My friend Mark Webb was bemoaning the quality of NHS toast the other day but as he was doing so I was thinking how nice his description of the toast sounded. I felt confused.
Toast, I can say without stirring controversy, is sliced bread that has been browned by exposure to radiant heat. But, as I’ve discovered, practically every other aspect of our relationship with this daily staple for many is as polarising as Trump, Brexit, Corbyn or whether that dress was blue, black, white or gold.
Of course, there are facts:
The browning is the result of what is known as a Maillard reaction, altering the flavour of the bread and making it firmer on the surface, at least, so that it is easier to spread toppings.
Toasting is often used to make stale bread more palatable.
Bread is often toasted using a toaster. These are normally upright. You stand the toast in the slots, lower it, and a timer will pop it up. Very occasionally it will pop onto a plate. You can make toast under a grill. There are also sandwich toasters which compress two slices of bread and a filling, sealing the heated or melted filling in the interior. You’ll find sandwich toasters in the back of kitchen cupboards in or boxes in most garages.
Sometimes, students will try to turn their toaster into a cheese on toast maker by putting it on its side. This is NOT TO BE RECOMMENDED AND IS AN EXTREME FIRE HAZARD. Toast can also be cooked on open fires using a long-handled fork or a special wire rack with a handle. Disadantageously, this method also tends to toast your hand. Ryvita doesn’t toast well. Here’s a toaster from the 1920s:
Toast is mostly eaten with butter (salted or unsalted) or margarine (deliciously defined as ‘a water-in-oil emulsion derived from vegetable/animal fats, with a fat content of at least 80% but less than 90%, that remain solid at a temperature of 20°C and are suitable as spread’) and sweetened toppings such as jam or honey. Marmite or Vegemite, depending on whether you are from north or south of the equator, is another popular choice. (At the equator, there are frequent clashes.)
Other popular spreads include marmalade and peanut butter. Banana, to my surprise, is less popular.
Toast is a common breakfast food. When buttered, toast may also be served as accompaniment to savoury dishes such as soups or stews, or topped with other ingredients such as eggs or baked beans or melted cheese or avocado or tomato or practically anything as a light meal. While slices of bread are a commonly toasted food, bagels and muffins are also toasted, as are baguettes, paninis and pitta bread. Toast, I’m afraid to say, may contain carcinogens caused by the browning process.
The word toast comes from the Latin torrere ‘to burn’.
The first reference to toast in print is in what might be the world’s worst recipe (or at least the world’s worst-named food) for ‘Oyle Soppys’ (flavoured onions stewed in a gallon of stale beer and a pint of oil) that dates from 1430. Here’s an extract from the recipe:
‘Oyle Soppys. Take a gode quantyte of Oynonys, an mynse hem not to smale, an sethe in fayre Water: than take hem vp, an take a gode quantite of Stale Ale, as .iij. galouns, an ther-to take a pynte of Oyle fryid, an caste the Oynonys ther-to, an let boyle alle to-gederys a gode whyle; then caste ther-to Safroune, powder Pepyr, Sugre, an Salt, an serue forth alle hote as tostes, as in the same maner for a Mawlard and of a capon, and hoc quoere.’
From the 1400s, toast was something that was put it into drinks to flavor it. Falstaff in The Merry Wives of Windsor, 1616, says: “Go, fetch me a quart of Sacke [sherry], put a tost in ‘t.”
The world’s most expensive piece of toast sold for $28,000 on eBay. The decade-old toasted cheese sandwich said to bear an image of the Virgin Mary was bought by an internet casino. Virgin Mary toast owner Diane Duyser, from Florida, said at the time of sale that the sandwich had never gone mouldy since she made it 10 years earlier. Duyser said she noticed the image burned into her sandwich as she was about to tuck into it in Autumn 1994.
Photoshop has ruined the toast miracle story.
It hasn’t yet ruined the bacon miracle story. You were always on my rind.
On the subject of Elvis, he was apparently a toast connoisseur. A prelude to his sequin jumpsuit phase was a growing fondness for toasted banana, bacon and peanut butter sandwiches. At some sittings, according to legend, Elvis would consume 8,000 calories worth. Here’s a recipe:
Here’s a picture:
Here’s a book of Elvis recipes. I love the title.
Toast has become an artform. Chuck Close eat your heart out.
But what makes the perfect piece of toast? I had assumed that this was a matter on which some sort of consensus could be reached. I was mistaken.
Cold, hot, lightly browned, charcoaled, stood up to avoid condensation, eaten straight from the toaster, butter applied to hot toast, butter applied to cold toast, thick, thin, with jam, with marmite, with vegemite, white, brown, sourdough, rye, with boiled eggs, with Rose’s Lime Marmalade, with avocado, cut in half down the middle, cut in half diagonally, cut into quarters. Too many options.
I carried out some polling on toast. Here are some things on which there is a clear majority.
Best bread for toast:
Very dark brown and buttered hot 3%
Very dark brown and buttered cold 11%
Light brown and buttered hot 72%
Light brown and buttered cold 14%
Toast has become quite a thing in San Francisco. Buying toast at a fancy café can cost up to $6.
There are postal services for ordering toast. Toast By Post offers an array of toasts.
In Massachusetts there is a Museum of Burnt Food. The museum has a whole room devoted to toast.
Scientists have investigated various issues related to toast. One university study concluded that toast needed to be heated to 120 degrees C, butter applied straight from the fridge and applied unevenly within two minutes of the bread coming out of the toaster. The study also concluded that the amount of butter should be one-seventeenth the thickness of the bread.
Delia Smith has a recipe for toast. I don’t agree with Delia’s recipe.
Kerstin Rodgers, the acclaimed food blogger, writer and supper club pioneer, has made a video about how to make Marmite on toast.
Personally, I prefer thick sliced white toast, burnt to charcoal, butter applied hot, with squashed banana on it, sat in front of a two bar electric radiator with my brother at the age of eight in 1971 watching Disneyland on a black and white TV with no vertical control on a wintery Sunday night in Canberra with the miserable thought of school in the morning. Replicate that, Hipsters.