Why It Works
- Preheating the kraut and corned beef ensures that the cheese melts quickly upon assembly.
- Toasting the rye on one side yields a crisp outer texture, but leaves the interior tender for maximum fusion with the cheese.
I made the mistake once of walking into the Jewish 2nd Ave Deli in New York City and ordering a Reuben sandwich. The waitress tilted her head to the side, raised an eyebrow, and waited patiently for my lapsed-Jewish brain to do some basic calculations. After a couple of awkward beats, I apologized and ordered a tongue on rye with mustard instead.
If Jewish dietary law had been at the forefront of my mind, I would have known not to ask in the first place: Observant Jews don't mix meat with dairy. That makes a Reuben—toasted rye bread stuffed with corned beef, a heap of warm sauerkraut, gooey layers of melted swiss cheese, and a generous dose of Russian dressing—pure sacrilege...or, should I say, sacrilege that's purely delicious.
Plenty of less strict delis will make a Reuben for you, but I've been shocked at the poor quality served at some places, including one very famous NYC deli that I won't identify (aside from mentioning that it's located on the corner of Houston and Ludlow, which of course couldn't possibly be enough info for you to figure out which one I'm talking about). The Reuben is an easy sandwich; there's no reason to get it wrong. Make it at home, and you're guaranteed not to have such a problem.
Where's the Beef?
The hardest part of making a good Reuben is getting good corned beef and Jewish rye. The rye actually isn't such a big deal—once buttered and toasted, even lesser loaves will taste just fine. Bad corned beef is a little harder to cover up, but even then, the Reuben is forgiving. We can thank the melted cheese, sauerkraut, and Russian dressing for that.
Still, try to get the best quality you can wherever you live. There are a couple of ways to go about that. You can order cooked corned beef online from a place like Zingerman's in Michigan, or settle for a high-quality supermarket brand from the deli. Even better, if you're more ambitious, you can make and cook it yourself by following this recipe through step 3. You could also opt for pastrami in place of the corned beef, which isn't the traditional meat in a Reuben, but it still tastes damned good.
Typically at delis, the meat will be steamed whole, then carved by hand while it's still hot. If you've got a very sharp carving knife and a practiced hand, you can use this method at home. Otherwise, you can slice the meat by hand while it's cold, or, easier still, ask them to slice it for you at the deli counter. So long as you reheat it properly (and we'll get to that shortly), even pre-sliced corned beef will come out plenty tender and juicy. I like my corned beef moderately thick-sliced—a little bit thicker than what's shown in these photos, to be honest—but not as ridiculously thick as some delis-that-shall-not-be-named tend to favor.
The Best Method for Making Reuben Sandwiches at Home
We have a grilled-cheese philosophy here at Serious Eats, which is that both sides of each slice of bread should be toasted to maximize the crunch against the soft melted cheese. In some cases, this rule works for melts, which is what a Reuben technically is. But with the Reuben, I prefer to revert to single-side toasting, because I like the inner surfaces of the bread in a Reuben to be slightly steamed and tender, the whole thing partially fusing together.
When I first published this recipe in 2016, I offered an oven method for building and cooking the sandwiches, in which the bread slices are all first toasted in butter on the stovetop, then layered with corned beef, kraut, sauce, and cheese on a baking sheet and popped in the oven until the cheese is melted. It's a useful trick when you're making sandwiches in bulk. But the longer I've sat with this recipe, the more I've found myself just using a skillet the whole time. First, because the four sandwiches this recipe yields fit just fine in a 12-inch skillet, making the whole large-batch issue sort of irrelevant (that said, if you want to double or triple or quadruple this recipe, the oven method is a good option). And second, because the skillet avoids the whole heating and oven thing (you're using the skillet anyway to toast the bread) and gives you the added benefit of being able to steam, press, and toast the sandwiches all at once, which delivers, I think, the sexiest Reuben, one that's crisp on the outsides, gooey with cheese and Russian dressing, and if you're lucky, even has some crispy cheese bits that form as it melts and flows from the sandwiches and fries in the skillet. Basically, I like then even better this way.
One key step no matter what is to pre-heat both the corned beef and the sauerkraut, so that you're not trying to warm through the entire jam-packed sandwich and instead are just trying to melt the cheese and toast the bread. The hot meat and kraut help get that cheese melted faster, too, so there's no risk you'll have unmelted cheese in the center—a Reuben travesty, if ever there was one.
