“Panini” literally means “sandwiches” in Italian, but this sandwich, which so commonly shows up on cafe menus around the country these days, isn’t the least bit cut-and-dried. In fact, a panini shouldn’t be dry at all: the classic iteration involves fresh-baked bread (not pre-packaged or sliced), deli meats (such as salami, mortadella, and prosciutto), and cheese (provolone, mozzarella) that are all pressed into one gooey, ooey, moist, and delicious bite.
While food historians can trace a distant ancestor back to a 16th-century Italian textbook, paninis didn’t become popular in Italy until the 1970s and 1980s, at which point they were called paninoteche. In 1980s Milan, sandwich bars were considered fashionable places to hang out—almost status symbols, of sort, where young, chic paninari hung out.
So how do you actually go about making one of these culturally cool creations at home? Keep in mind the panini isn’t just some average sandwich to be hastily slapped together. You’ll need an acumen of ingredients, a bit of creativity, and patience.
- Two fine, somewhat thick (1/4 inch), pieces of fresh bread: a crusty French baguette, ciabatta, focaccia, or sourdough are all great options. As a tip, if you can find it in the bread aisle of the supermarket (as opposed to the bakery or a specialized shop), it probably won’t create the best panini.
- Meat: Italian classics like salami, mortadella, capicola, and prosciutto are always a sure bet and happen to mix well together. Other add-ins might be chorizo (a spicy, bold-flavored Spanish sausage), roast beef, deli turkey, or sliced black forest ham.
- Cheese: consider the fact that cheese, in the context of panini, serves not only as a flavoring agent but also a binding one, so opt for cheeses that melt easily. Cheddar, provolone, Swiss, and mozzarella (either fresh or processed) are always excellent options.
- Herbs, fruits, vegetables: Fresh basil, arugula, sauteed onions, sweet peppers, sun-dried tomatoes, olives, and thinly sliced apples and pears all work beautifully.
- Olive Oil
- Heat: Sandwich presses are sold at nearly every kitchen and home store and at every price point imaginable by manufacturers such as George Foreman and Cuisinart. For the home cook, anything coated in teflon will do—it’ll prevent the ingredients from sticking to the machine. If you prefer a more old-school method, a cast iron grill pan with a bacon press (for weight) will do the trick.
How it’s done:
- Lay one piece of bread on your workspace and place a piece of cheese on top. Add meat and vegetables, then cap off with another piece of cheese.
- Place the second piece of bread on top. Using a brush, lightly oil both ends of the sandwich.
- Place the oiled sandwich on the heated panini press and close. (If you’re using a grill pan make sure it’s very hot, place the sandwich down, and place the bacon press on top for pressure.)
- Let cook for three to five minutes, then flip and cook until cheese has melted.
- Remove from heat and cut in half with a serrated bread knife. Serve and enjoy!