The Reuben Project

When in the course of human events it becomes necessary to have a Reuben sandwich, a decent respect to the proper creation thereof requires that one declare the unfeasibility of procurement of ingredients or finished product from a Central Texas purveyor of delicatessen.

One afternoon's perusal of the deep freeze, I noticed a deboned shoulder of Axis deer and pondered its use. I consulted a friend who had been trudging through the newish Ruhlman/Polcyn Charcuterie book. He scanned and emailed me the recipe for corned beef and my mind started wandering, shaping a culinary project around it. Eventually, I felt compelled to build a Reuben sandwich using as many local ingredients as possible that would rival the quality of a New York deli sandwich.
The Reuben takes fresh, chewy, hopefully seeded rye bread and lays it on a buttered grill, whereon Swiss cheese is melted and warmed corned beef or pastrami is layered over a slatering of Russian dressing and crisp sauerkraut. So we have Germans, Jews, Swiss, and Russians in close proximity, though I somehow doubt the Russkies are behind something made out of mayo and ketchup. It is easy to understand why the Reuben sandwich has achieved its ubiquity. Salty from the cured meat. Sweet from the dressing. Sour from the kraut. Maybe a little hot from the pastrami's pepper. While it requires quite some poetic license to call it a "symphony of flavor", it would not be a stretch to call it, say, a chamber concerto of flavor.

For those American Jews who want to claim this as a creation of their own people, it is roughly as likely as not--kosher or kosher-style meat sandwiches don't have any dairy elements, as the mixing is strictly verboten (Deut. 14:21). However, the blurring of this proscription has been underway for several thousand years and lore from my grandparents' delicatessen confirms this... my own Zadie was known for cutting meat and cheese in succession on the same slicer and his non-Jewish patrons, thinking that the term "kosher" meant higher quality, would often ask for "kosher ham" and the like.

This rambling background leaves us no closer to the truth. I found a 1976 Craig Claiborne article with details of the two most prominent creation myths for the sandwich, each equally plausible. The headline reads "Whence The Reuben? Omaha, It Seems." I mistakenly read it as "Obama, It Seems" and was momentarily confused. I will just share the article with you instead of paraphrasing it. Frankly I don't buy the latter explanation and I'm surprised that Claiborne gives it credence. There are fundamental, irreconcilible differences between Arnold Reuben's sandwich and the modern standard.

But back to my desire to create an excellent Reuben. I knew that the kraut would take the longest and that I should start there. I visited Boggy Creek Farm early on a Wednesday morning and was quickly surrounded by an impassioned though hush-toned kraut conversation among the farmer, Larry Butler, and chefs Jesse Griffiths of Dai Due and Eric Polzer of Wink. Butler narrowed his eyes to slits and held his finger to his thumb such that only the dermal ridges of his fingerprints touched to demonstrate the desired thickness of the shredded kraut. With my cabbage I went directly to Callahan's in Southeast Austin to purchase a crock. The difficulty I met finding a crock is a commentary on the withering of a foodway and our loss of contact with the rhythms of the growing seasons.

Once the kraut was two weeks underway and producing some curious molds, I moved onto curing a lovely venison shoulder for the pastrami. Pastrami is corned beef (brisket) that has been coated in a simple spice rub, primarily finely ground black pepper, then cold-smoked. The secret ingredient for making corned beef is sodium nitrate, which has many uses. You don't need much of it for the curing solution so you may feel free to use the remainder for solid rocket propellant or blasting powder. It also has the approximate half-life of basalt, so it will keep well in the pantry. I was surprised by the resulting flavor of the corned venison... it tasted exactly like corned beef, whereby I concluded that you could probably corn a cat and it would taste roughly the same.

The correct pickle to serve with a Reuben, according to Claiborne, is a half sour. It happens to be one of my favorite foods. This is the fresh-looking, crisp, salty, garlicky, dilly kind. A very simple recipe, a fairly quick process, an ever-so-slight fermentation. Unfortunately the recipe I found on the vast dumping ground of half-assed recipes otherwise known as the internet yielded an aggressively salty pickle. I felt my entire head and upper portion of my torso pucker at the first bite. I have adjusted the recipe for your use accordingly.

I wanted a chewy, heavily seeded rye for the sandwich. This does not exist in Austin. Even the bakeries in Fredericksburg don't fill this void. The recipe I found is quite excellent, and requires a three-day potato starter. It provided a nice, subtle sour note and although I couldn't find "white" rye flour locally (you'll notice the dark color of the bread in the photos), this was probably the most outstanding element of the sandwich.

I didn't make my own Swiss cheese. I'm sorry, okay? Had I really thought of it long enough ahead of time, I would have. I did make my own mayonnaise for the Russian dressing from neighborhood-grown eggs, but I didn't make my own ketchup. After all, that's silly. What person in his right mind would make his own ketchup.

