Tomato sandwiches: Consider using Japanese milk bread

By Evan Kleiman

Tomato sandwiches are the greatest seasonal treat of summer. Photo by Evan Kleiman.

Are you in thrall to the tomato sandwich? Because now’s the time to enjoy the classic Southern summer treat as tomatoes reach their sweet, juicy, summer sun-kissed glory. 

You may think: Okay, but why do I need you to tell me how to make it? Isn’t it just tomato between slices of bread? Well, yes but these simplest of dishes are also the most commonly argued over. If you’re going to use a gorgeous orb from your carefully tended garden or spend the bucks for an equivalent farmers’ market tomato, you want the sandwich to be the best it can be. For people whose culture is deeply wed to the tomato sandwich (I see you Southerners), there are only four ingredients allowed, five if you add black pepper. 

The centerpiece is a perfect, large, aromatic summer tomato; then comes the bread, soft, sometimes white, sometimes wheat and usually of the Wonder type; mayonnaise of a preferred brand; and salt. It’s amazing how many arguments can ensue over such a simple dish. Like toasting the bread, which to me destroys the entire experience that should be a synthesis of soft bread and tomato juices.

Let’s start with the tomato. I am of the belief that you need to find tomatoes as large as your slice of bread. So we’re talking beefsteak varieties. When I see sandwiches filled with many slices of small tomatoes, I know the second I would lift that to my mouth, all the tomatoes would slip out of the sandwich. Childhood me would start to cry. This is what large tomatoes wait for as they grow: a moment where their slab-like quality is in perfect harmony with purpose. 

Here are ingredients for a traditional tomato sandwich. Photo by Evan Kleiman.

Now let’s move to the bread. My one innovation, if you can call it that, is to use Japanese milk bread instead of mass-produced white bread. One of the attractions of using simple white bread for tomato sammie aficionados is that the juices of the sliced tomato meld with the gluten strands in the bread as you eat it to become one singular thing. I too love this, but Japanese milk bread (the platonic ideal of white bread) is just a touch sturdier while still retaining the essential soft fluff, which is the appeal of white bread. Also it often comes packaged in thick slices which stand up to the copious juices of that perfect beefsteak tomato you’re going to use. Thicker sliced challah is also a good choice, although you might want to trim off the sturdy crusts for this particular experience.

All tomato sandwiches rely on a healthy slathering of mayo as a rich counterpoint to the acidic tomato. You’ll hear countless Southerners extoll the perfection of Duke’s mayonnaise for its super creamy texture and extra richness. I think Kewpie mayo is perfect for a tomato sandwich. It’s made with egg yolks instead of whole eggs which is why it’s yellower and richer. It has a welcome tang from vinegar and in lieu of the MSG used in Japan for umami, the American version has yeast extract. 

I’ve recently seen lots of additions to tomato sandwiches, like bacon, avocado, or Eric Kim’s genius sprinkle of furikake. But before moving on to gild the lily as it were, I beseech you to try the classic at least once. But since many people eat two in a row, try one with the furikake and one without.