble sandwich. A sandwich that I have been training to make for two years, and that has used every skill I have learned while cooking for fun. To put things in perspective, here is a list of 26 of the ingredients that go into this sandwich:
  • Beef brisket
  • Black pepper
  • Cabbage
  • Caraway seeds
  • Chile sauce
  • Cornichons
  • Dark rye flour
  • Egg yolk
  • Grapeseed oil
  • Horseradish
  • Lemon juice
  • Mustard
  • Parsley
  • Raw milk
  • Rennet
  • Salt
  • Sodium Nitrite
  • Sour cream
  • Thermophillic bacteria
  • Onion
  • Water
  • White flour
  • White sugar
  • Worcestershire sauce
  • Yeast
All this for a sandwich. And that only counts ingredients that I handled, not the ingredients in some of the constituent sauces. The sections below give a small glimpse into what it takes to produce each ingredient and the steps involved in their transformation.

Swiss Cheese

The original inspiration for this blog was to document how to make a good swiss style cheese for sandwiches. It has taken 30+ tries, a couple books, and lots of failures, but the swiss going into this sandwich is superb. Home cheese makers really are hamstrung right at the beginning by not having easy access to quality milk that hasn't been over processed, tinkered with, and basically ruined for most kinds of cheese making. One of the central reasons this loaf turned out so amazingly good is it started with fantastic raw milk. That, combined with careful sanitation and aging produced a world class cheese.

There are still flaws though. The cracks and checks in the interior are not swiss eyes, they are structural problems related to not getting all the whey out during the press. This bothers me less and less nowadays. As long as there is a good rind, good texture, and good flavor, I'm not going to sweat the small stuff.

The last two techniques that had a huge difference and made this taste like swiss was adding salt via the brine not to the curd, and gently washing the curd with hot water to remove lactose. I would guess this allows the inoculation to thrive quickly, but not produce so much acid/sharpness that it no longer tastes like the style.

Swiss Cheese Recipe
  • 2 gallons raw milk
  • Thermophillic starter
  • Rennet
  • Salt for brine
Thermophillic bacteria love heat, so unlike cheddar and others inoculated with mesophillic and held at less than 100F, the milk is held at 125F for 45 minutes. Add rennet per instructions for the particular kind you have and let set for another 45 minutes. Test for clean break, then cut and press the curd.

After it has been pressed over night, it needs to be brined for 12-24 hours. Add 1 cup pickling salt to 1 gallon of cool water, stir thoroughly, then let the cheese sit in it overnight. Remove the next day, let it dry and form a rind at room temperature for 5-7 days, then cellar at 52F for one to two months.


Kraut has long vexxed me :) I have had many batches of sauerkraut that, well, just weren't sour. They tasted like salted cabbage, and I am still perplexed why the fermentation didn't start. Thankfully, this time with possibly a little luck from The Joy of Pickling I managed to turn a head of cabbage into a wonderfully sour, complex caraway kraut.

Sauerkraut Recipe

The recipe I used for this kraut is almost exactly like the Sauerkraut with Juniper Berries recipe from Joy of Pickling, but instead of juniper I used caraway.
  • 5 lbs trimmed fresh cabbage, sliced very thin
  • 3 tablespoons pickling salt
  • One heaping tablespoon caraway seeds
In a non-metal bowl or crock mix all the ingredients together, then tightly pack into a gallon sized jar. The salt will cause the cabbage to expel a lot of liquid, creating it's own brine. You want to keep the cabbage pressed down though, since any cabbage sticking out of the naturally created brine may spoil. To do this, I fill up a ziplock bag with brine (1 cup salt to 1 gallon water) and place it on top. The reason to use brine and not water is so if the bag breaks it doesn't dilute the kraut.

After a few days you will see bubbles starting to form. This means the fermentation is underway, and depending on how warm your home is will finish in 2 two 6 weeks. You can hot can the kraut afterward for 25 minutes for storage.

