Here's how to make the sandwich of your dreams.
Kylie Walker

15 Aug 2018 - 3:51 PM  UPDATED 16 Dec 2020 - 8:17 PM

For true fans of the Reuben, there is no better sandwich. Juicy corned beef, generously stacked between slices of Jewish-style rye bread, layered with melting cheese and tangy Russian dressing.

Hold on there, you might be saying. What about pastrami? And what about the pickle?? Surely a Reuben, a truly great Reuben, has pickles?

Inspired by an absolute Reuben-fest coming to our screens in the next few weeks (more on that in a moment), we’ve been on a Reuben reconnaissance, getting the low-down on how to make a sandwich that really stacks up.

The true home of the Reuben, of course is New York, where the first kosher delis opened in the 1880s, and spots like Katz’s still draw sandwich lovers from across the globe. But you don’t need to go there to get your hands on a truly excellent Reuben. We’ve got the goods from the makers of some of Australia’s best on how to make a great corned beef stack. 

1. Beef it up

“We warm the corned beef up, we warm the sauerkraut up, and then we layer the sandwich, put the cheese on, and then we just let the cheese slowly melt as we grill the sandwich,” says Paul Serafin, owner of Flying Fig Deli, Adelaide’s only Jewish deli. Just reading that description has probably made you hanker for one, right? You’re not alone – the Reuben is the deli’s most popular dish. It’s been on the menu since the deli opened two years ago, and they serve up at least 100 a week.

“We make our own corned beef, we make our own sauerkraut and we make our own Russian dressing. That's the secret to a good Reuben: we make it all ourselves, and we pile it on there,” says Serafin. His tips for the meaty middle of the stack: start with a good-quality silverside for the corned-beef, and don’t over-cook it.

When we asked a man who knows his Reubens, Brooklyn-born writer and dough wrangler Michael Shafran, owner of Brooklyn Boy Bagels, where he goes for a Sydney fix, he pointed us to Brooklyn Bridge Deli.

Darren Heath opened the first Brooklyn Bridge Deli in 2015 (there are now two), serving up a Reuben that’s all New York – with a sprinkling of Mum.

Heath, who grew up in New Zealand, headed to New York when he was 18, and stayed for 10 years. Among his jobs was a stint at a deli in Manhattan, so when he decided to swap a corporate job in Sydney for the hospitality game, the direction was obvious.

“I wanted to bring a taste of New York to Sydney,” he says. Brooklyn Bridge sells both corned beef and pastrami stacks -  which leads us neatly to one of the key points about a Reuben.

While both meats are cured (treated with a saline solution), their paths then diverge – corned beef is boiled, while pastrami is smoked. A traditional Reuben uses corned beef, but pastrami makes a mighty fine sandwich too (some dub the pastrami version a Rachel). In fact, this article was written while chowing down on a particularly good example – the pastrami Reuben from Charc.  (Reuben Republic also do a great pastrami version). 

But back to the corned beef. The secret here is time, and what you put in the cooking water, says Heath.

“I just want to do it [the Reuben] exactly like they do it over there, how I got taught. And I kind of grew up on that as well. My mom used to cook corned beef every other week… it’s not really that different. I pretty much use her recipe for my own corned beef here."

The way he does it now takes longer – the brisket is salted for several weeks before cooking. Then it goes in a slow cooker to simmer away for 4 or 5 hours.

“That's really what gives it that flavor, the slow cook. Anyone can do it at home,” Heath says. The trick to making it your own is playing with what you add to the cooking water, he says – bay leaves, for instance, or cinnamon sticks.

“And when you cut the corned beef, you don't want to cut it too fat, it would be too chewy. So I'd rather cut lots of kind of medium slices and then stack them on top of each other.”

Brining and slow cooking are what takes chewy brisket into falling-apart corned beef. Most of us will buy the already-cured meat and just do the final few hours of cooking, but if you want to get a glimpse of the time a traditional deli puts into curing cuts, watch the “Jewish Deli” episode of It’s Suppertime  on SBS On Demand, as chef Matty Matheson makes corned beef from scratch:

Matheson also pays a visit to a Jewish deli that not only cures the meat, but puts it through a tumbling machine, too. “Brisket …has a lot of connective tissues. If people don't cook it low and slow, it makes it very, very tough. So then, the process... helps break down the connective tissues and the collagen,” explains deli owner Aubrey Dorfman.

And if you’re wondering about the name corned beef, that comes from the pieces of coarse salt once used for curing – they were known as corns.

2. The dressing

“A good Russian dressing is what really separates a good Reuben from a bad Reuben,” says Heath, “or at least a great one from a good one.”

Russian dressing is a mayo-based condiment with a bit of kick from the inclusion of horseradish. You can make your own, or for a quick alternative, “people can use Thousand Island sauce - but a good Russian dressing is what really gives it the extra kind of flavour,” Heath says.  

 3. Kraut

A traditional Reuben has five parts – bread, meat, dressing, cheese and sauerkraut. For the kraut, some like a finer shread (easier stacking), others a coarser chop (more crunch!). At Flying Fig, the house-made kraut ups the flavour by adding kohlrabi to the mix.

4. Bread

“Traditionally it should be on a nice light thin-cut rye bread. You don't want too much bread because it will kind of overpower it. Your bread needs to be thin so all the flavors can show through,” says Heath, who uses rye loaves from Brooklyn Boy Bagels (which these days makes a range of breads as well as the chewy bagels).

While rye is universally embraced as the basis for a traditional Reuben, there’s far less agreement about whether it should be toasted - but we’ve had so many good Reubens made both ways that we’re happy to sit on the fence on this one!

5. And also….

Obviously you want cheese. If you’re doing a toasted version, something melty. If you’re not, something with a bit of bite to stand up to the kraut and dressing. 

And you probably want a pickle, too. Some places put sliced pickle in the sandwich, some serve it on the side, but either way that tart crunchiness is a perfect foil for the juicy, cheesy goodness of a great Reuben. Use your favourite bought pickle or make your own to serve up with this Reuben recipe:

Cooking corned beef
Mr Thomas’s corned beef hash

“Hash is a dish consisting of diced or chopped meat, potatoes, and spices that are mixed together and then cooked either alone or with other ingredients such as onions. The name is derived from the French verb hacher (to chop). Corned beef hash became very popular in countries outside of the UK - including France - during and after World War II, as rationing limited the availability of fresh meat. When corning your own beef, make sure you buy your meat from a good quality butcher.” Luke Nguyen, Luke Nguyen's United Kingdom

Reuben sandwich with spicy Russian mayonnaise and dill and garlic pickles

Recreate a taste of New York in your own home with this recipe from the food dept. The Reuben sandwich, filled with many layers of beef pastrami, sauerkraut and pickles, is easily achievable at home and will provide much-needed comfort during the colder months.

Reuben sandwich with Russian dressing

The exact history of the Reuben remains undocumented, but this roast beef sandwich filled with sauerkraut, cheese, pickles and Russian dressing is a classic Jewish deli lunch item and has been around since 1920s in New York.