I’m almost ashamed to admit that I had no idea what a panini was until my college roommate offered me one. Standing in his underwear before our grease-splattering George Foreman grill, he didn’t exactly look like the picture of an authentic Italian chef. But I’m convinced the hot little ham-and-cheese sandwich Dave whipped up for me that day is still among the top five paninis I’ve ever had.
And even though I won custody of the George Foreman upon graduating, I’ve never been able to recreate Dave’s glorious panini no matter what combination of meat, cheese and fixins I use. And so, I recently decided to completely start over, beginning with the bread. But what bread is best for paninis in the first place?
When Dave explained to me that an authentic Italian panini was “just a regular sandwich but grilled,” he wasn’t far off. And according to food scientist and culinary expert Brian Chau, a panini can be made with pretty much any type of bread, but it still kinda depends on who you ask.
For people in Italy, or those who want as authentic an experience as possible, paninis are exclusively made with Italian bread. “For traditionalists, Italian breads like ciabatta, rosetta or michetta work well,” Chau tells me. “And for that reason, traditionalists wouldn’t consider sliced breads for a panini, since that would be a grilled cheese or reuben.”
But like many cultural recipes passed through generations and across borders, the requirements for panini bread have completely changed over the years. “For the modernists, any dense bread that can withstand the heat and pressure of the panini press or grill is a great place to start,” Chau explains. “The process of making a panini is to apply high heat to melt cheese, create a nice Maillard browning reaction and press the ingredients together.”
In other words, the best bread for your panini is a “tough bread,” Chau says. “Not soft or fluffy textures that can tear, and nothing sweet with a high amount of sugar, since the sugar will burn under the intense heat, and the bread could tear with the added pressure.” Anything soft or sugary may also lead to your ingredients falling apart, he continues, and then you’re left with a soft loaf of bread and a huge mess on your hands (literally).
So what kind of firm, tough bread does Chau recommend? “You can’t go wrong with the traditional Italian options — focaccia is a sturdy bread that could bring some great taste to the grilled sandwich,” he says. “And, of course, the French baguette is a good, tough loaf of bread that’s perfect for paninis.”
My old roommate Dave probably doesn’t remember which type of loaf he was packing on that glorious day back in college. However, at least I’m on the right track. All I have to do now is ask my local baker for the toughest goddamn bread he’s got, because I’m on a one-way train straight to Paninitown.