Much like hot dogs and mustard, cereal and milk, pasta and Parmesan, a sandwich would be incomplete without its bread. A sandwich without slices of sourdough or buttery buns is merely a charcuterie board, and no disrespect to charcuterie boards, but can you eat a charcuterie board in one hand while walking down the street? Can you throw a charcuterie board in your bag to eat later? Can you stuff your face with a charcuterie board right before getting on a plane? None of these things would be possible without bread enrobing a stack of toppings, and there are as many kinds of sandwich breads as there are sandwich styles. Here, an incomplete but highly scientific list categorizing some of the best and the brightest breads without which our most beloved sandwiches would be nothing but a lost pile of meats, cheeses, and spreads.
Breads that are handheld and complete (as in, they don’t need to be divvied up and are minimally sliced — and likely in advance, at that) are a beautiful thing. This portability makes rolls friendly to all kinds of sandwiches, though if we had to pick one, a bacon, egg, and cheese on a roll is the height of the form.
Hoagie/sub rolls: Whether you call it a hoagie, hero, or sub, the long, football-shaped roll that encloses quadruple-meat and cheese sandwiches and herby banh mi is only as good as its ratio of crusty exterior to light interior. Expect the outside of a hoagie roll to shatter when chomped into; if it doesn’t, you’re dealing with a poor imitation.
Hawaiian rolls: A little sweet, a lot fluffy, and sized for sliders of all kinds (pulled pork or jackfruit, the best complements to Hawaiian rolls perhaps ever), Hawaiian rolls are so delightful that they can be enjoyed with even just a little butter. Don’t mess with any brand but King’s Hawaiian — the packaging and the rolls’ tearing-apart function is like the madeleine of small sandwiches.
Lobster roll rolls: Unlike a traditional hot dog roll, a lobster roll roll is sliced down the center in order to pack in as much juicy mayo-drenched, chive-topped lobster as humanly possible. One of the particular highlights of the lobster roll bun is the fact that it’s toasted in butter to add a little something extra. Dry sandwich breads, take note.
Potato rolls: One need only take a tip from the British to know that potatoes and bread are a dream combination — there are few greater sandwiches than the chip butty, or French fries on white bread — so the potato roll in its golden yellow glory is one of the top 10 breads of all time, even when eaten alone with a little bit of butter and honey. Burgers, fried chicken, pulled pork, and more would be nothing without this heavenly, delicate-textured roll.
Super-deluxe sandwich breads
Mere decades ago, it was practically unheard of to eat a sandwich on anything but a piece of presliced, prepackaged sandwich bread. Now, the options for artisan sandwich bread are overwhelming, to the point that thick-cut slices of sourdough and chewy focaccia have almost become the gold standard. Almost.
Focaccia: If you eat a sandwich made with focaccia bread, be warned: Your hands will stay oily for hours after. The trade-off is worth it, though, when your sandwich bread is both fluffy and crispy, chewy and unctuous. The speckled crunchy salt on top — and if you’re lucky, rosemary or olives or red onions — provides so much extra flavor that the sandwiched part of the sandwich doesn’t always seem necessary.
Ciabatta: Meaning “slipper” in Italian, ciabatta is actually a relatively recent invention, despite its old-world feel. This bread had a big heyday in the ’90s, when fast-casual restaurants like Panera Bread started to use it as their go-to “fancy” bread. When ciabatta’s good, though, it’s good. Drizzled with olive oil and sandwiching caprese salad ingredients, it earns its elevated reputation.
Sourdough: Ah, sourdough. What a few years it’s had. The legions of home bakers who nurtured their sourdough starters during the pandemic did so to the benefit of sandwiches everywhere. Thick chewy slices (the interior texture of which is sometimes called “custardy” in the biz) with caramelized crusts complement rich sandwich fillings while assuming a starring role in their own right. Beware of the too-holey sourdough, though: Your toppings will fall right through.
Baguettes: For centuries, baguettes have dominated the fancy sandwich game with their crunchy crusts and sandwich-friendly shape. Going big? Layer everything on one baguette — the national bread of France — or cut it in half to make a sandwich to share. Do as the French do and use butter as your base layer.
At a certain point in history, sliced bread was the best thing since sliced bread, and while certain breads seem to have receded into the background while artisan breads have taken their place, there are certain sandwiches that simply won’t do on anything else. Plus, the math says that if you cut a sandwich into two triangles rather than rectangles, you get more sandwich. It’s true.
Rye caraway bread: Pastrami, corned beef, or a little fried salami are best friends with rye caraway bread. Its sweet-and-sour flavor brings out the savoriness in every topping, and when you find yourself in a Jewish deli, accept no substitutes. (Take home a loaf of challah, though.) The shape of sliced deli rye is also extremely pleasing: oval and wide, a true great.
