You deserve a fancy PB&J: How to turn a lunchbox staple into a truly craveable treat

Bring on the artisan peanut butters, pretzel buns and slices of fresh fruit

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Food Editor

Published April 25, 2022 7:15PM (EDT)

Peanut butter and jelly smears (Getty Images/Maren Caruso)
Peanut butter and jelly smears (Getty Images/Maren Caruso)

Weekday Plants is a weekly recipe column from Salon Food that centers on easy-to-make and adaptable vegan meals.

There's a meme that has floated around online for about five years in which a photograph of a plain peanut butter and jelly sandwich is captioned with the following sentence: "Well chef, I made a puréed nut spread with a grape relish reduction paired with a brioche bun." 

It is, of course, a play on the now-cliché way in which contestants on programs like "Chopped" and "Top Chef" present their creations (especially ones built with everyday ingredients) to the judges. But the truth is there are few things I like more than a gourmet PB&J

I mean it. While I'll never turn down the Jif, Smucker's and white bread combination that was a cornerstone of my childhood, there's something both inherently nostalgic and indulgent about a "grown-up" version of this iconic sandwich.

Related: Let's griddle every sandwich, from ham and cheese to peanut butter and honey

Why is this excellent news for everyone? A PB&J is one of the easiest dishes to dress up or down based on your personal preferences. 

You're vegan? Great — the PB&J is a classic vegan treat. Allergic to peanuts? No biggie, just grab some cashew or sunflower butter. Can't get enough cheese in your day-to-day diet? Then add some melted brie, raclette or ricotta (cashew milk or otherwise) to the mix. 

To help get you started, here are a few simple tips to transform your PB&J from ho-hum to a truly craveable treat:

Better bread 

Don't get me wrong, I'll always have a place in my heart for the sleeves of supermarket white bread that are so soft you could probably compress the entire loaf into a ball the size of a toddler's fist. However, better bread is probably the thing that's going to make the biggest difference in pulling together a better PB&J (especially once we get to the griddling part). 

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Have fun with it! Hearty sourdough is a beautiful complement to sweet berry jams. Grain-packed loaves mimic the nuttiness of the PB. Pillowy potato bread and sturdy pretzel buns are ingenious choices. 

Get the good nut butter and jelly (or jam!) 

In Cincinnati, there's a gigantic specialty grocery store called Jungle Jim's that has an absolutely kaleidoscopic array of jams and jellies, ranging from delicate citrus marmalades to nearly-onyx plum preserves. Each one brings something different to a sandwich, so think beyond grape and strawberry the next time you hit the supermarket. Bonus if the jam you choose still has gorgeous hunks of preserved fruit in it.

Similarly, there are a ton of choices in specialty nut butters on the shelves these days. Fix and Fogg has a Smoke and Fire peanut butter made with sweet-smoked paprika, New Mexico Hatch chiles, cayenne pepper, natural manuka smoke and sea salt. Italian brand Arachidella has a crunchy peanut spread made with good-quality extra-virgin olive oil. There's something for everyone!

Extras and add-ons 

Here's another opportunity to flex your culinary creativity. Fresh fruit — especially crisp pear or apple wedges, berries and sweet banana slices — makes a great addition to your sandwich. Go old-school and add a layer of salty potato chips or crushed pretzels. Cheeses like manchego, raclette, brie or cashew-milk ricotta are unexpectedly stunning with both the peanut butter and jam. Bacon (or vegan bacon) is maybe a little over-the-top, but this is the opportunity for it. 

Griddle it 

Alright, in my quest to make the supreme fancy peanut butter and jelly sandwich, I've come across only one non-negotiable step: You have to griddle the sandwich. To borrow a line from Salon Food contributor Maggie Hennessy, "griddled sandwiches have punctuated my life like crunchy applause." Slightly warming the peanut butter and jam and crisping up the bread elevates your sandwich from a lunchbox staple to something truly special.

More sandwich recipes we love: 

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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Food Jelly Lunch Pb&j Peanut Butter Sandwiches Weekday Plants