Like all great dishes and amazing superheroes, the Reuben sandwich features an origin story. Actually, make that like all super heroes and great dishes, the Reuben actually has a couple of origin stories. It just depends on who tells it.
Many people typically assume it originated in New York City in a Kosher delicatessen. While that might be partly true, the Reuben is actually not Kosher since it combines meat and cheese. I live in Omaha, so I naturally prefer the version of the story about it originating here. Plus, it just makes a better story.
In any telling, the classic Reuben consists of thick slices of corned beef, a pile of sauerkraut, Swiss cheese, and some Thousand Island dressing, all grilled between two slices of rye bread.
The Great Reuben Sandwich
In Omaha Nebraska, Reuben Day commemorates the invention of the Reuben sandwich. Because, as the story goes, the sandwich was actually invented by a guy named Rebuen Kulakofsky, a Jewish Lithuanian-born grocer. Reuben attended a weekly poker game held at the Blackstone Hotel between the years of 1920-1935. The group came to refer to themselves as “The Committee.”
The Committee loved the sandwich so much that they asked one of the other poker players, Charles Schimmel, the hotel’s owner, put the sandwich on the hotel’s lunch menu. So, you could say he was dealt a winning hand in the game of life. He got a sandwich and day to commemorate it named after him. And the rest, as they say is history.
Of course, back in New York, another guy named Reuben also happened to be making a similar sandwich. He gets the distinction of having everyone believe Reubens come from New York delis.
The Original and still the best
Either way you tell it, the original grew out of the good old fashioned American love of sandwiches.
Of course, all the ingredients have roots in places besides America. You have the cheese which is Swiss. The rye bread comes from eastern Europe. Corned beef is an ancient way of preserving meat in cultures all over the world. Sauerkraut has a very ancient history and most likely originated with the Mongols or in ancient China.
Indeed, I guess since it is a melting pot of culinary arts from around the world, the Reuben is a distinctly American sandwich!
What is corned beef?
Corned beef is beef that has been preserved in salt. The “corned” part comes from the type of rock salt used. The salt has large granules roughly equivalent to the size of corn kernels.
Many people are familiar with corned beef because for some reason everyone wants to eat it on St. Patrick’s Day. This has more to do with Irish immigrants than it has to do with being some sort of Irish tradition from the old country.
In fact, since medieval times, most of the corned beef produced in Ireland was shipped elsewhere. When Irish coming to America found beef cheaper than pork, no surprise, it became a popular dish for the immigrants.
Also, many people confuse corned beef with pastrami. The two are very similar. However, pastrami more closely resembles smoked bacon. In essence, pastrami is like “cow bacon”. It comes from the belly, similar to bacon that comes from the pork belly. It is salted and smoked like pork bacon.
That being said, there is no reason you can’t use pastrami instead of corned beef for a Reuben. The price will be steeper, but the smokey flavor adds another great dimension.
Sauerkraut with corned beef
Just like salted beef relies on a traditional way of preserving meat from the days without fridges, sauerkraut does too. Sauerkraut uses a salty brine to preserve cabbage. However there are variations of sauerkraut too. Check out my Ultimate Guide to Sauerkraut article for more info!
Sauerkraut, or kraut for short, goes incredibly well with corned beef. When you think how far back these foods go, literally thousands of years, then it makes sense. You could say it is in our DNA at this point to enjoy them together.
Putting on the Swiss, the best cheeses for your Reuben recipes
A classic Reuben sandwich has a nice melted Swiss cheese covering the corned beef. There are many types of Swiss cheeses, so knowing which ones work best comes in handy.
Look for the more aged styles of cheese. The most popular and the type most associated with being “Swiss” is actually an “Emmental” cheese. Emmental cheese has those characteristic holes. It is also pretty firm so it melts well.
The tang of Swiss Emmental style cheese plays well with the briny flavors of the corned beef and sauerkraut. They bring out the best in each other. People that might find swiss cheese too tangy or sauerkraut to sour, or corned beef too salty, recognize that in a Reuben all of those things become non-issues.
Variations on the Reuben
When it comes to Reuben’s, the classic captures the most attention. However, there are actually a ton of variations on them. In fact, not all of them involve beef either.
There are Reubens made with fish. A grouper version is popular in Florida. A walleye reuben is found on menus in Minnesota and Ohio.
The Montreal version has smoked Montreal style beef.
