Menu
Search
Menu
Close

We make mistakes so you don’t have to.

Try CooksIllustrated.com Free for 14 Days

Email is required
How we use your email address

The World’s Greatest Tuna Sandwich

By Andrew Janjigian Published

Olives, tomatoes, hard-cooked eggs, fragrant herbs, and a mustardy vinaigrette—not mayo—are the components that put this Provençal staple on the map.

The first thing to know about pan bagnat: It’s not your everyday tuna sandwich.

To me, that means a mayonnaise-y deli salad that’s sandwiched between slices of toasted wheat or rye bread. Pan bagnat, the iconic Provençal tuna sandwich, is something entirely different—and, dare I say, far more grand. It’s essentially a niçoise salad served between two halves of a loaf of crusty bread: Chunks of high-quality canned tuna; sliced hard-cooked eggs, tomatoes, and red onion; briny niçoise olives and (sometimes) capers; anchovies; garlic; and fragrant herbs are carefully layered and dressed in a mustardy vinaigrette. And here’s the brilliant part: The sandwich gets wrapped tightly with plastic wrap and pressed under a weight, which tamps down the piled-high filling. This step ensures that the whole package is compact enough to bite through and the filling slightly saturates the crumb without softening the crisp crust. (Pan bagnat means “bathed bread” in Niçard, the local variant of the Provençal dialect, referring to how cooks once “refreshed” the stale bread by softening it under a stream of water.)

It’s perfect picnic fare because it’s portable, and it’s equally great for parties because it can be made ahead. But it’s tricky to make well. Besides balancing all those assertive flavors, you have to carefully assemble the loosely packed ingredients so that they don’t come tumbling out when you slice or bite into the sandwich. Not many cooks put so much thought into making sandwiches—but I was about to.

Senior Editor Andrew Janjigian portions samples of pan bagnat for a tasting of different approaches to this Provençal specialty.

Due Process

Great tuna and great bread are the core components of pan bagnat. I began by draining a couple of jars of our favorite oil‑packed tuna. As for the bread, the most traditional versions feature a single-serving round roll, but a baguette, ciabatta, or bâtard that French bakers slice and sell by the portion is also common. I settled on a baguette because fewer slices would be necessary to portion the long loaf, which would hopefully allow more of the filling to stay intact. I hollowed out the bottom half—a typical step that makes space for the abundant filling and increases the ratio of filling to bread—and nestled the tuna in the trough. It was easy to shingle thin slices of tomato and eggs over the fish, but things started falling apart when I piled on the onion slices, olives, capers, anchovies, parsley, and marjoram (sweeter and more delicate than oregano or thyme, and distinctly Provençal) and doused the filling in vinaigrette.

I halved the sandwich and did my best to bundle the precariously full halves in plastic wrap before weighting them beneath a Dutch oven for about an hour. But that didn’t stop the olives, capers, and onions from tumbling out when I unwrapped the halves and cut the sandwiches into portions. I needed to make the looser ingredients more cohesive.

’Wichcraft

Sandwich making tends to be a loose art, but our take on this French classic—from the carefully calibrated seasonings to the architecture of the filling to the amount of moisture that the bread soaks up—is all about precision.

 

First, I borrowed red wine vinegar from the dressing to soak the sliced onion and garlic with a little salt, which mellowed the sharp bite of both alliums and had the bonus effect of wilting the onion and making it more compact. While that mixture sat, I finely chopped the olives, capers, anchovies, and herbs in the food processor and then tossed them with the onion mixture. I divvied it up by packing most of it into the trough beneath the tuna and spreading the rest across the top of the egg slices. These ingredients now stayed mostly contained, and with their briny, salty flavors sandwiching the rest of the filling, each bite tasted balanced.

There was just one problem: Placing the wet olive mixture directly against the bread meant that the crumb, which had been pleasantly moist, was now bordering on sodden.

