What's the most critical thing to making authentic banh mi? Many people think it's the bread. In fact, while in Seattle last week, I had the opportunity to hang out at the brainy headquarters of ChefSteps, a website for people who enjoy the geeking out on cooking technique and science. There’s a lot of molecular gastronomy and experimentation at the ChefSteps test kitchen where I met my friends Michael Natkin and Lorraine Easterling. We sat down to chat with founder Chris Young, who turned out to be super into bread. Our conversation quickly turned to the ideal bread for banh mi.
Chris pointed out that when my friend Eric Banh opened Baguette Box in Seattle, his bread was so rustic and hard that it scraped the roof of Chris’s mouth. It was awful and wrong for banh mi, Chris said, and he was right.
Banh Mi Bread Buying Tip 1: A well-crafted banh mi that uses great ingredients may cost you more than you think. However, pricey rustic breads with a strong, thick crust and toothsome chew do not work well for banh mi. They may scrape the roof of your mouth as you eat and/or mute the myriad ingredients inside; the filling may squirt out because it does not hug and encase the filling well. Such breads are good for many applications but not for Vietnamese sandwiches.
Eric admitted so to me years ago, and he quickly sourced a better chewy-crisp and light baguette for his banh mi from a French bakery called Le Panier. The local Vietnamese bakeries made bread that was way too light and didn’t stand up to his bold fillings, Eric felt. I heard similar sentiments from the owner of Sing Sing banh mi shop in San Francisco; Harry Lum opts for slightly dense rolls. That super light bread isn't the only game in town when it comes to selecting what frames your Vietnamese sandwich.
Banh Mi Bread Buying Tip 2: Don’t get stuck thinking that there’s only one type of bread for making Viet sandwiches. What’s typically used is a baguette-style bread, either sections cut from a long one or an individual petite-size roll. However, you can try sliced bread too so long as it's got the right light texture and faintly sweet flavor profile to accept and match the rich mayo, salty Maggi Seasoning sauce, flavorful fillings, crisp vegetables, spritely herb, and bright chile.