There is a version called a “Rachel”. The Rachel is made with pastrami and coleslaw instead of corned beef and sauerkraut.
People make egg rolls, wontons, and salads.
There is even a vegetarian version! Instead of meat, veggies like cucumbers are stacked up with sauerkraut over the top. Vegans can even use soy based “cheese” products to melt over them.
Needless to say, the classic Reuben sandwich has inspired many a variation!
Thousand Island vs. Russian Dressing on a Reuben, the great debate.
They say that the Reuben sandwich is traditionally served with Russian Dressing, I’m not sure who “they” are, because in my world it’s always been made with Thousand Island dressing.
The two dressings are similar, and either slathered onto the rye bread will be delicious on a Reuben sandwich.
The Russian dressing, that really isn’t Russian at all, is easy to make or you can buy it in a bottle.
All you need to make Russian style dressing is some mayo, relish, ketchup, and a little spice such as horseradish or sriracha. Mix them together and you get Russian dressing!
The funny part? If you ask someone Russian what they would call it… Russians call it “ketchunnaise”.
As I mentioned before, I have always made all things Reuben with Thousand Island dressing. I like the sweetness, and the flavor it gives so much more. Thousand Island dressing is made with ketchup and mayonnaise also, but uses hard boiled eggs and sweet pickle relish. Use the store bought kind in a pinch, but making your own Homemade Thousand Island Dressing is simple and it tastes so much better.
Rocking the Rye
Rye bread makes a great Reuben even more fabulous. The herbal and savory element that the rye adds cannot be underestimated.
Rye bread for Reuben sandwiches can be either dark or light in color. More important than color, the texture of the bread should actually be pretty dense. You need the bread to be thick and stand up to the juiciness of the meat and moisture of the kraut or slaw.
I love the Reuben sandwich so much, that its inspired so many recipes ideas and ways to incorporate the flavors of the Reuben into other foods you may have never dreamed. That right there is what I call “Reubenizing.” I am petitioning for it to become a real dictionary term, feel free to join me in the fight!
I have so many Reuben-Inspired recipes, and I add to them all of the time. So make sure you visit often. Let’s get to the recipes!
Traditional and Not So Traditional Reuben Sandwiches:
- Traditional Reuben Sandwich – Of course I include a recipe for the original way of doing it.
- Brats Reuben style – Bringing up the brats doesn’t have to mean what you think it means.. In this case I put a spin on classic brats.
- Reuben Burger – Stack it high. Watch out. This is juicy and delicious and you might end up wearing half of it if you are not careful.
- Breakfast Sandwiches – Why not? You add eggs and play around with the types of rye bread, muffins, bagels to make an awesome egg Reuben that works for breakfast or brunch.
Speaking of breakfast and brunch. Who loves a good quiche? I mean they say real men don’t eat quiche, but that had to be before my husband tried my Reuben Quiche. I can confirm real men LOVE reuben quiche.
Reuben Inspired Appetizers:
- Fabulous Reuben cheese balls – Reimagine the sandwich as an appetizer ready cheese ball for your next cheese plate.
- Crock Pot Reuben Dip – While on the subject of appetizers… This dip for crackers tastes incredible. Serve with rye crackers to really bring the whole reuben flavor together.
- Reuben Totchos – take the Reuben and reinvent it as nachos but made with tater tots.. Is your head spinning yet?
- Reuben Pinwheels – A great appetizer, made with puff pastry.
- Hot Reuben Dip – a cheesy baked dip that tastes just like the sandwich when spread on rye toasts.
- Reuben Wonton Purses – little wonton wrappers filled with Reuben goodness and baked to perfection.
Main Course Reubenized Meals:
- Cream of Reuben soup – This soup will become a new rainy day favorite. It is so hearty and comforting.
- Reuben Casserole – If you can do a Reuben style quiche, then of course a Reuben casserole is possible too.
- Another kind of za, Reuben pizza – Just when you thought I was running out of great ways to reimagine the reuben I take two of the best comfort foods on earth and put them together.
- Hot potatoes, Reuben stuffed baked potatoes – You can only do bacon and sour cream stuffed potatoes so many times before you start thinking outside the box.
Hope you are inspired to “Reubenize” some recipes, too! Try some of mine to get into the idea, then please share if you come up with some yourself. I am always looking for new ways to enjoy the the infamous Reuben!