Kentucky Hot Browns are pure comfort food – an open-faced turkey sandwich topped with sliced juicy tomatoes, bubbly cheese sauce and crispy bacon. My mom added her own unique touches to the original hot brown recipe, making our family’s version unique – and we think it’s even more tasty than the original!
The Hot Brown sandwich has a long history, that begins at the historic Brown Hotel in Louisville, Kentucky. In the 1920s, the hotel hosted numerous dinner dances that went late into the night. The story goes that head Chef Fred Schmidt thought his patrons needed some good food to soak up all the alcohol they’d been drinking while dancing, and one night, using ingredients he had on hand, he created an open-faced turkey sandwich with Mornay sauce. It was a hit, and the hotel – as well as several other restaurants in Louisville – still serve a version of the Hot Brown sandwich today.
(Read about my visit to the Brown Hotel with my husband during one of our airstream road trips!)
While there are numerous Hot Brown recipes floating around, they basically are all some version of an open-faced turkey sandwich that’s topped with sliced fresh tomatoes, Mornay (cheese) sauce and cooked bacon. Rich, filling, comforting, and oh, so yummy!
Hot Brown Recipe Ingredients
My mom was born and raised in Louisville, and grew up eating various versions of this traditional Kentucky dish. Here’s the ingredients in her version, along with some variations and substitutions:
- Mornay sauce. This cheesy sauce is a must! Make sure its thick, so it doesn’t run off the sandwiches (see tips below). While Mornay sauce customarily calls for a hard white cheese, mom preferred the brighter color of yellow Cheddar.
- Toasted bread. Sourdough is my favorite bread to use, but almost any kind will work. Just make sure to toast it so it doesn’t get soggy!
- Sliced cooked turkey breast. In fact, Hot Browns are the perfect way to use up leftover Thanksgiving turkey! You can use smaller pieces of turkey (or even cooked chicken), and also dark meat, but the sandwich looks best with slices.
- Sliced baked ham. Not traditionally called for in a Kentucky Hot Brown, mom added in ham, in order to amp up the smoky, salty flavor provided by the bacon. Country ham was mom’s favorite ham to use; I’ve also made them with Black Forest and Virginia ham.
- Sliced fresh tomatoes. When tomatoes aren’t in season, try to find Roma (Italian plum) tomatoes as they will have more flavor. You’ll probably need to double the number of slices, since Romas tend to be smaller. No matter which kind you use, make sure to place the slices on paper towel in order to soak up any excess moisture.
- Crispy bacon. I like to crisp my bacon in the microwave (it’s fast and easy to clean up): place bacon slices directly onto a microwave-safe plate, cover with paper towel and microwave for 30 seconds per slice or until crispy. Remove and place on paper towel to drain.
What is Mornay Sauce?
Mornay sauce is a creamy, smooth cheese sauce. You start with a traditional French Béchamel sauce – a mixture of melted butter, flour, whole milk and sometimes egg yolk that’s cooked until smooth and thickened (see details in next paragraph) – and whisk in grated cheese, cooking until the cheese melts. Traditionally, Mornay sauce calls for a hard white cheese – most often Gruyère and/or Parmesan. You can also use Cheddar or other melting cheeses.
How to make a Mornay Sauce (or Cheese Sauce)
Mornay Sauce is a traditional French sauce that is the foundation of many, many recipes. In fact, if you’ve ever made Mac ’n Cheese, you’ve made a Mornay sauce. And, it’s actually quite easy to prepare! There are only a few basic ingredients: butter, flour, milk, white/melting cheese and sometimes an egg yolk (I don’t use egg, never have and don’t miss it). Here are the steps:
- First, make a light “roux” which is a cooked mixture of butter and flour.
I was taught to use the same amount of butter and flour (e.g., 1 tablespoon of each). In a saucepan, melt butter over medium-low heat. (I recommend using salted butter, otherwise you’ll end up adding more salt at the end, for the sauce to have the right flavor). Once the butter is melted and the bubbles are just starting to subside, whisk in the flour. All-purpose flour works fine (I like organic unbleached). Cook the mixture, whisking constantly for 3 minutes, to get rid of any lumps and flour-y taste. It will be the consistency of paste.
- Next, whisk in the milk, slowly pouring it in a stream.
Whole milk works best. You can use 1% or 2% milk, but the sauce won’t thicken as much, so it doesn’t work in all recipes. Similarly, half and half will make a thicker, richer sauce. You’ll need 1 cup of milk for every 1 tablespoon of butter and flour you use. Make sure your milk is at room temperature – you can even warm it up a bit in the microwave. (FYI, at this point you’ve now made another basic French sauce, called Béchamel.)
