What Exactly Is A 'Hot Brown' Sandwich?

If you've never heard of the famous "Hot Brown" sandwich, you're in for a real treat — this late-night snack is one for the history books. Also known as the "Kentucky Hot Brown Sandwich," this open-faced, melty sammie was born about 100 years ago at The Brown Hotel in Louisville, Kentucky. The "Hot Brown" is the creation of the hotel's chef, Fred Schmidt, in the 1920s. It was his attempt to satisfy the tastebuds of The Brown Hotel's nightly 1,200+ worn-out dinner dance guests — they often stumbled around in the early morning hours with grumbling tummies after a night of kicking up their heels. Schmidt was said to have been inspired to give the people more than just a traditional ham and egg sandwich. In turn, he created an open-faced sandwich for the ages, smothered in a creamy French sauce and topped with crisp bacon. It's no wonder people have been coming from all over the world for decades to experience this critically acclaimed Kentucky treasure. 

What's a 'Hot Brown' sandwich made of?

What makes Kentucky's famous "Hot Brown" sandwich the belle of the Derby ball? "The persuasive nature of the Hot Brown lies in its overindulgent, comfort-food-to-the-max factor," Levon Wallace, executive chef at Louisville's Proof on Main, told Food & Wine. "It's everything you want to eat, especially after one too many mint juleps the day before."

The sandwich contains thick slices of oven-roasted turkey, smothered in a creamy Mornay sauce (basic béchamel sauce plus cheese). Pop it under the broiler until golden and bubbly, and top it all off with a couple of pieces of crisp bacon. The "Hot Brown" sandwich retains a bit of controversy, though — depending on who you talk to or where you get your sandwich, its ingredients may vary. 

While many eat it just as described, other classic versions feature the addition of tomatoes (just beneath the Mornay). Additionally, there are those who remember a time before the tomato when a different fruit graced the "Hot Brown." According to The Manual, the first version of the sandwich had pimentos and peaches. Rumor has it that pimentos and bacon were added for color. Eater notes that there was even once a "Cold Brown" that consisted of rye bread, turkey (or chicken), lettuce, hard-boiled egg, and Thousand Island dressing, but it never quite caught on. Over time, the recipe saw a few changes — peaches left the plate, and pimentos were replaced by the now seemingly ubiquitous tomatoes.

Where can I get a 'Hot Brown' sandwich?

Many people say the only place to get a real Kentucky "Hot Brown" is The Brown Hotel itself, which makes between 400 to 500 sammies each week (doubling during Kentucky Derby season), according to Louisville's tourism organization. It's probably good advice — it is, after all, the originator of the sandwich, and the chefs have been making it for nearly a century. In Louisville, however, everyone has their favorite "Hot Brown." 

If you'll soon find yourself in Louisville, you may want to check out some of the city's most favored purveyors of Kentucky's sandwich claim-to-fame. Bluegrass Brewing Co. on Main Street serves its rendition on sourdough and beat out The Brown Hotel in People Magazine's 2019 list of top sandwiches in each state (via the Courier-Journal). The Bristol Bar and Grille's version, which is served on French bread with added cheddar, is "widely considered to be among the best in the city." Then, there's Wild Eggs, which lists its "award-winning" version as the Kelsey Kentucky Brown (and tops it with — you guessed it— an egg!). If you feel like trying a whimsical variation on the pride of Louisville's theme, there's a signature pizza at DiOrio's Pizza and Pub called, "Big John's Hot Brown." 

Whichever "Hot Brown" experience you choose, you'll be safe knowing that you're going where many others have gone before in getting a taste of Kentucky history.