I use a restaurant trick for preheating the corned beef while keeping it tender and juicy, which is to seal the meat in a container or package with a little bit of water and stick it in a warm oven; aluminum foil works just dandy as the package. The water generates steam, which, trapped in the foil, helps keep the meat from drying out. The kraut, meanwhile, I fry in butter, deepening its flavor and driving off any lingering wateriness.
To build and toast the Reubens, I start by toasting half the bread slices in butter on only one side. This will be the bottom sides of the sandwiches once they're done. Then I build the sandwiches on a work surface, spreading Russian dressing on the top and bottom bread slices, and piling the hot corned beef and kraut on the of those pre-toasted slices, laying the cheese on that, and then closing the sandwiches. All that's left is to pop the Reubens, untoasted top-side down, back in the skillet with some more butter and cook them, first with a lid to trap steam and ensure the butter melts (I like to use a slightly smaller lid so I can also press down on the sandwiches as they heat through, helping them to fuse and get good contact for better toasting). Then I remove the lid and keep cooking the sandwiches until the bread is well toasted on that final side and the cheese is flowing.
Just remember: Don't serve these to any friends who keep kosher.
This recipe originally used an oven method for finishing the Reubens, which works well when making them in large batches. It has since been updated by the author to employ a stovetop-only method, which works well for the four sandwiches it yields.
For the Russian Dressing (see notes):
2 1/2 tablespoons (35ml) mayonnaise
2 tablespoons (30ml) sour cream
1 1/2 tablespoons (20ml) ketchup
1 tablespoon (15ml) dill pickle relish
1 tablespoon (15ml) fresh juice from 1 lemon
1 teaspoon (5ml) grated horseradish from a jar
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
For the Sandwiches:
1 pound (500g) sliced corned beef (see notes)
5 tablespoons (75g) unsalted butter, divided
1/2 pound (225g) drained sauerkraut
8 slices Jewish rye bread
8 slices swiss cheese
For the Russian Dressing: In a medium bowl, stir together mayonnaise, sour cream, ketchup, relish, lemon juice, and horseradish. Season dressing with salt and pepper and set aside.
For the Sandwiches: Preheat oven to 350°F (180°C). Lay a sheet of aluminum foil on a rimmed baking sheet and place corned beef in the center. Bring foil edges up to form walls, then add 2 tablespoons (30ml) water to corned beef. Seal package well and transfer to oven until corned beef is heated through, about 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, in a small saucepan or skillet, melt 1 tablespoon (15g) butter over medium heat until foaming. Add sauerkraut and cook, stirring occasionally, until any excess liquid has cooked off and sauerkraut is heated through and glossy, about 5 minutes. Keep warm.
In a 12-inch stainless-steel or cast iron skillet, melt 2 tablespoons (30g) butter over medium-low heat. Add 4 bread slices and cook, rotating and moving slices around pan for even browning, until golden brown on bottom side, about 4 minutes. Transfer toasted bread slices to a work surface, toasted side down. Arrange remaining 4 untoasted bread slices in a row above them.
Spread Russian dressing generously all over every bread slice. Mound corned beef, making sure to let any excess moisture drip off first, on the toasted bread slices. Mound sauerkraut on top of corned beef. Lay cheese slices over sauerkraut.
Close sandwiches. Melt remaining 2 tablespoons (30g) butter in skillet over medium-low heat and add sandwiches, untoasted (top) side down. Cover with a lid that's slightly smaller than the skillet and cook, pressing down on the sandwiches with the lid, until cheese is melted, about 2 minutes. Uncover skillet and continue cooking, rotating and moving sandwiches around skillet and pressing down on sandwiches for even browning, until golden brown and crisp on second side, about 3 minutes longer.
Transfer Reubens to a work surface, cut in half on the diagonal, and serve hot.
You can substitute store-bought Russian dressing for homemade. Try to find the best corned beef you can locally, or order it online from a good source, like Zingerman's. You can also substitute pastrami, which tastes great in this sandwich.
|Nutrition Facts (per serving)|
|Amount per serving|
|% Daily Value*|
|Total Fat 65g||83%|
|Saturated Fat 29g||145%|
|Total Carbohydrate 27g||10%|
|Dietary Fiber 4g||15%|
|Total Sugars 4g|
|Vitamin C 10mg||49%|
|*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.|