- Once you’ve whisked in all the milk and there are no lumps, turn the heat up to medium and cook the sauce, stirring, until it comes to a slow boil and the sauce thickens.
- Last, add grated cheese.
I like to use the same amount of cheese as milk. Reduce the heat back down to medium-low, and whisk in the cheese, adding it to the sauce in handfuls. Cook until the cheese is melted and the sauce is smooth and creamy.
- Season to taste with salt – and you’re done!
How to Make a Kentucky Hot Brown Sandwich
It’s not difficult to make these delectable sandwiches. The steps are summarized in the recipe card below; here are more detailed instructions:
- Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
Place the oven rack in the middle of the oven.
- Cook bacon.
Place 4 bacon slices on a large microwave-safe plate, cover with paper towel and cook for 30 seconds per slice, or until crispy. Place on paper towel to drain. Repeat with remaining 4 slices bacon.
- Prep key ingredients.
Place 8 slices turkey, 4 slices ham and 8 tomato slices on paper towels, in one layer, to drain off any extra moisture.
- Toast 4 slices bread, until a light to medium brown color.
- Make the Cheese (Mornay) sauce. See instructions above.
- Prep your pan.
Line a rimmed baking sheet (large enough to hold 4 slices of bread in one layer) with foil or parchment paper.
- Assemble the sandwiches.
Place toast slices, side-by-side, on prepared baking sheet. Put 2 slices of turkey and 1 of ham on top of each piece of toast (fold slices in half if large). Place 2 slices of tomato on top of each sandwich, overlapping if needed.
- Spoon cheese sauce evenly over the top of the sandwiches, covering completely.
- Top each sandwich with 2 slices of bacon, making an “X” shape.
- Bake until sauce bubbles, around 8 to 10 minutes. Serve immediately.
Tips on Making a Kentucky Hot Brown
Here are my tips on making our Kentucky Hot Brown sandwich recipe that will ensure it comes out perfect, every time:
- Use good quality sliced, roast turkey.
It’s a key ingredient, so it needs to be good!
- Toast the bread.
This will keep it from getting soggy.
- Dry the turkey, ham and tomatoes on paper towel.
Getting rid of excess moisture also keeps the sandwich from getting soggy, and the sauce from being diluted.
- Use good quality cheese in the sauce.
It’s another key flavoring ingredient!
- Make sure the sauce is thick.
If it’s too thin, it’ll run off the sandwiches. (I provide directions on how to thicken the sauce if it’s runny.)
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- 4 tablespoons butter
- 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
- 2 cups whole milk
- 2 cups shredded sharp Cheddar cheese
- 1/2 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
- 4 slices toasted bread (sourdough works well)
- 8 slices cooked turkey breast, placed on paper towel to dry, if needed
- 4 slices baked ham, placed on paper towel to dry if, needed
- 8 slices fresh, ripe tomato, slices placed on paper towel to soak up excess moisture
- 8 slices crispy cooked bacon
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Line a rimmed baking sheet with foil or parchment paper (a quarter-sheet pan works well).
- In a medium saucepan, melt the butter over low heat. Whisk in flour and cook, whisking, for 3 minutes.
- Whisk in milk, raise the heat to medium, and continue cooking, stirring, until very thick.
- Stir in cheese and continue cooking, stirring, until the cheese melts.
- Stir in Worcestershire sauce and season to taste with salt and pepper.
- Set aside and keep warm.
- Place toast slices in one layer on prepared baking sheet.
- Put 2 slices of turkey and 1 of ham on each piece of toast (fold slices in half if large).
- Place 2 slices of tomato on top of each sandwich, overlapping if needed.
- Spoon cheese sauce over top of all.
- Top with 2 slices of bacon on top of each sandwich, making an “X” shape.
- Bake until sauce bubbles, around 8 to 10 minutes. Serve immediately.
Variation on baking pan: these sandwiches can also be prepared in a rimmed baking dish or in individual gratin dishes.
Tip on fixing runny cheese sauce: Hot Brown cheese sauce needs to be fairly thick, in our opinion. If yours is runny, here’s how to fix it – in a small bowl, whisk together 1 tablespoon flour with 1 tablespoon of the sauce. It will form a paste. Slowly whisk in 1 tablespoon water, just until smooth (no lumps). Add another tablespoon of water if needed. Slowly whisk flour mixture into sauce and cook, over medium-low heat, until thickened.
- Category: sandwiches, lunch, dinner, main dish
- Cuisine: Southern
Keywords: hot sandwich, turkey, Mornay sauce
Note: this is an update to an earlier post. I added in better photos, my tips for making the perfect Hot Brown, and more details in the recipe instructions.