The Cuban sandwich, better known as a Cubano, begins with soft, slightly sweet Cuban bread. Heaps of heavily seasoned pork roast and sliced ham alternating between layers of Swiss cheese and sour pickles. The sandwich is cemented together with yellow mustard and a garlic butter schmear. I mean, it’s practically complete meal you can eat while walking? Sign me up for all of that.
There’s nothing fancy about this sandwich, yet, it’s a culinary God-send. Then the regional variations start and there’s when people get passionate!
Miami vs. Tampa Cuban Sandwiches
When I want to liven up a house party, I ask my friends which one makes the best Cuban Sandwich. One friend is from Miami and the other from Tampa and both believe their city makes the best Cubano.
The difference between the Miami and Tampa Cubano variations is minimal. It lies in one ingredient: salami.
Chances are if you eat a Cuban Sandwich in Tampa it will have salami, and in Miami it won’t. The Tampa contingent believes salami adds another layer of saltiness to the sandwich, which (according to them) is what makes theirs superior. On the Miami side simple is best.
The second I pose the question, my friends start comparing everything that makes their sandwich the best! It’s great fun for me, and even better if I can get one of them to make a sandwich to prove it!
I totally understand why these Floridians are so fiercely loyal to their versions of the Cubano. It’s a sandwich anyone would be proud of.
Where Did the Cuban Sandwich Originate?
The funny thing is the sandwich didn’t originate in Miami or Tampa. It’s actually believed to be a Cuban creation that was brought to Florida by travelers and immigrant workers.
The hard-working laborers needed a midday meal to fuel them through their workday, but also one that wasn’t overly fussy and could be toted around with them while they worked. The folks in Key West picked up on the idea and Cubano made its U.S. debut.
The original Key West version called a “mixto” or mix has a whole host of other things like shredded lettuce and tomatoes. Way too fussy for me!
Because the Cubano was created for on-the-go eating, I don’t think it should frilly. Sorry, Key West.
What Is Cuban Bread?
The foundation of the Cuban Sandwich is the slightly, sweet, soft but still crusty Cuban bread. It’s similar in shape to Italian bread, except that it has a crisper crust like a French baguette.
Cuban bread tastes sweeter than you’d think it would. It’s that tiny bit of sweetness that gives the Cuban sandwich an added dimension of flavor.
If you don’t have a Cuban or Hispanic bakery where you can buy Cuban bread, you can make this Pan Sobao bread from my personal blog Sense and Edibility, or just use Italian bread. Ultimately, you want to choose bread that can be easily squished down.
What’s the Best Ham for Cubano Sandwiches?
Diving deeper into the Cubano, the ham I prefer to use is Black Forest ham. It’s cured with more seasonings and spices than a boiled, sliced ham or even a Virginia ham.
If you can’t find Black Forest ham, then my second choice is smoked ham. We’re looking to build a flavorful Cubano, so let’s add flavor at every step!
What’s the Best Roast Pork for Cuban Sandwiches?
Only two types of roast pork should be used in a traditional Cubano: Mojo marinated pork (Cuban pork) or Pernil (roasted pork leg or shoulder).
These Latin American roasts are loaded with the intoxicating flavors of garlic and herbs. The boldly seasoned, slow roasted pork peeks through the brininess of the pickles and the Swiss cheese in a way you’ll miss if you skip this step.
I guess what I’m trying to say is: The roast makes the Cubano.
If I’ve made a roast pork for Sunday dinner, this is what I’m making with the leftovers. You can be sure of that.
What if You Don’t Eat Pork?
Can you make an authentic Cubano without roasted pork? In short, no.
If you have a dietary restriction or aversion to pork, you can, however, make a version of a Cubano using shredded chicken and sliced turkey, using the same mojo marinade to flavor the poultry.
No Panini Press? No Problem!
Cuban sandwiches are heated on a panini press, which most of us don’t have lying around (I know I don’t).
My frugal ingenuity led me to create my very own press with two heavy cast iron skillets. I just nestle one in the other and allow both to heat up on my stovetop. When it’s time to cook my Cubanos, I press the sandwich between the two hot pans and bam! Panini-press, what?
You can mimic a panini-griddle by pressing your sandwich on a regular griddle underneath a cast iron skillet (or similarly heavy pan), a foil-wrapped brick, or a burger press, as well. If you do have a panini-press use that of course, you fortunate soul, you.