After weeks of preparation, on the final day in a flurry of activity and torrent of salivary expectancy, I baked my bread, cooked and smoked my pastrami, harvested my kraut and pickles, and assembled my sandwich. We waited until the baby was asleep, then my wife and I sat down to eat.

Was it worth it? The three weeks of planning, curing, procuring, preserving, consulting, smoking, researching, simmering, discussing, whipping, proofing, baking. Conservatively, it was the best Reuben sandwich served within a several hundred, if not several thousand mile radius on that particular evening. But what if a sandwich, say, 87% as good could have been purchased and eaten within moments of the urge for, say, 23% of the price? This is the question, yes, this is the question. Where is the point of diminishing returns when it comes to cooking and food, ingredients and effort? Some might balk at the mere mention of an economic theory in conjunction with food, but I agree that it is no moot question. In the framework of the sandwich, the doubter is correct. The endeavor was not worth the xx% improvement upon another locally-prepared Reuben. However, in the framework of my life, the Reuben project was what slow food aspires to: an enriching experience which connected me with foodways and ancestors, deepened my knowledge of cooking, and satisfied my soul.


3 pounds cabbage
2 tbsp pickling salt
more pickling salt
distilled water

Shred cabbage fine. Mix well with salt. Pack tightly into a crock using a potato masher. Cover with a plate and weights. Add brine (1 1/2 tbsp salt to 4 cups distilled water) to cover all objects in the crock. Cover crock with a plate or towel and place in a cool place for three weeks. Skim the surface regularly.

Pastrami: (from Charcuterie by Ruhlman/Polcyn)

5 pounds meat (beef brisket is preferred)
5 tsp sodium nitrate
2 cups kosher salt
1/2 cup sugar
4 tbsp pickling spice
4 qts water
ground black pepper
ground coriander

Simmer water to incorporate salt, sodium nitrate, sugar and to bloom half of the pickling spice. Cool. Cover meat with brine in a deep pot and weigh down meat with a plate. Refrigerate five days.

Remove meat from pickle and place in a covered pot in several inches water and remainder of pickling spice (or more). Braise in a 275 degree oven for three hours or until softened. Remove and let cool slightly. Pat dry and coat with a mix of the black pepper and coriander. Smoke at 90-100 degrees for two hours, using ice if necessary to keep the smoker temperature at a minimum. Remove and refrigerate. Keeps several weeks.

Half Sour Pickles

5-6 pickling cucumbers
3 tbsp pickling salt
4 cups distilled water
1 bunch fresh dill
4 cloves garlic, sliced thin

Prepare brine with salt and distilled water. Slice pickles in half longways and pack fairly tightly into a wide-mouthed jar. Stuff the dill and garlic down between cucumber wedges. Cover with brine to the very top of the jar and cover loosely. Place jar in a small pan or plate to catch any overspill, place this in the pantry for three or four days, until you see some fermentation but before you see significant color change in the cucumbers. Refrigerate.

Rye Bread

Sour Starter:
1 cup warm potato water (boil a few peeled potatoes and reserve the water)
1 cup light rye flour (works with whole wheat rye flour too)
1 tbsp dry active yeast

Mix above ingredients well, cover loosely and let sit three days in pantry.

2 cups warm water (120 degrees)
1 tbsp sugar
1 tbsp yeast
1 batch sour starter (above)
2 cups light rye flour
2 tbsp kosher salt
1/4 cup caraway seeds
5 cups high-gluten flour

In mixer with dough hook, mix first three ingredients and let activate for ten minutes. On slow speed, add sour starter to mixing bowl then incorporate all the remaining ingredients for three minutes. Turn speed to medium and mix six minutes more.

Remove bowl and cover with greased plastic wrap. Let rise until doubled. Punch down and turn out onto a floured counter. Cut into three portions, give each a light knead and shape into a hot-dog bun shape. Place well-spaced onto baking sheets sprinkled well with fine cornmeal and give each one three transverse slices a finger deep. Cover with damp cloths and let rise again until doubled.

Meanwhile heat oven to 450. Boil several cups water in a shallow pan. Place the pan in the bottom of the oven. Carefully remove the cloth from the bread and put the bread in the oven. Turn head down to 375. Start checking bread's interior temp at 15 minutes, remove it when it reaches 180 degrees. Cool on racks.

1 1/4 cup water
3 tbsp cornstarch

Mix cornstarch with 1/4 cup water. Boil remaining 1 cup water. Add slurry to boiling water, heat until well-thickened. Remove from heat.

Using a pastry brush, brush on a nice layer of glaze onto each loaf.

Russian Dressing:

2 egg yolks
1 tsp white wine vinegar
1 cup salad oil
salt to taste
1 tbsp chives
1/2 cup ketchup

In a food processor, Whip egg yolks with vinegar. On high speed, very slowly dribble oil. Once well incorporated, you may add oil more speedily. Remove and salt to taste. Whisk in chives and ketchup.