The BLT. Photo by Donna Turner Ruhlman.

Last week, while I stood by my Big Green Egg, smoking a big fat pork belly (for bacon) and two fat beef briskets (for pastrami), I couldn’t help but think how am I going to eat this delicious food? It was a warm, sunny day and I could actually smell the tomato vines behind me, so I thought, bacon and tomato, mmm. Then I remembered the wonderful BLT from Scratch challenge, and the inspirational response to it. Hard to believe it was three years ago. Here it is again, and I assure you, there is no finer sandwich than one that takes months to prepare! Here’s the link to the winners. The above, with that fabulous home-cured slab of bacon, was one of the best of my life.

My BLT From Scratch

Originally posted on September 21, 2009

I don’t think I’ve had more fun making a sandwich than for the BLT-from-Scratch Challenge. And it wasn’t the from-scratch part. I do this stuff all the time—the from-scratch fun was sharing it with so many people and hearing your stories. That I don’t do all the time. But the coolest part of this cooking challenge was how amazing the sandwich turned out to be.

I received dozens of entries in all forms, classic, reinterpreted, vegetarian. Every one of them inspiring. Donna will be reviewing all the photographs this week to choose this winner. I will be determining the winners of “best overall,” “best vegetarian or vegan,” and “best reinterpretation.” All winners will be announced next Monday.

Donna and I made and photographed three different sandwiches, and they were all, well, not just fantastic. They were so beyond the realm of what normally stands in for a BLT, it made me want to reconsider every classic for what it might be. That was what was so surprising for me about this whole challenge.

These BLTs were some of the most meaty, delicious sandwiches I’ve ever eaten. With the mayo, the explosively juicy tomatoes still warm from the sun, thick succulent tender slabs of cured pork belly—these were BLTs times ten times ten. Pork fat, tomato juices, and mayo dripping down the chin. They were so good and so surprising, had I served one to you, you might not have known you were even eating a BLT.

The key here is that the sandwiches featured the pork belly—the meat was thicker than the bread. This is really a pork belly sandwich, garnished with L, T, and mayo.

Here’s the critical cooking point for using bacon this thick in a sandwich. If you were simply to cook the bacon in a pan, it would be difficult to make it tender enough to eat without yanking it all out of the sandwich. Belly is a well-worked muscle that needs tenderizing. Traditional bacon is tender because it’s sliced so thin. The way to make slabs of bacon tender is through long gentle moist cooking.

I wrapped the slabs in foil, drizzling a little water over them to make sure it would be steamy inside the foil, and cooked them in a 200° oven for 3 or 4 hours. I let them cool and reheated them to make the sandwich. Some I reheated on the grill over hot coals to get some smokiness, some I sauteed in a pan. The belly in the sandwich shown here (n.b. I did not grow the potatoes or harvest the salt for the chips), I braised till tender, then fried. Slow-cooking, cooling, and reheating is a fabulous way to serve belly.

I want to do one more BLT from scratch, featuring not the belly, but the tomato—a green tomato sandwich garnished with strips of bacon, lettuce, and a spicy mayo. I may even dredge the tomato in cornmeal as opposed to my preferred panko.

It turns out the BLT-from-Scratch Challenge has been just as much a thought experiment as a cooking challenge. And for me that’s some of the funnest cooking there is.

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© 2012 Michael Ruhlman. Photo © 2012 Donna Turner-Ruhlman. All rights reserved.