We Talked To A Chef About How To Make The Perfect Cuban Sandwich

The Cuban sandwich is a staple in southern Florida, a delicacy as vibrant as the regional cuisine it comes from. Although there's some debate as to its exact origin, the Cuban sandwich can generally be either traced back to Tampa or Miami, depending on who you ask, and is thought to have been invented by Cuban immigrants in those communities. What really gives this sandwich its own unique flair, however, is that it only contains a few core ingredients: Swiss cheese, pickles, ham, pork shoulder, and mustard. There's no mayo, lettuce, or tomato — components you'll typically find in other sandwiches. Nevertheless, the Cubano is still hearty and flavorful.

If you're unable to venture down to Florida but still want to take a bite out of a really good Cuban sandwich, you're in luck. Daily Meal spoke with private chef and media personality Ronaldo Linares (who, by the way, is also on Instagram and TikTok) about the secrets to the perfect Cuban sandwich.

According to Linares, a great Cuban always adheres to "the ultimate Cubano commandments." Mainly, this means getting the ingredients exactly right, from the type of bread you use to the meat and other sandwich fillings you put in between your slices. It can even boil down to the sides and drinks you serve it with. "[It's] about keeping it real [with] no extra frills," a tenet Linares swears by. "Once you start adding too much, it just stops being the authentic Cuban experience." Even so, Linares' particular take on the Cubano will not only make your tastebuds sing — it also might surprise you.

Bread and meat are the heart of the Cuban sandwich

As previously mentioned, Chef Ronaldo Linares attests that one of the most important — if not the most important — trick to building a mouthwatering Cuban sandwich is to pay attention to the ingredients you select, starting with the bread. "It's got to be pan Cubano, the stuff dreams are made of, [otherwise known as] pan Manteca," Linares emphasizes. "Any other bread would be like bringing a tricycle to a Formula 1 race."

For the uninitiated, pan Cubano (or pan Manteca) is a type of white bread with a thin, crispy crust; similar to a long loaf of Italian or French bread, it contains an airy, light texture inside. Unlike those other breads, a core ingredient in pan Cubano is lard (or sometimes vegetable shortening) as opposed to butter or oil. In turn, pan Cubano adds hearty notes that give the Cuban sandwich its delicious and distinctive taste.

But bread isn't the Cubano's only major player. The meat you use also matters. "Opt for a good deli ham without any added frills like honey or smoke," says Linares. In addition to ham, you'll also want a juicy pork shoulder. "Don't skimp on the seasoning and marinade," he also cautions, as "they're the secret sauce to Cuban sandwich success." (If you're unfamiliar with what that could entail, a classic way to season your pork shoulder is with a citrusy mojo marinade featuring line and cumin.)

The right cheese also makes for the perfect Cuban sandwich

You can't overlook the cheese when it comes to the perfect Cubano. For Ronaldo Linares, that cheese can only be Swiss. "It's like ​the reliable best friend of the sandwich world, always there to add that perfect melty goodness," he stresses, thanks to its mild, versatile nature, punctuated by nutty and slightly sweet notes. In a Cuban sandwich, Swiss cheese balances the rich taste of the pork and the tang of the pickles. The result? A harmonious trio.

Linares doesn't entirely support going rogue with creative ingredients, although he does make one concession: ajo, aka garlic. "Once your Cubano is ready, sprinkle on some sautéed crispy garlic on top," he guarantees. "It's like the final mic drop of flavor, keeping it true to its Cuban roots while adding that extra oomph of deliciousness." It adds a slight pungency to your sandwich without steering you too far away from the Cubano's more traditional flavors.

Linares also notes a surprising omission for his Cuban sandwich: mustard, a common condiment for a Cubano. Rather than mustard his main pick might surprise you: mantequilla, or "butter," if you don't speak Spanish. "Trust me, your taste buds will thank you later," the chef assures us. While Linares doesn't go into why opting for butter instead of mustard is his preference, well, sometimes it's best not to question the advice of an expert if you're yearning for a true culinary adventure.

Perfect the art of the panini press for a great Cubano

Though we've already discussed that part of what makes a Cubano sandwich truly exceptional its toasty, golden bread, how exactly can a home cook replicate its crunchy texture in their kitchen? No need to fret — this can easily be achieved thanks to the use of a panini press. It's also what helps the Swiss to soften and melt into that lava flow of gooey cheese. If you're not exactly sure how long to cook your Cuban sandwich with your panini press at home, Chef Ronaldo Linares has a useful tip: "Give that golden crust a little smack, and if it sings back with a satisfying hollow sound, like it's saying, 'Hey, I'm ready for some serious sandwich action!'"

Aside from that, Linares also advises home chefs to keep an eye on the cheese itself: "As you lift that perfectly toasted bread, cheese starts oozing from the sides, like a delicious avalanche of melty goodness. That's the moment, my friend. That's when you know your Cubano masterpiece is ready to rock your taste buds to their core."

For those of us who might not have this small kitchen appliance at home, you can also make a Cuban sandwich without a panini press by flattening it between two hot cast iron pans on the stove. Even if you go this route, don't let Chef Linares' recommended visual cues fall to the wayside.

Don't forget about food and drink pairings

A sandwich on its own is fine, but to truly make it a meal, you'll want to pair it with a side dish and something to sip on. As for sides, Chef Ronaldo Linares has a simple yet mouthwatering suggestion: "Papitas fritas, shoestring fries for sure, [as there's] something about fries and a great Cuban sandwich that go together so well." He also recommends pairing some mojo dipping sauce not just for the fries but also for dunking your sandwich for a truly delectable flavor combo. (Of course, you could also play around with other sides –  plantain chips or yuca fries come to mind.)

‌As for the perfect drink to pair it with, Chef Linares says that his preferences are Nestle iced tea (or any kind of sweet tea in general): "There's just something magical about that sweet nectar dancing with the richness of the Cubano, making a perfect pairing." If you're not a tea fan and want to try something a little more potent, you can pair your Cuban sandwich with a rich, deep red Malbec, or try it with the ultimate Cuban mojito as another boozy option. These drink and side pairings, along with Chef Linares's other suggestions, are the keys to sinking your teeth into an authentic and classic Floridian mainstay.