Russian Dressing

Basic Mayo Recipe

  • 1 egg yolk
  • 1 cup grapeseed oil
  • 1 teaspoon lemon juice
  • 1/2 teaspoon mustard
  • 2 teaspoons salt
Combine the yolk, lemon juice, mustard and salt and whip with a whisk until the yolk lightens in color. At this point add a small amount of oil and whisk until completely incorporated. Add the oil a little at a time and continue to whisk till incorporated, increasing the amount of oil as you go along. Starting out small ensures that the sauce is less likely to break. For more in depth info on mayonnaise I recommend the book Molecular Gastronomy by Herve This.

Once you have your basic mayo set, then we add the ingredients to transform this into Russian dressing.

Russian Dressing
  • Basic mayonnaise
  • 1/4 cup of chile sauce, such as Franks Hot Sauce
  • 2 tablespoons sour cream
  • 2 teaspoons minced parsley
  • 1 tablespoon minced onion
  • 1 tablespoon minced cornichons or dill pickle
  • 1 teaspoon grated horseradish
  • 1/2 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
Add these ingredients to the mayo, mix thoroughly and refrigerate for an hour or so to let the flavors meld. It is quite difficult not to immediately start eating it though, and will last for about a week in the fridge.

Rye Bread
The book that really ignited my passion for baking was actually Jacques Pepin's Complete Technique. While it is mostly a book on cooking technique, the section on baking bread was so simple, straightforward and honest. It was an inspiration that something so simple--four, water, yeast, salt--really is all it takes to bake world class bread. After that book, the next eye opener was Peter Reinhardt's Bread Bakers Apprentice. That book completely changed how I though about baking bread, and if nothing else understanding baker's percentages has become a tool that has set me free.

Rye Bread Recipe

  • 400 grams white flour
  • 100 grams dark rye flour
  • 300 grams cold water
  • 12 grams salt
  • 5 grams instant yeast
  • Caraway seeds for topping
Combine the water and yeast and let it sit for five minutes while you assemble the rest of the ingredients. Knead all the ingredients together except for the caraway seeds (unless you want seeds in the dough which is perfectly appropriate), and work the dough for fifteen minutes by hand or up to ten minutes by machine. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate over night. The refrigeration help reduce some of the grassy and bitter flavors that rye can have, while accentuating the sweeter, nuttier flavors.

The next morning, remove the dough from the fridge and ferment/proof like normal. The dough may be a little sluggish to start off with, but a two hour rise and an hour and a half proof should be sufficient. Bake at 450F for 50 minutes on a pizza or bread stone in an oven that has been preheated for at least a half an hour.


Initially I was going to make a pastrami similar to the one in the book Charcuterie by Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn, but in the end the recipe was changed around due to constraints I had at the time.

Pastrami Recipe
  • 1 1/2 cups kosher salt
  • 1 1/2 ounces pink salt
  • 2 tablespoons pickling spice
  • 1 tablespoon white sugar
  • 2 tablespoons liquid smoke (yes it is cheating, but my smoker burned down :D)
  • One 5-pound beef brisket, fat cap removed
  • 4 tablespoons black pepper
Unfortunately when I made the pastrami I was out of coriander seeds, and traditional pastrami is crusted with coriander and black pepper. This batch because of that omission only had black pepper.

Combine all the spices, salt, sugar and liquid smoke. Using your hand, coat the mixture over the entire brisket making sure to get a thin, even coating. If there is left over rub that is generally okay. Place the brisket in a ziplock bag large enough to hold it (you can usually find several gallon bags what work perfect for this), and refrigerate for four days.

On the fourth or fifth day, fire up a charcoal grill or smoker. If you are using a grill, you want to sear both sides quickly then finish it off in the oven at 220F for three hours. If you have a smoker then you probably know how to smoke brisket. Low and slow for five+ hours at 220F.

After it has finished cooking, refrigerate over night. The next day after it has firmed up a bit, using a very sharp knight slice thinly either against the grain or on a bias. For the best sandwiches you need a bit of fat to balance the other flavors, so do not trim this off.

