Knowing it would sit for a while, I selected a picnic-worthy ham and cheese on a substantial multi-grain roll—which translated into jamon serrano and Parmesan, with sundried tomatoes, spinach, and cranberries, dressed with a tongue-tingling chile oil. I avoided anything delicate, anything that might wilt or spoil quickly: no browning avocado, no soggy white bread, no tuna, shrimp, or mayo.
Sandwich #1, consumed at the airport as a control variable, was… fine. It was pleasantly salty from the cheese, a little spicy from the chile oil. The fat from the jamon peeled off in long strings, while the crusty bread blanketed my lap with a mess of crumbs. I tucked Sandwich #2 into my carry-on for the three-and-a-half hour flight to JFK (plus a couple more hours for immigration and a taxi ride home to Manhattan).
48 hours later, it was time to see if airplane alchemy could achieve a superior sando.
The result: It tasted better. But the improvement was, to say the least, subtle. Overall, it tasted a bit richer, as the chile oil had soaked into the bread, and the jamon seemed to have melted into the sandwich, becoming more pliable and almost grooving into the bread. No more fatty strings. Meanwhile, the salt from the cheese—the primary flavor two days earlier—was much less pronounced, though there was still plenty of zing from the chile pepper oil. All the flavors seemed to have melded, yielding a softer, chewier, more succulent sandwich.
So what’s the science behind plane-curing a sandwich? I asked Molly Brandt, a culinary scientist and executive chef with airline caterer GateGourmet. Her response: It’s not really about the cabin pressure—it’s more about time plus temperature plus a good selection of deliciously fatty ingredients (oils, cheeses, etc).
“While aircraft are pressurized, it’s to a higher altitude than sea level,” Brandt explained. In other words, it’s the equivalent of taking a sandwich into the Rocky Mountains for a few hours.
Our taste buds for sweet, bitter, and umami flavors work best when food is between room temperature and body temperature, she says. So storing an already umami-rich sandwich at room temperature for an hours-long flight can increase perception that it has become more flavorful. But it can also actually make it more flavorful, particularly if a sandwich (like a muffuletta) is made with plenty of fat. “Fat stretches flavor,” Brandt says, and that time on a flight helps “infuse the bread with the delicious bits.”
From a food-safety perspective, though, she strongly advises against leaving a sandwich at room temp for four days, despite Teague’s technique. When I got home, my ham and cheese went directly into the fridge, where it sat for two days.
So, is it worth scouting cheap airline tickets in pursuit of a better sandwich? Absolutely not. But if a short-haul flight is in your near future, by all means, give this technique a try. Or, if you have the patience, you could simulate the conditions at home, leaving a sandwich (extra cheese, extra pickles, extra dressing) tightly wrapped in wax paper on the counter at room temp for three to four hours, then transferring it to the fridge to finish “curing” for another day or two. You might end up with something “profound and glorious,” as Rosner said—or at least a lunch that’s a little more interesting.