How to build the ideal holiday leftovers sandwich, according to food professionals

Some surprise answers include avocado, sharp cheddar and shredded lettuce

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Food Editor

Published November 27, 2020 2:00PM (EST)

Leftover Roast Turkey Sandwich with Lettuce, Tomato and Cranberry Sauce on Ciabatta Bun
 (Getty Images)
Leftover Roast Turkey Sandwich with Lettuce, Tomato and Cranberry Sauce on Ciabatta Bun (Getty Images)

For days after Thanksgiving, my childhood refrigerator — which had been meticulously cleared out the week before — was stacked with neat, Tupperware containers filled with leftovers: pounds of shredded turkey, at least two containers of each of the sides, jiggly slices of canned cranberry sauce on plates that had been tightly wrapped with plastic. 

And during this unprecedented holiday season, where many people are downsizing their Thanksgiving celebrations, a lot of home cooks are going to be staring down the same sight as lots of leftovers are likely going to be a given. 

Depending on your outlook, this can be kind of a downer ("Ugh, turkey again?"), but I truly believe that there is nothing more satisfying than a perfect leftovers sandwich, piled onto slices of toasty bread — and a lot of food professionals agree. 

I spoke with some of them about what, in their mind, makes the perfect sandwich and how they perk up second-day (and third and fourth-day) turkey in their own kitchens. 

The bread

You have several options here, depending on your mood. There are your leftover Parker House or Hawaiian rolls and biscuits. Basic, sliced white bread or rustic wheat are classic choices, while Casey Corn, a chef and food anthropologist, says that sourdough from Lodge Bread Company in Los Angeles is her go-to. 

My personal favorite (and food writer Liz Vaknin Yellinek backs me up on this) is slightly eggy, sweet challah. Regardless of what you choose, toasting your bread or buns — even if just lightly — is mandatory. It helps your sandwich hold up to layers and layers of toppings. 

The leftovers

Alright, so turkey is a given. But then it's all decisions, decisions. First up, I'm all about a carbs-on-carbs sandwich. Mashed potatoes, smashed yams, stuffing, macaroni and cheese — pile it on. Cranberry sauce is a must to add a little tartness and acid, as is gravy for a hit of fat and umami (plus some much-needed moisture for that day-old turkey). 

The greens 

Listen, your Thanksgiving plate can be as beige as you want, but greens add two things that leftover sandwiches desperately need: texture and freshness. Arugula adds a nice peppery bite. Kale and spinach both add a hearty crunch. Minced brussels are a seasonal choice. Want a wildcard option? Shredded iceberg lettuce. 

Food writer Jennifer Nichols Graue points to Sacks Sandwich Shop in Phoenix, which serves the Improv sandwich — their Thanksgiving leftover sandwich topped with shredded lettuce — year round. "It added texture and crunch to an otherwise pretty mushy sandwich," she said. "Not that the mushy was bad, the lettuce just made the sandwich more interesting." 

The condiments and seasonings

Good mayonnaise — living in the South, that means Duke's — can take a sandwich from good to great. You can also take a page from Sohla El-Waylly's book and make cranberry mayo using your leftover cranberry sauce. Stone ground mustard provides a nice hit of acidity and subtle spice, a flavor that's typically lacking on most Thanksgiving plates. 

Count this as an opportunity to bring out one of those condiments that have been sitting, unused, in your refrigerator or pantry. The more extravagant, the better. Think fancy jams or fruit butters, hot honey, calabrian chili oil or chutneys. 

Also, a little something briny wouldn't be amiss. According to Lindsay Christians, the food editor of The Capital Times, "pickles are compulsory." 

Whatever you do, don't forget to season each element of your sandwich to taste. A little salt and pepper (and maybe some olive oil and vinegar) go a long way. 

The extras 

When asking food professionals about what kinds of "extras" they've taken to putting on their leftovers sandwiches, there were three overwhelming answers: cheese, bacon and avocado. This kind of pushes the sandwich into "leftovers club" territory, which admittedly I don't mind. 

Casey Corn swears by sharp cheddar and avocado; food writer Anita Crotty goes with swiss and mashed avocado, while fellow writer Liora Ipsum goes classic with brie. "Victuals" author Ronni Lundy points to the Fig-get About It sandwich from Pig & Grits in Burnsville, N.C. as an ideal example.

"[It's made] with thick slices of their house-smoked turkey, bacon, fig jam, thinly sliced fresh pears and spinach on toasted whole grain bread that is utterly fantastic," she said. 

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Ashlie D. Stevens is Salon's food editor. She is also an award-winning radio producer, editor and features writer — with a special emphasis on food, culture and subculture. Her writing has appeared in and on The Atlantic, National Geographic’s “The Plate,” Eater, VICE, Slate, Salon, The Bitter Southerner and Chicago Magazine, while her audio work has appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered and Here & Now, as well as APM’s Marketplace. She is based in Chicago.

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