Avoiding a Soggy Sandwich

I looked for ways to curb the amount of free liquid in the filling. One easy fix was to drain the juicy tomatoes on paper towels before placing them in the sandwich. I also combined some olive oil and mustard with the olive mixture so that the mustard could bind up the water from the vinegar and onions. In addition, I made the crumb water‑resistant by brushing the cut surfaces of the baguette with more olive oil. I also decided to toast the baguette before building the sandwich, which would make the exterior more crisp.

Moisture Management

To help limit the amount of moisture that the baguette absorbs from the filling, we made it water-resistant by brushing the cut sides with olive oil. The bread certainly seemed less soggy to us after we layered on the sandwich filling, but we wanted to carry out a more objective experiment.

 

So we brushed the cut sides of one halved baguette with a tablespoon of oil and left a second halved baguette dry as a control. We moistened two sponges with blue‑tinted water to serve as the sandwich “filling” and placed one sponge between the halves of each baguette. We then wrapped the makeshift sandwiches in plastic and pressed them under a Dutch oven. An hour later, we unwrapped them and examined the results: The bread coated in oil was only faintly blue, indicating that only a small amount of water had penetrated, and it was far firmer than the uncoated bread, which had turned soggy, pasty, and blue.

 

When I capped this sandwich with the top of the baguette and sliced it crosswise, the filling stayed put and it was easy to wrap each half into a tidy torpedo. I assembled another Dutch oven “press,” this time with a rimed baking sheet between the pot and the bread to make the setup steadier, and flipped the sandwiches after 30 minutes so that gravity could help evenly distribute the moisture.

The results? Each component of the filling was thoughtful, and the balance of flavors was pitch‑perfect. Brushing oil on the bread kept enough liquid from the filling at bay so that the crumb was moistened but not sodden. And the make-ahead convenience meant that this would be just the thing to serve at backyard parties—yes, a tuna sandwich fit for company—as well as have on hand for busy nights.

Pressing the assembled sandwich under a heavy Dutch oven compresses its layers and makes it more manageable to eat.

Recipe Pan Bagnat (Provençal Tuna Sandwich)

Olives, tomatoes, hard-cooked eggs, fragrant herbs, and a mustardy vinaigrette—not mayo—are the components that put this Provençal staple on the map.

Leave a comment and join the conversation!

0 Comments
Read & post comments with a free account
Join the conversation with our community of home cooks, test cooks, and editors.
First Name is Required
Last Name is Required
Email Address is Required
How we use your email?
Password is Required
JC
JOHN C.
16 days

Absolutely the best chicken ever, even the breast meat was moist! It's the only way I'll cook a whole chicken again. Simple, easy, quick, no mess - perfect every time. I've used both stainless steel and cast iron pans. great and easy technique for “roasted” chicken. I will say there were no pan juices, just fat in the skillet. Will add to the recipe rotation. Good for family and company dinners too. I've done this using a rimmed sheet pan instead of a skillet and put veggies and potatoes around the chicken for a one-pan meal. Broccoli gets nicely browned and yummy!

Absolutely the best chicken ever, even the breast meat was moist! It's the only way I'll cook a whole chicken again. Simple, easy, quick, no mess - perfect every time. I've used both stainless steel and cast iron pans. great and easy technique for “roasted” chicken. I will say there were no pan juices, just fat in the skillet. Will add to the recipe rotation. Good for family and company dinners too.

MD
MILES D.
JOHN C.
9 days

Amazed this recipe works out as well as it does. Would not have thought that the amount of time under the broiler would have produced a very juicy and favorable chicken with a very crispy crust. Used my 12" Lodge Cast Iron skillet (which can withstand 1000 degree temps to respond to those who wondered if it would work) and it turned out great. A "make again" as my family rates things. This is a great recipe, and I will definitely make it again. My butcher gladly butterflied the chicken for me, therefore I found it to be a fast and easy prep. I used my cast iron skillet- marvellous!

CM
CHARLES M.
11 days

John, wasn't it just amazing chicken? So much better than your typical oven baked chicken and on par if not better than gas or even charcoal grilled. It gets that smokey charcoal tasted and overnight koshering definitely helps, something I do when time permits. First-time I've pierced a whole chicken minus the times I make jerk chicken on the grill. Yup, the cast iron was not an issue.