Packing a picnic is something of an art, but there’s actually a wide range of food you can bring, from summer rolls and chopped salads to classic cold fried chicken. Sandwiches are a time-honored tradition—but they don’t have to be the thin, soggy specimens you may recall fishing out of coolers and lunch boxes of yore. Hearty pressed sandwiches (like the famous muffuletta) are the perfect picnic meal, and are easy to make ahead a full day before.
We’re not talking about hot pressed panini here; those are obviously delicious, but not exactly ideal picnic food since they’re best eaten warm. We’re talking cold creations like New Orleans’ signature aforementioned muffuletta or shooter’s sandwiches, which got their name from their role as a traditional English hunting lunch, tucked into saddlebags and taken along. These are big sandwiches, with layers of meat, cheese, and other ingredients packed between—or inside of—sturdy bread and then weighted down overnight, so they’re compressed enough to stay together, but still thick and full of flavor, moisture, and pleasant textures. You can vary the components any way you wish, but here are some basic pointers on their successful construction.
This is of key importance, as it’s literally what holds it all together. Choose a rustic, unsliced bakery loaf, something with a fairly dense crumb and sturdy crust, like ciabatta, a thick focaccia, or any hearty country-style loaf (and don’t overlook the flavored loaves, like rosemary, roasted garlic, or black olive, which can add another layer of deliciousness). The bread can be round or square or oblong, as you please, but it should have a relatively flat, even shape. Baguettes work too, as do denser, harder-crusted rolls, for smaller-format sandwiches.
You can simply slice your loaf or roll in half, or—especially if you’re making one big sandwich to feed a crowd—carve off the top, sort of like you would with a pumpkin, not slicing straight across, but cutting down and into the loaf to excise a piece of the top rather than cutting off the entire thing. Once you’ve removed this lid, scoop out a good portion of the bread inside the base (then save it for making croutons or bread crumbs). Once you layer your fillings inside the hollow and replace the lid, you’ll have a completely enclosed loaf, which makes it extra secure as far as potential spillage of ingredients out of the sides. These illustrated steps will help guide you through the process.
Meat: Italian cold cuts and other high-quality deli meats work well, but try leftover roasted turkey or pork, thinly sliced steak, shredded rotisserie chicken, or oil-packed tuna too. Marinated roasted tofu, seitan, and other meat substitutes are fair game for vegetarians who want a more substantial sandwich.
Veggies: Super juicy fresh tomatoes can get a little soggy, but oil-packed sundried tomatoes or tomato jam or chutney are great, as are roasted red peppers, and roasted vegetables of all stripes. Raw peppers and onions can lend crunch, as can pickles, and flavorful greens, as long as they’re not too delicate, add a fresh note. Peppery arugula is a good pick, but this is no place for iceberg. Herbs like basil are great additions too, but layer any greens in between drier ingredients (like meat and cheese), so they don’t get slimy pressed against wetter condiments or veggies.
Cheese: Pile on slices of whatever you like. Cheddar, provolone, gouda, swiss, are all delicious, as is softer cheese like blue cheese, fresh mozzarella, brie, or cream cheese.
Condiments: Fancy mustard; flavored mayo (garlic, harissa, herbs, crumbled bacon); pesto; chopped olive salad; fruit chutney—pick whatever combinations you like, but be sure to schmear something on the bread, to add flavor and make sure it’s not too dry. You can brush a little grassy or fruity olive oil on as well to serve the same dual purpose—but don’t put anything too wet right against the bread, lest it get soggy. Some moisture soaking in is good, but a flood of liquid threatens the whole thing. If you think your bread isn’t quite sturdy enough, you can also spread a thin layer of butter on the cut sides, for a moisture barrier that happens to taste great too.
Once your sandwich is assembled, wrap it up in wax paper, plastic wrap, or foil, and weight it down. You can use anything heavy, from cans and cast iron skillets to books and bricks, but you want to be sure the weight is evenly distributed—if need be, clear out enough space in your fridge to fit a sheet pan in there. Lay it on top of your sandwich(es) and place several heavy objects on top of it so there’s even pressure bearing down on all portions. Leave it for at least three to four hours, but ideally overnight.
If you’re taking your sandwiches outside, be sure to bring not only a suitable knife for cutting them (a serrated bread knife is best), but a surface on which to slice them; a wooden cutting board can double as a serving tray for sides like fresh fruit once you’ve distributed the sandwiches. If you pressed individual sandwiches, you can slice them in half right through the wrapping if it’s parchment or wax paper, then peel it back as you eat to make sure things hold together. Toss some fruit, chips, salad, and drinks in your basket along with them, and you’re all set for a perfectly portable meal.
Try one of these pressed sandwiches for your next picnic (whether it’s indoors or out), camping trip, or make-ahead dinner.
Stir together some honey mustard and raspberry preserves for a great sweet-sharp contrast to rotisserie chicken, salty bacon, and rich cheddar cheese. Get the recipe.
A classic medley of Italian cold cuts like soppressata, mild mozzarella, and roasted red peppers gets a simple balsamic and oil dressing that soaks into the bread just enough. Get the recipe.
You don’t need meat to make great pressed sandwiches, as these prove with colorful layers of roasted peppers, tomatoes, and eggplant, plus fresh pesto and mozzarella. Get the recipe.
This classic French sandwich’s name translates to “wet bread” (or “bathed bread”), but it’s not actually soggy, just suffused with delicious juices from oil-packed tuna and a garlicky Dijon vinaigrette. If you’re not into fish, try a chicken version, but if you do like tuna, be sure to buy a high-quality oil-packed brand, not one in water. Get the recipe.
This is another easy rotisserie chicken pressed sandwich, but a good demonstration of how getting creative with condiments changes things up. You can make all kinds of easy aioli by simply stirring flavorful ingredients into store-bought mayo, like smoked paprika, sesame oil, mint or cilantro, or the sambal oelek called for here. Get the recipe.
Grilled vegetables make great pressed sandwiches too; we used eggplants and peppers, but virtually any grilled veggies would work, including onions, zucchini, mushrooms (stuck on a skewer so they don’t fall through the grates), and asparagus. Soft goat cheese makes a nice accompaniment to any and all of them. Get our Pressed Eggplant and Pepper Sandwich recipe.
This unusual vegan take on the pressed picnic sandwich combines fresh, juicy peaches with zucchini, cucumber, and a creamy avocado-based herb dressing. Get the recipe.