The first piece of toast that I ever ate was also the most perfect. There were no electric toasters in those days; certainly not in the Australian bush where my father was preparing a barbecue for the family. While the fire was dying down to a glowing layer of coals, he searched for the right tree branch – one that would provide a long enough “handle”, together with a narrow fork in which to clamp the bread while he held and rotated it over the coals. The branch had to be green, not dry, to avoid the disaster of having the toasting fork catch fire. He cut one from a tree with his pen knife, and fitted a slice of my mother’s home-made bread into the fork. With the springy branch gripping the bread, he squatted in front of the fire and rotated it until it was evenly brown on both sides. My mother cut it down the central uncooked line, coated the pieces with golden syrup, and passed them my brother and me for us to savour. And savour them we did.
Now we have the electric toaster, invented in America at the beginning of the last century. Modern toasters even have their own Internet sites, where users are asked to evaluate them on the basis of ease of use, appearance, cleanability; everything, in fact, except their ability to make decent toast. The manufacturers are wise not to ask, because according to a new “Which?” report these shiny, decorative kitchen monsters often produce toast that is, frankly, lousy.
What’s gone wrong?
Well, quite a lot, from a scientist’s point of view. To make perfect toast, the surface of the bread needs to be heated evenly to a temperature of around 150 degrees Centigrade. This starts the Maillard reaction between the starch and proteins in the bread, which creates the brown colour and the beautiful flavour. Heat the toast further, and the starch and underlying grain fibres begin to carbonise. That’s burnt toast. It’s a difficult balancing act, which many toasters fail to achieve.
One problem is the way that the toast in some toasters is gripped by metal bars, which conduct heat far too efficiently for the good of the toast. By the time that the rest of the toast is cooked, the bit under the metal bars has become overheated and carbonised. My scientific solution to this problem, which I offer freely to any toaster manufacturer, is to copy my father’s technique and have just one pair of bars, made of an insulating material, gripping the toast down the middle. The narrow line of bread underneath will remain soft and undercooked, providing a neat line to cut the toast in half after it emerges from the toaster.
To get the bread perfectly toasted, though, needs a uniform source of heat, such as my father’s glowing coals. The hot wires in many toasters are far from ideal, overheating the toast closest to them and undercooking the rest. It’s a hard problem to overcome with this sort of design, since the radiant heat from each wire drops off very rapidly with distance (to the fourth power, if you must know). Far better to have a red-hot plate as a heat source, although I am sure that toaster designers must have their reasons for preferring wires.
One could use a blow-torch, I suppose, as some chefs do to finish off the sugary surface of a crème brulee. Toast has a lighter flavour, though, and I have to confess that my efforts with a propane torch have left the toast tasting faintly of gas. At least it didn’t taste as bad as my father’s efforts along these lines, although he had a good excuse. His blowtorch was powered by a fine spray of kerosene.
A more successful way, if you have a large enough kitchen, would be to put in a bid at an auction of restaurant supplies for one of those huge toasters that are used in the breakfast rooms of large hotels. The bread is placed on a slowly moving conveyor belt and carried slowly under the hot wires to emerge as toast at the other end. This certainly toasts the bread uniformly, but the speed of the conveyor belt is critical, and the toast is quite likely to emerge either overdone or underdone. One way around this would be to put a viewing window in the top of the toaster, and cut a slot along the side through which the toast could be pulled out when it is just right.
Best of all would be my invention (not yet tested) of the spinning friction toaster, where the slice of bread is placed between two car brake pads spinning in opposite directions and heating the surface of the bread by friction.
That brings us to the vexed question of the composition of the bread, which would probably have to be made of concrete to withstand the forces generated by my invention. Some bread admittedly tastes as though it is made of concrete, but normal bread is made from flour, yeast, water and salt. Most loaves that you can buy in the shop also contain anti-staling agents to increase the shelf life, emulsifiers that help to disperse the fats and oils, conditioners that control the texture of the dough and humectants that keep the starch dry. These materials do a perfectly legitimate job, but it would not surprise me in the least if their effect on the Maillard reaction was considerable. One step towards perfect toast is to make your own bread, containing only the basic ingredients, just as my mother did. You will have to use it quickly, though, because it won’t stay fresh for very long.
Finally, what type of bread should you use – white, brown or granary? There is a clear difference when it comes to toasting. White surfaces reflect most of the heat that hits them. Brown surfaces absorb more of it. This makes granary bread very difficult to toast properly, since it contains seeds and husks which have a range of colours, so that they absorb heat at different rates. It also means that there is a big difference between toast made from white or brown bread. With white toast, the bread underneath the crisp toasted layer remains soft and moist. It’s a texture combination that I love, but which is very difficult to achieve with toast made from brown bread, which absorbs more heat, so that the surface underneath the toasted layer tends to get hot and dry. The way to get around this is to use a much hotter heat source than normal, so that the bread underneath doesn’t have time to get hot and dry. One way to do this would be to burn your kitchen down and cook your toast close to the glowing coals. It’s a solution that my father would have loved.
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