White bread: A sandwich bread from a throwback era, prepackaged white bread still plays a noble role in the sandwich pantheon. Eat it with mayonnaise, tomato, and a little salt; or peanut butter and jelly; or ham, cheese, and brown mustard. Do you hate the curved shape of its slices, or prefer a slightly thinner crust? A sharp-edged Pullman loaf-style bread will suit your sandwich best.
Wheat bread: Packaged wheat bread is a little sweet, a little hearty, and not so over-the-top that it would drown out anything you put on top of it. That’s why it’s a great choice for a turkey club, where it’s a wholemeal foil for all that meat, and for egg salad, to cut some of the richness. It also has a nice yeasty fermented flavor, which means grilled cheeses take to it well.
Anybody will tell you that a sandwich for breakfast is just as good as a sandwich for lunch, and though the options for breakfast sandwiches are slightly fewer, a BEC can stand up to a tuna melt any day of the week. The world is blessed to have as many sandwich bread options for breakfast as it does for lunch, and what’s more, most all breakfast sandwich breads show up at lunch just as ready for battle.
English muffins: Only a select few sandwich breads can claim to have a signature as twee and instantly recognizable as the English muffin’s nooks and crannies. This, of course, is also what makes the English muffin, in all its cornmeal-surfaced glory, so beloved. For a breakfast sandwich, you can hardly do better than a toasted English muffin, when those nooks and crannies ooze with melted butter.
Milk bread: The lightest, fluffiest, most luscious bread in the entire world, milk bread is much more than just a slice of toast in the morning. It makes eggs taste more exciting, a layer of sweetened condensed milk more divine, and jam instantly better, no matter the flavor. It also doesn’t hurt that it has an interior that peels like cotton candy, and a signature swirl on its side that offers just the right dose of whimsy.
Bagel: Though the jury is still out on how to properly construct a bagel sandwich (is a hefty scoop of tuna and enough shredded lettuce to fill a small backpack really the right move for a sphere of bread with a hole in the center?), there is no doubt that this famously humble bread is an ideal choice for breakfast and lunch, no matter how you top it. There are dozens of ways to both eat and bake a bagel, from the smaller Montreal styles to the enormous, doughy Brooklyn ones. What is consistent, however, is the unparalleled ability of a bagel sandwich to soak up a hangover.
Kaiser rolls: Best known for their storied appearance in New York City deli breakfast sandwiches, Kaiser rolls have the advantage of being light and airy on the inside and crusty on the outside. Poppy and sesame seeds add intrigue, further enhancing the Kaiser’s perfection as a companion to crispy bacon and melty American cheese.
Recognizable for their ’70s-era packaging, seedy textures, dark flours, and broad gestures toward personal wellness, hippie health breads remind us that life is more than a buttered roll. They may not always be the most delicious or decadent option, but they can still hit the spot when you’re feeling an urge to go back to the land.
Fitness bread: If you look closely at the package for Fitness Bread, you will see a photo of a woman in a crop top jogging joyously toward you. The message this is meant to convey is, “If you eat this [brick-like, very brown] bread, you could look like her.” Whether or not that is true is a subject for another time, but at the very least you’ll feel extremely and uncomfortably full after one slice.
Those green wraps you get with airport sandwiches: Is a wrap bread? That is highly debatable, but green, herb-flecked wraps are so ubiquitous that they must be addressed. Picking up a hummus, carrot, and bean sprout sandwich at the airport before a flight? Get ready for Mr. Green. The flavor of these wraps is so subtle that it raises the question: Is all of this just food coloring? Try a red sundried tomato wrap if you’re feeling nostalgic for the ’90s.
Ezekiel sandwich bread: If you’re looking for super-seedy, exceedingly healthy, and nutrient-dense sandwich bread, look no further than Ezekiel Sprouted Grain Bread. Are you also looking for some Bible verses to read while eating your sandwich? Well then, you’re in luck. “Take wheat and barley, beans and lentils, millet and spelt, put them in a storage jar and use them to make bread for yourself,” quoth Ezekiel 4:9 on the bread’s packaging. And if you don’t feel like making bread, well, that’s what the Ezekiel is for.
In a category all its own, pita is celebrated for its accommodating pocket and the fun activity of tearing it open while it’s still hot. Find a hearty enough pita and there’s no limit to the number of ingredients you can stuff it with; shawarma and falafel are only the beginning. On its own, it goes well with soups, salads, and everything in between.
Malachy Egan is a Philadelphia-based illustrator who enjoys bringing warmth and whimsy to weird or surreal scenes.