Final Assembly

Take two slices of rye bread and butter one side of each with home made butter, which I'm sure you have if you've gone to this much trouble already. Place the buttered sides on a griddle on medium low heat. Coat one side with an even layer of Russian dressing, lay two slices of swiss cheese on the dressed side, then place a healthy dose of drained sauerkraut on the cheese.

Place your desired amount of pastrami (1/4 pound or so) in a microwavable bowl with one tablespoon of water, place a lid on it, and microwave for 20 seconds. We want the pastrami steamed and fairly hot, and ready to fall apart. Drain the pastrami if needed and place on the second piece of bread. When the cheese has started to melt and bind to the kraut, assemble the sandwich on the griddle with the kraut side on top. Keep cooking till desired doneness and color.

So, anyone want to come on over and try one of these monsters?


  1. Do you deliver? To Seattle? :)

  2. That's really amazing. The closest I've gotten was a completely homemade PBJ (well, a friend made the jam, but I've made plenty of my own). I have some corned beef in the freezer leftover from St Patty's day that's about due to be eaten - I think I'll have to follow your example.

  3. Homemade PBJ sounds delicious! My grandmother used to make the most amazing raspberry jam that was the bomb on PBJ's. I still can't make very good soft white sandwich bread though, it always comes out really crusty--which I personally like, but it isn't part of the style I'm trying to nail.

  4. Yummy! Send one up to Manitoba :)

  5. Wonderful article ... too bad you didn't make a Reuben sandwich!

    A Reuben, by definition, is made with corned beef. What we have here is a Rachel sandwich with sauerkraut (most Rachels are made with coleslaw -- honestly I can't imagine combining pastrami with sauerkraut).

    It's also generally accepted that traditional Russian dressing (as opposed to thousand island) is so named because it should include caviar.

  6. The first volley in the Reuben Wars have been fired :)

    Technically since I didn't use a coriander crust and I didn't actually smoke it, it is corned beef >:D , the Russian dressing recipe is only a few proportions away from the Zingeran's recipe (and I think they are pretty trusted as to sandwiches), and pastrami + sauerkraut is deelishus.

  7. Oh yes, one other thing, for the purposes of accuracy the next batch of Russian dressing I make will contain caviar. I have bent to your will on that issue.

  8. Ah - but if you look at historical American recipes for Russian dressing from the time the Reuban was invented (it's argued, but the earliest puts it at around 1914), the recipes contain mayonnaise and chile sauce - no caviar.

    There are articles from that time that claim that the Russians undoubtedly use smoked fish in their recipe, but not so in America.

    I'm with Jeff on the Pastrami issue - a Reuben is corned beef (even though you didn't really smoke the brisket, you kinda faked it with the liquid smoke, right?). what you've made is a Reuben/Rachel hybrid. A Raben or Reuchel, I suppose.

    Though either way, it's undoubtedly delicious sounding!

    Next time I expect homemade cornichon and liquid smoke!

  9. Haha, love it Kenji. I am planning a new smoker so in the next couple months it should be up and running. The last one was an electric unit that caught fire on my birthday (which was a date already cursed) so it has been relegated to the scrap heap.

    Fresh cornichons actually intimidate me more, since cucumbers here in Oregon grow so fast I really don't know if I could catch enough of them at the right time pickles.

  10. I've only made fresh cornichons once, and it was a few summers back when I had a few cucumber plants in my garden. I went out every morning and kept careful track of every blossom so that I could catch the cukes when they were only a couple days old. Over the course of a couple weeks I had about a quart of them off of two plants.

    It worked, but you're right - it was a big effort. And cleaning the fuzz and prickers off all of those little suckers isn't too fun either.

    I didn't do a scientific test, but in the end I think that cucumber plant produced more than an average number of cucumbers. Perhaps culling the small ones at the beginning of the season causes it to go into overproduction towards the end of the season. We made cornichon from the tiny ones, dills from the midsize, and B&B's from the large ones at the end of the summer and still had plenty leftover to eat fresh when the tomatoes came around.


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