Perfect French Toast: What’s The Secret?
You don’t often say “France” and “superheroes” in the same breath (or maybe you do!), but French toast really does come to the rescue — of otherwise-useless stale bread. It has evolved into a Sunday-morning staple, yet making your homemade version as good as your local brunch emporium’s is not as easy as it should be.
Thank goodness Rick Rodgers is on the case. The author of Williams-Sonoma Breakfast Comforts is to brunch what Homer Simpson is to snow-plowing: “Mr. Brunch, that’s my name, that name again is Mr. Brunch.” Fortunately, he enjoys being peppered (or cinnamonned) with annoying questions, and gave up his secrets without too much of a struggle.
Choose Your Own Breadventure
Not that he’s opinionated or anything, but Rodgers is appalled at the idea of sourdough French toast. “The sour flavor battles the sweet custard in all the wrong ways; the crust is too hard; the bread has too many holes in it. What’s the point? You’re getting cheated, because there’s no bread where you would really like bread to be.” Instead, he says, choose a bread “that already has eggs in it: challah, Texas toast, Hawaiian bread.” Sweet breads are also a delicious starting point: “If you get a huge loaf of pannatone from Tia Rosa, that’ll make some great French toast. Cinnamon raisin bread is another great choice.”
But don’t over-think it. “Any great bakery sandwich bread will work if you slice it about an inch thick and leave it out the night before,” he says. If you forget to do that, “Put it straight onto an oven rack at 350 degrees for 10 to 15 minutes, let it cool, then go on with your recipe.” You are most definitely better off with unprocessed bread; supermarket bread has so many dough conditioners, it’ll mold rather than get stale. Weird. Which brings us to…
Don’t Get Fresh
Remember the origins of this eggy entrée: the French invented it to use up stale bread from last night’s dinner. “Fresh bread falls apart in the custard. Just-right stale bread will soak it up like a sponge, yet still hold its shape.”
Do Yourself A Flavor
We all know the basic drill: eggs, milk, a little sweetener. “There’s a lot of room for improvement here,” says Rodgers. You can add:
• Half and half (not cream, which is too rich) instead of milk
• Extract of vanilla, almond or rum
• Citrus zest
• Cinnamon (duh)
• Brown sugar, agave or honey
You can also “layer your flavors” by choosing complementary tastes — the acidity of citrus plus the warmth of cinnamon, for instance.
The Mighty Soak
Not too long, not too short: How much the custard permeates the bread is critical. “You want to end up with a French toast that’s crispy on the outside and fluffy on the inside,” says Rodgers. This means you’ve got to permeate every bit of bread without tipping into falling-apart territory. He recommends a 15–20 second soak.
Your Secret Weapon
There’s one thing the restaurants probably do routinely that you would never think to do, but Rodgers says it’s the secret to everything: clarify your butter. “It’s easier than you think,” he promises, “and it’s the secret to any great griddle cake.” Why? Clarifying the butter — or heating it, then straining out the milk solids — raises the smoking point, so you have “a golden yellow pure fat that can be heated high enough to cook your toast without burning.” Especially after the third or fourth batch, you’ll find your butter getting darker and darker, and your toast following suit. This is how you avoid that. (You can often buy clarified butter at the supermarket — it might be called ghee, the Indian version.)
Keep It Warm
“There is a tyranny that comes with breakfast cakes, because how do you keep them warm as you cook the whole batch?” Rodgers rather dramatically points out. He solves this by putting them in a warm (200˚F) oven, directly on the rack so you don’t get one side soggy. (You can also use my trick of putting it between two plates, which Rodgers deemed “cute,” but you run the risk of the steam getting the toast too wet. Hmph!)
Serve With Style
Take the butter and syrup out of the fridge before you start cooking and set them on that hot stove as you cook so you have softened butter and warmish syrup. “I take them out the night before,” says Rodgers. “You can also put them in the microwave.”
Know Your Syrup
If you come away with nothing else, Rodgers wants you to know that Grade B maple syrup is not like Grade B eggs. “It’s not a quality standard,” he says. “It means it has a darker color and richer flavor.” Switch now and be amazed at the difference.
One Last Trick
As you’re cooking, heat berries in some syrup in a saucepan. “Just until the syrup comes to a boil,” says Rodgers. Voila: infused syrup without the trip to IHOP.
What are your secrets to perfect French toast? Tell us in the comments below!
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