If You're Making a Tomato Sandwich Fancy, You're Doing It Wrong
The best summer tomato sandwich is simple, sloppy, and great.
A tomato sandwich is one of the great, easy meals of summer. It's perfect when tomatoes are at their peak, and barely need any help to be unbelievably delicious. It's as easy and comforting as a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, only seasonal. You only need three ingredients, five if you count salt and pepper: tomatoes, mayonnaise, and white bread.
It looks like there isn't much there that can go wrong! Tomato sandwiches are very forgiving in some ways—after all it's just spreading mayo on two slices of bread, adding as much sliced tomato as you want, seasoning it to your liking, then smushing it together and eating it. In my opinion, the thing that goes wrong with tomato sandwiches is when people try to get too fancy with the whole operation. It's totally fine if you want to make a tomato sandwich that involves a freshly made aioli, or include a bunch of herbs, or otherwise modify the classic. But at it's heart, that's a different meal altogether than the classic Southern tomato sandwich.
For such sandwiches, it's hard to say that there are "rules" really, but here are a few tips to recreate a classic tomato sandwich.
Save the Fancy Bread for Something Else
A great crusty loaf of bread is useful for all kinds of things, but here, it's not what you want. Part of the joy of a classic tomato sandwich is it's sloppiness. You eat it over the sink, or outdoors, the juice from the tomato running out on your hands as you take bites. The best bread for this application is cheap, fluffy white sandwich bread in the Wonderbread family. My personal favorite is Sunbeam, but whatever you have around will work! Go for squishy and soft, not crusty and chewy.
Jarred Mayo Only, Please
Homemade mayonnaise is wonderful. So are all its variations, like a garlic aioli, or a mayonnaise-based cider dressing. But you don't need to do all that work for a tomato sandwich. The mayo is there to help seal in some of the tomato juices, and you don't need all that much of it, nor does it need to be the next great mayonnaise. Use what you have, or pick up whatever looks good in the supermarket. Duke's is a favorite, but hard to find outside the South, so Hellman's or Kraft or whateveer store brand you like will work just the same.
Use Great Tomatoes
Of all the ingredients of a tomato sandwich, the most impoortant is the tomato. This is where you should focus your attention if you're looking to make sure an ingredient is right. Get the best, freshest tomatoes you can. Right off the vine, warm from the sun, growing in your yard is ideal, but of course, we don't all have that. Just get the best, ripest tomato that you can. Heirloom is good. Nice-looking ones from the grocery store work too. But avoid anything that looks just OK, or save those for making sauce. There's a reason that tomato sandwiches are a thing in the summer, when tomatoes are at their best, and not the winter, when they can more often get mealy and watery.
Don't Toast the Bread
Toasting the bread makes sense in most sandwich situations! But in this one, when the squishiness of the bread is part of the whole sandwich plan, it throws the whole texture off. You can't as easily smush the tomato with crispier bread. If you love it, and you want to, I'm not going to come to your house and knock the toaster out of your hand. But for the textural excellence of a tomato sandwich, you definitely don't need to.
Salt and Pepper Only, But a Lot of Each
You may be tempted to reach for the thyme, or the parsley. You might be into some red pepper flakes. That's all completely fine! But you don't need 'em. All you need is salt and pepper. But because it's such a simple sandwich, you're going to want to make sure to really season the tomato to your liking. Try taking a slice that's not going to the sandwich and adding salt and pepper, tasting it until the flavor pops. That's how much you'll want.