The Hot Brown, the signature sandwich of Louisville, KY, got its start in 1926. The head chef of the Brown Hotel, Fred Schmidt, grew tired of making ham and eggs for late-night suppers. So he decided to try something new – and exotic for the time. Roasted turkey breast was a rarity except at holidays, but his new sandwich used it as the main ingredient.
The original Hot Brown, an oven-roasted open-faced sandwich, featured sliced turkey breast on white, egg-washed toast. The meat and bread were covered with Mornay sauce, with a sprinkling of parmesan cheese. It was then broiled until the cheese turned bubbly and slightly brown. Pimento and bacon strips rounded out the dish. Pimento was soon replaced by tomato slices, and the signature sandwich caught on.
Unlike many other traditional dishes featured in this series1, the Hot Brown has seen many variations. While the sandwich adorns the menu of many Kentucky restaurants, it is almost rare to find one made with the original recipe. Sometimes mushrooms are added, as is ham. In too many cases, thin ‘deli’ turkey is substituted for turkey breast. And increasingly, in part due to the cost of true Mornay sauce, the sandwich is coated with cheeses like cheddar or even Velveeta.
But in the end, the original – or at least the tomato-modified one – is the best2.
Creating a Hot Brown
The ingredients are simple:
- 1 turkey breast, about 4 to 5 pounds
- 4 tablespoons unsalted soft butter
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
- Preheat oven to 425° F.
- Rub entire breast with butter and season with salt and pepper.
- Place in a small roasting pan and roast for 15 minutes. Reduce the heat to 350° F and continue roasting until an instant-read thermometer inserted into the center registers 155° F – about 1 to 1½ hours.
- Remove from the oven, loosely tent with foil and let rest 10 minutes before slicing.
- Eight ½-inch thick slices good day old white bread (recommended: Pullman or Pain de mie)
- 4 large eggs
- ¼ cup milk
- Salt to taste
- 4 tablespoons butter
- 4 tablespoons vegetable oil
- Whisk together the eggs, milk and salt in a medium bowl.
- Dip each slice of bread in the mixture and let sit about 30 seconds, or until completely soaked through.
- Heat 2 tablespoons of butter and 2 tablespoons of oil in a large nonstick saute pan over medium-high heat.
- Cook 4 slices of the bread at a time until golden brown on both sides.
- Remove and place on a baking sheet.
- Repeat with the remaining bread.
While other cheese sauces might be easier, nothing beats a creamy Mornay sauce.
- 3 tablespoons butter
- 3 tablespoons flour
- 2 cups milk
- Salt and freshly ground white pepper
- Pinch of nutmeg
- ½ cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
- In a medium saucepan, over medium heat, melt the butter.
- Stir in the flour and cook for 2 minutes.
- Whisk in the milk, ½ cup at a time.
- Season with salt, pepper and nutmeg.
- Cook, stirring constantly for 4 to 6 minutes.
- Remove from the heat and whisk in the cheese.
In addition to the previous ingredients for your Hot Brown, you will need
- Tomato slices
- Freshly ground Parmesan cheese
- 2 slices of bacon for each piece of bread, cooked to taste
- Preheat broiler.
- Place the egg bread on a baking sheet, place under the broiler and heat on both sides for 20 seconds just to warm through.
- Place one or two slices of bread in an over-proof dish with high sides to contain the sauce
- Top each slice of bread with 2 to 3 slices of turkey and 2 slices of tomato
- Ladle Mornay sauce over the top and sprinkle lightly with grated Parmesan
- Place under the broiler and cook until bubbly and the top is golden brown
- Remove from the oven, top each slice with 2 slices of bacon (I prefer to lightly cook the bacon, then have it finish cooking under the broiler)
- Garnish with parsley and a bit of the Parmesan
The sandwich, with Mornay sauce, bread and bacon, does not qualify as a dieter’s delight. In fact, some may be surprised by the richness of the dish. But it’s a meal like no other.