The French Dip: Back to Basics

Hot roast beef with a little horseradish sauce or mustard on a French roll and au jus on the side in which to drench it. It comes with mass appeal and culinary nostalgia that must be revered. There’s hardly a simpler or more enduring sandwich than this – and it’s American made. Baguette and au jus notwithstanding, France had nothing to do with the sandwich’s origin. It first appeared in Los Angeles in the early 1900s.

Two Los Angeles, California, restaurants, Philippe the Original and Cole’s Pacific Electric Buffet, claim to have invented the sandwich 10 years apart. In 1918, a policeman ordered a sandwich from Philippe the Original, and the cook accidentally dropped the sliced French roll into the roasting pan filled with hot juices from the oven. The policeman still wanted the sandwich, and the next day returned with friends wanting more dipped sandwiches, according to restaurant lore. A few miles away, Cole’s Pacific Electric Buffet claims that 10 years earlier, its chef developed the dipped sandwich to soften the roll for a customer complaining of sore gums. It’s unclear who can claim the French dip as their own. To complicate matters, it also happens to be very similar to Buffalo, New York’s, “beef on a weck,” which can be traced all the way back to the 1800s, so maybe neither of these restaurants were that original!

Over distance and time, the sandwich has undergone myriad adaptations. For example, in the East, French dip sandwiches may include caramelized onions and mozzarella cheese – putting little distance between it and the Philly cheesesteak. In the South, slow-roasted versions reign supreme. And while modernized versions may appear on paninis or pretzel bread with roasted garlic aioli in place of horseradish sauce, it’s the classic version that remains the perennial favorite. So what’s so great about it? Let’s celebrate the French dip by examining the essence of each element, how it should be prepared, and how understanding these elements can make your sandwich even more delicious.

The Meat

Role: the main attraction providing most of the flavor.

Prime rib is the choice gourmet option on some menus today. Others use top round, thinly sliced sirloin, and even London broil. Roast beef was the home-cooking choice at Cole’s – using beef shoulder clod roast or chuck roast. If you want to get back to basics and do this sandwich the classic way, this is what you should go with.

For additional flavor, prepare a rub for the roast. A traditional French dip rub that best enhances the flavor of the meat features a paste of garlic, fresh herbs, salt, and pepper. Make sure the beef is evenly and thoroughly coated and let it stand for an hour at room temperature before roasting. Roasting the meat on a bed of mirepoix (which acts as a rack to keep the meat suspended above the drippings) can add depth and complexity to the jus. Roast the meat at a high temperature first

Roasting the meat on a bed of mirepoix (which acts as a rack to keep the meat suspended above the drippings) can add depth and complexity to the jus. Roast the meat at a high temperature first to sear and caramelize the outside, then reduce the heat to 225°F-275°F and slow roast to an internal temperature of 130°F. For best results, cook it just past medium-rare. Always let your beef rest at least 30 minutes before trimming to allow for proper carryover cooking and maximized moisture retention and flavor. Refrigerate the roast after it has rested, as you want it to be as cold as possible before thinly slicing. Also, be sure to adhere to local health codes when cooling large pieces of roasted meat and poultry – some codes require breaking them into pieces as small as five pounds in order to cool safely!

The Bread

Role: the vehicle for fillings; gives the sandwich its shape.

Crusty French baguette was the original bread and is likely the reason the sandwich was named French dip. The bread must be sturdy to withstand the juicy meat and a dip into warm au jus. Hard-crusted Hoagie rolls, ciabatta, focaccia, or house-made artisan breads with thick crusts should all stand up, but your best choice is a classic French roll. Spread the cut sides of your roll with butter and toast it on a griddle right before serving for the perfect texture – it must be toasted enough that you still get a desirable texture, even after the sandwich is dipped in the warm au jus.

The Au Jus

Role: the flavorful sidecar.

Simplicity is the key to a classic and delicious au jus dipping sauce. Classically speaking, it should be made from your roast beef pan drippings (the “fond”) and deglazed and dissolved with beef stock or broth, defatted, and seasoned aggressively. If you take this course,
be sure to menu it as natural – a buzzword that is music to consumers’ ears these days. Beef consommé may be the liquid of choice back in the day, but also consider a high-quality canned beef broth, condensed onion soup, or even beer, as some do.

The Onions

Role: a secondary filling providing a contrast in texture.

It is more of an East Coast practice than a step in the traditional recipe, but adding caramelized onions can take your sandwich from good to great. Use a classic caramelization process; melt a healthy portion of butter, add the onions, salt and white pepper, and cook them until they’re translucent and caramel colored. Make sure you don’t cut the onions too thin as they will burn, stick to the bottom of the pan, or worse yet, dissolve altogether. A thicker cut also prevents them from drying out. Stick to medium heat the whole time and be patient, it takes a while for the onions’ sugars to caramelize. If you try to turn up the heat, your onions will burn and won’t cook properly.

The Condiments

Role: complementing flavor, moisture, and richness; helps to hold the sandwich together.

While not a necessary element, adding condiments won’t hurt your French dip. Horseradish sauce and spicy mustard were the condiments the sandwich originally offered – do not stray from these selections! If you’re eager to try something new, minor variations might include horseradish mayonnaise or mustard offering interesting flavor variations – as in beer-spiked whole grain mustard or honey mustard. Serve with a pickle spear and the hot, delicious sandwich is ready to go.