Toast seems, at first glance, like something too ubiquitous to even post about. However, the humble, rectangular toast is such an important part of our culture that I just could not ignore it.
Toast is made by exposing a slice of bread to heat. Toast is an essential breakfast food, often served at restaurants with a breakfast order without even asking for it. Many people enjoy toast with butter, and some even put jam or jelly on top. In England, orange marmalade is a popular toast-topper. The French like Nutella on their toast. Additionally, dry toast is a lovely option when you are sick to your stomach (read: vomiting).
But let’s look deeper at this rectangular breakfast treat. What is the chemical process that turns bread into toast? Wikipedia tells us that toast becomes toast due to a Maillard Reaction. A Maillard Reaction is “a type of non-enzymatic browning…[resulting] from a chemical reaction between an amino acid and a reducing sugar, usually requiring heat.” It was named after a chemist named Louis-Camille Maillard. Ok. Clear enough. Now for the nonsense:
“The reactive carbonyl group of the sugar reacts with the nucleophilic amino group of the amino acid, and forms a complex mixture of poorly characterized molecules responsible for a range of odors and flavors. This process is accelerated in an alkaline environment (e.g., lye applied to darken pretzels), as the amino groups are deprotonated and, hence, have an increased nucleophilicity. The type of the amino acid determines the resulting flavor. This reaction is the basis of the flavoring industry. At high temperatures, acrylamide can be formed.“
If you understand that, God bless you. I certainly don’t. But I figure I must have some science freaks among my readership, and babies, that was for you.
Since I found out I could no longer eat gluten, I’ve really missed toast with butter. Gluten-free bread is pretty universally nasty. But I’ve recently found that when toasted, or made into grilled cheese, it’s palatable. I bought a beautiful red toaster off Amazon for 14.99, and I’ve become a toasting queen. I ate toast with butter for breakfast this morning, in fact! And it was delish.
Part of the charm of toast is that it has other diverse uses than a breakfast staple. Some sandwiches are traditionally made on toast. I have fond memories of eating tuna on toast at the pool with my parents. Just writing about it makes me want one rull bad. BLT sandwiches (Bacon, Lettuce and Tomato, for those who have lived their sad, sad lives without ever experiencing one) are also traditionally made on toast slathered with mayonnaise.
I would be remiss not to address some more unconventional rectangular toasts in this post. First, let’s cover French toast. French toast consists of a slice of bread soaked in egg and pan-fried in butter. It is often eaten with maple syrup. In French, they call it “pain perdu,” meaning “lost bread,” because they used the stale bread that they otherwise would throw away and made it into something edible. Because of the inclusion of the egg-soak, French toast actually has a bit of nutritional value.
Another rectangular toast variation is Melba Toast. Melba Toast used to be one of my favorite snacks. It is super, super dry, and very thin and crunchy. There’s a special flavor to it that is probably also a result of some sort of Maillard Reaction, and I’ve always really liked it. Wikipedia tells us that Melba Toast “is named after Dame Nellie Melba, the stage name of Australian opera singer Helen Porter Mitchell. Its name is thought to date from 1897, when the singer was very ill and it became a staple of her diet. The toast was created for her by chef and fan Auguste Escoffier.”
All in all, the humble, rectangular piece of toast is a staple that has survived through the centuries. It is crunchy and delicious, especially when bathed in butter. Thank you, toast, for sustaining us until lunchtime. Thank you for improving our BLTs. And thank you for settling our tummies when we drank too much the night before.
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