The key to making a great panini is finding the right combination of ingredients.

“Panini sandwiches are like grilled cheese, only the grown-up version,” said Christopher Roth, owner and chef of Salt & Season Personal Chef Service in Rapid City.

Literally meaning “small breads,” panino — panini is technically plural but commonly used in the singular — is an Italian grilled sandwich with various fillings between artisan bread slices or crusty rolls.

“Panini starts with good quality bread,” said Alex Eichler, franchise manager for Soul Food Bistros, which is located inside five local Fresh Start Convenience Stores. “You’re going for that golden brown, crunchy, toasted experience.”

Any bread may be used, though focaccia, ciabatta, flatbread, and baguette are most common.

Roth prefers ciabatta. “It’s a must,” he said. “Ciabatta is slightly thicker and denser, good for grilling.”

Eichler recommends spreading a thin layer of butter on the outside of each slice before grilling to give the sandwich extra buttery flavor.

Filling the panini is the next step, and can vary greatly from kitchen to kitchen.

“Making a great panini is finding that right combo,” Eichler said. “Everybody loves cheese, but which one goes with which meat? You have to get the flavor in order.”

Whether choosing salami or prosciutto, mozzarella or provolone, "make sure the meats and cheeses are strongly flavored and assertive, so the bread flavor doesn’t overwhelm everything,” Roth said.

He is enthusiastic about creativity in pairing flavors. “There is a whole host of different ingredients you can add, like red peppers, olives, garlic, arugula, zucchini and mushrooms; anything with character or assertiveness.”

He also advises cooking vegetables slightly before putting them in the sandwich.

Eichler adds raw red onion to most of his panini to bring “crunch and sweetness, and to off-balance the dairy of the cheese and saltiness of the meat.”

Roth is cautious about introducing sauces before grilling. “Maybe add a little balsamic vinegar, but when you add sauce, you risk making it soggy and fall apart,” he said. He suggests including sauces on the side for dipping.

“We use the phrase ‘tip to tip’ when adding sauces,” Eichler said. “An even, very thin layer will make every bite the same, and the panini will taste consistent all the way through.”

His personal favorite is a peppercorn dressing topping that goes with their roast beef, provolone, and jalapeno panini.

The grilling technique for panini is simple. Brush all surfaces with oil, and grill the sandwich over medium, even heat, melting the cheese and heating the insides.

A panini press is optimal but not necessary. “Two cast iron pans will work,” Roth said. “Use the smaller pan on top as a press.”

Slightly flatten the panini, then flip over to brown the other side. “Not too hard, just enough to get those golden grill marks,” he said. 

“We cut the sandwich in half and put it back on the grill with the pieces about a centimeter apart,” Eichler said. “This will finish heating the core of the panini that might not have been fully hot, and you will get that cheese-stretching, ooey-gooey feel to it.”

Eichler offers a final word of advice with a smile: “Always cut the panini diagonally. It just tastes better.”

Rustic Winter Panini

Serves 4

2 Ciabatta loaves, each 12 inches in length

2 tablespoons salted butter

1/3 pound prosciutto, sliced paper-thin

4 ounces Brie cheese, thinly sliced

1 ripe pear, cored and thinly sliced

2 juniper berries, finely ground, or 1/4 tsp fresh rosemary, finely minced

Kosher salt and cracked black pepper

Vegetable oil for brushing

Preheat panini press. Cut ciabatta loaves in half lengthwise and thinly spread butter on insides. Layer evenly the two loaves with prosciutto, brie and pear. Lightly and evenly sprinkle with juniper or rosemary, and season with a pinch of kosher salt and black pepper. Close sandwiches and cut in half to make four sandwiches.

Thinly brush grill and sandwiches with oil and, in batches, grill on panini press, until cheese is melted and bread is golden brown. Cut sandwiches diagonally and serve.

Juniper berries can be found at most natural foods stores. Use immediately after crushing for optimal flavor. If you are pregnant, consult your doctor before consuming.

Recipe courtesy of Christopher Roth.