There may be more pressing issues in the food world, or more ambitious projects to tackle, but I am here to talk about perfecting the simplest of kitchen basics.
A good piece of toast, whether smeared with butter or draped with prosciutto, is a many splendored thing. Attention must be paid. While a badly toasted slice won’t necessarily ruin your day, it won’t brighten it, either. Ideally, it should.
Of course, just how the toast should be is really a matter of personal preference. The ideal, if I may generalize, is this: the perfect color (golden), the perfect texture (it should have a little “give” in the center) and the perfect temperature (hot).
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How do you get this perfect toast?
It’s the little details that matter. You must take charge of it while it cooks, and nurse it along. In all toasting, not just the toasting of bread, you want to achieve color gradually. Leave it too long on the fire and the moment is lost.
Different breads need different kinds of toasting. Tender, buttery brioche can’t take high heat; denser, moister whole-grain breads can. Challah, ciabatta, semolina bread, baguettes split lengthwise, pain de campagne — all make fine toast (actually, day-old bread makes the best toast), given proper attention. And when the toast is burned, just start over; scraping the black stuff off the top makes a horrid sound, and it never fools anyone, anyway.
Essentially, good toast has to be prepared to order. There’s a tiny window of time in which to eat it, too, although this refers mainly to buttered toast. (Olive oil toasts can taste good at room temperature but are better warm.) This is why you are more likely to get better toast at home than you are in a diner or restaurant, even a toast-crazed contemporary restaurant. Room-service toast is the worst. Sad, cold, flabby, with condensation on the plate.
Speaking of condensation, it’s a constant hazard. The quintessential British solution, a toast rack, will keep toast crisp but not warm. Wrapping toast in a napkin doesn’t really help. The best course is to serve and devour it immediately.
Nearly any cooking method, technique or tool is valid for toasting as long as you pay attention. Before automatic electric jack-in-the-box toasters came along, a toasting fork was used to hold a slice of bread over a fire. Great toast can still be made over coals in a barbecue. I have a few old-fashioned tin stovetop toasters bought in France and an aluminum pyramid-shaped American camping toaster that can be placed over a gas burner. They work fine. Sometimes I use a cast-iron stovetop grill and sometimes the broiler.
On the other hand, many of my friends swear by toaster ovens. With those, it’s probably better to toast most bread twice with the dial turned just past “light” rather than once with the dial on “dark.”
In the end, the best method is the one that works best for you.
In the morning in southern Spain, when you walk around, all you smell is toasted bread. As people huddle with their café con leche, they have two options: sweet or savory. For the former, it’s butter with jam or honey. I prefer the latter: a cruet of olive oil for drizzling along with a plate of raw garlic cloves for rubbing the toast. And if there’s a ripe red tomato to rub on the toast, too, so much the better.
RUSTIC TOMATO TOAST
Makes 2 toasts
2 slices of bread from a plain rustic loaf, cut about ½ inch thick
1 garlic clove, peeled
1 small ripe red tomato, halved, seeds squeezed out
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
Flaky sea salt or fleur de sel
1. Toast the bread on both sides under the broiler, on a stovetop grill or over coals, until it is perfectly browned, with a bit of give in the center, about one minute per side.
2. Pressing down firmly, rub the top of each toast with the garlic. Press the tomato, cut side down, against the toast. Rub to moisten the toast and give it a juicy red color.
3. Drizzle with olive oil and finish with a tiny sprinkle of sea salt. Serve immediately.