While most Cuban sandwich-makers wrap their sandwiches in foil prior to toasting, I find that a bit unnecessary if I’m eating it right away. I mean, sure, if you want super-gooey cheese it will help, but I’m all about easy access to my sandwich and fiddling around with foil just doesn’t do it for me.
Make Ahead Tips for Cubanos
Parts of the Cubanos can be assembled ahead of time.
- You can make the garlic butter schmear, toast the bread and assemble the pork, ham and cheese layers of the sandwich up to 4 hours prior to serving them. Toasting the bread now helps ward off sogginess.
- Wrap the sandwich in foil. It’ll keep the bread from going stale and make things less messy. Store your wrapped sandwiches in the fridge. Pull them out a half-hour before you plan to cook to take the chill off of them.
- Once you’re ready, unwrap the sandwiches and add the pickles, mustard and garlic butter schmear, then toast and press them.
What to Serve With Cubanos?
Cubanos are most often served with a side of plain ol’ chips and sometimes a crisp dill pickle. Again, nothing too fancy.
I’m sure when those hard-working folks who stopped to pick up a Cubano on their way to work ate their sandwiches at lunch, they found they weren’t hot yet they still enjoyed them. That proves to me that Cubanos may be served hot or at room temperature. That makes them great for large crowds or to serve as party-fare.
Try These Other Great Sandwich Recipes!
- Grilled Cheese Sandwich with Sauerkraut on Rye
- Grilled Cheese Sandwich with Mozzarella, Red Peppers, and Arugula
- Croque Monsieur Ham and Cheese Sandwich
- Chipotle Grilled Chicken with Avocado Sandwich
- Cauliflower Steak Sandwiches with Red Pepper Aioli
- Pan Bagnat (French Tuna Sandwich)
Cuban Sandwich (Cubano)
- 1-pound loaf Cuban or Italian bread
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
- 1 small clove garlic, crushed
- 2 tablespoons yellow mustard
- 8 ounces thinly sliced Swiss cheese, about 10 slices
- 1 pound shredded pork roast, heated until warmed through
- sliced dill pickles, as needed
- 10 slices Black Forest or smoked ham
- To serve:
- Potato chips
- Dill pickles
Heat your skillet or griddle:
I like to use two cast iron skillets nested on top of one another, pressing the sandwich in between. To use this method, place both skillets (one on top of the other) over medium heat and let them heat through.
If using a panini press set it to medium heat. The skillet or griddle shouldn’t be screaming hot, but it should radiate enough heat to toast the bread slowly.
If you aren’t using the double pan method or a panini press, just use anything you have to weigh the sandwich down – a foil wrapped brick, your spatula, whatever you have will do.
Toast the bread:
Slice the loaf of bread in half horizontally. If you’re using a skillet, you may have to cut the loaf cut the loaf vertically as well so it fits in your pan and make the sandwich in batches.
Toast both halves of the plain bread, cut side down, until the surface is a light golden-brown. This step reduces the sogginess that often occurs after the mustard and pickles are added.
Make, then spread, the schmear:
While the bread is toasting, stir together the butter and minced garlic to create a schmear. Once the slices of bread have been toasted, spread the garlic butter onto the cut side of one of the bread halves. Then spread the mustard on the cut side of other piece of bread.
Layer the meat and cheese:
Top the mustard side with a layer of Swiss cheese, followed by a handful of the warmed roast pork. Add another layer of Swiss cheese followed by a layer of pickles and the ham. Top the ham with any remaining cheese and cover the sandwich with the other piece of bread.
Grill the Cubano:
If you prefer really melty cheese, wrap your Cubano in aluminum foil before grilling (this is totally optional).
If using the 2-skillet method, once both pans are heated through, lift the top pan up. Place the sandwich into the bottom pan and place the top pan directly onto the sandwich. Otherwise, weight the sandwich down using your preferred method.
Grill the Cubano for 5-6 minutes on one side before carefully flipping the sandwich and grilling for another 5-6 minutes on the other side. If you’re using a panini press, grill for 6 minutes total, or until the cheese is melted.
When ready the Cubano should have a flat, crispy, slightly dark brown, top and bottom, and the cheese should be melted.
Remove your sandwich from the skillet or griddle. Slice your sandwich according to the number of guests you need to serve and serve the sandwich with a handful of chips and a pickle or two.
LEFTOVERS! Leftovers should be wrapped in foil and stored in the refrigerator. They may be reheated by cooking the same as above.