No buns, no sauce, no fries, no wedges: How to make the perfect chip butty
The classic sandwich is the one of best ways to shut out the pandemic. But assemble it properly
The humble chip butty: the perfect antidote to our troubled times? Photograph: MBI/iStock/Getty
Hard liquor and soft drugs aside, the chip butty is the most reliable way we human beings have to mentally shut out the pandemic and, momentarily, transport ourselves to a happier, more innocent place. But only if that butty is made correctly. Here’s how to do it properly.
It is an absolute no to all baps, buns, brioches, cobs, morning rolls, soda farls and other variations. First, unless you painstakingly mash your chips down into said roll, they are likely to tumble out like scrap metal scattering on to the hard shoulder from under a poorly secured tarpaulin. Second, a roll is too much bread.
Traditionalists will harrumph that the first chip butties used rolls, but we are not tied to that format, in the same way we no longer employ children as chimney sweeps or deny women the vote. Societies mature, civilisations advance; the chip butty has found its ideal home in sliced bread.
That bread must be white, of course. Anything on the wholemeal-seeded-rye spectrum will introduce a dominant note of, well, flavour – an earthy hint of actual substance – that is thoroughly unwelcome here. In a chip butty, the bread should be a soft, bland delivery vehicle, which is why sliced white pan is the right choice. No sourdough. Nothing remotely rustic.
Be sure to choose a loaf that is daisy-fresh, pliable, soft and strong, preferably one with that puttyish texture so derided by artisan bakers. Such plasticine-like bread makes the perfect casing for a chip butty. If thickly buttered (budgets will vary, but butter exponentially elevates a chip butty), such bread will almost mould itself around your chips, locking them in place.
One slice or two?
Food stylists love the two-slice chip sandwich, chips protruding at bizarre angles like gun turrets on a particularly fearsome warship. This is a media nonsense, one that, in its oversized, flapping lack of structural integrity, poses the same issues of spillage as the bap or roll. Instead, both as a matter of speed and chip security, a chip butty should be made with one uncut slice of bread half-stuffed with chips and folded in two, briefly and lightly squashed with your palm, and eaten. Heap. Fold. Squash. Repeat.
That need to have a stack of buttered bread waiting to go is one of the key reasons the chip butty is best enjoyed at home. Either you control these crucial details or you leave your fate in the unreliable hands of a chip-shop owner who may be a fellow true believer but who, equally, may be an uninterested business owner for whom a three-day-old loaf thinly scraped with the cheapest catering margarine constitutes bread and butter. Do you want to take that risk?
Between French fries (too airily insubstantial) and potato wedges (way too dense) there are myriad variations on the chipped potato, from scallops to curly Cajun fries, that are also not suitable for a chip butty. For instance, skin-on chips, which offer such welcome son-of-the-soil complexity in other contexts, would confuse matters here, just as, in their shatteringly glassy texture, Heston Blumenthal’s laboriously brilliant triple-cooked chips would introduce a jarring crispiness to the chip butty.
The perfect chips for a chip butty are lightly fried, slightly pale chips that, having steamed a little too long in their paper wrapping on the journey home, are an enchanting mix of softly yielding potato and chewy caramelised edges that, liberally salted and doused in vinegar, seem to be almost limply giving up on life as you pile them on to a slice of bread.
Think of a chip butty as expensive parquet flooring. It is made up of different pieces. There are joints. There are design details that, on close inspection, reveal it to be an extraordinary piece of work. But all that is of minor interest compared with how this smoothly interlocking spectacle works as a dazzling whole. Likewise, the settled elements of the chip butty – melting butter, hot oil, warm soft potato, gummy bread, salt, vinegar – should elide so smoothly that this interaction of fats and carbs, sodium and acidity should be almost imperceptible to the conscious mind. The ingredients should form a totality far greater than the sum of its parts.
To bring sauces into this finely tuned interplay is to introduce a rogue element that, for all it seems an exciting new dimension to your sandwich, ruins it. Such honesty is difficult for people to handle. But for all that these sauces may enliven chips elsewhere, adding tomato ketchup is an act of clumsy brutality in a chip butty; gravy is a danger with bread in play; and chip-shop curry sauce is a curveball. Mayonnaise, meanwhile, is appalling in hot sandwiches – a rich, gluey layer of aggro flavours.
The chip butty works. A fish sandwich can work. Yet the fish-and-chip sandwich is a dim-witted gilding of the lily, too much of two individually good things. It is too thick to eat comfortably, battered fish is slippery and difficult to control in a sandwich, and the bread muffles one of the key textural and acoustic pleasures of fish and chips: the satisfying crunch of crisp batter.
Sitting between those two extremes are lots of additions (Cheddar, Parmesan, fried egg, bacon and so on) that, although not actively unpleasant – how could they be, given that these are obviously complementary ingredients? – fail to heighten the chip-butty experience. They are, at best, curios, fleetingly interesting deviations, but ultimately distractions from the majesty of the chip butty classique.
Whenever you have fish and chips, as an anticipatory first course, celebratory finale or both. Let the chip butty book-end your experience.
Tea. Mugs of tea. Gallons of it. There is no debate here. And no room for blends that smell like the perfume counter in a department store. No Earl Grey bergamot business. No cinnamon. No fruit infusions of ginger, hibiscus and cranberry that aren’t tea no matter how many times you say it. A chip butty demands a strong, silent breakfast tea as uncomplicated as it is tasty, much like the gardener in a cliched erotic novel.
Note: those bitter Camellia sinensis leaves should be left to brew at such length that the caffeine will hit you like the sparkling rush of a less legal stimulant. Dilute the tea with just enough milk that it turns brick red and delivers its astringent tannins on to your tongue like a seaborne landing of US navy Seals.
So, chip butties: how do you eat yours? – Guardian