by Alastair Bland, Michaeleen Doucleff and Eliza Barclay, The Salt at NPR Food (4/22/14)
Leave it to San Francisco to turn one of the simplest — and cheapest — dishes into the trendy snack du jour.
We're talking about toast.
"Artisanal" toast is made from inch-thick, snow-white or grainy slices, lathered in butter and cinnamon or peanut butter and honey, then wrapped individually in wax paper.
And you think that latte is expensive. Each one of these slices will set you back at least $3.50.
The toast craze started at an unlikely location: a modest coffee shop, called Trouble, about four blocks from San Francisco's sleepy Ocean Beach.
There, Giulietta Carrelli started selling the thick slices seven years ago. Now the "$4 toast," as the critics label it, is a featured item in bakeries, cafes and restaurants in San Francisco and beyond. Some even have a toast menu that changes daily.
Aficionados say it's the truest comfort food. And made well, toast will bring out the ultimate crumbiness and caramel notes of bread.
All the talk of toast got us feeling creative.
And the more we thought about it, we realized there might actually be further potential in toast to unleash. Forget the ordinary toaster. We decided to combine two hot trends, artisanal toast and DIY. Call it TIY.
We began with a bag of Trader Joe's white bread. Then we divided and conquered the art of toasting, the primitive way — with fire — all the way to the laptop. Yes, we tried to make toast with computer-generated heat and air. We also used a blowtorch, a pan of butter, a food dehydrator, a dryer and a coffee maker.
Our findings might surprise you.
Paleo is everywhere these days, so we had to give paleo toast a try. Glossing over the details of paleo bread-making, we went straight to the fire and a stick.
We drove a slender stick through our slice of bread, which made a long, jagged hole. Our first attempt at caveman toast failed after 30 seconds, when the toast fell straight into the fire. Unfortunately, it turns out that bread doesn't hold up quite as well to an open flame as denser foods with small surface areas, like marshmallows and hot dogs.
Our second attempt fared better. Gripping our stick carefully so as not to drop more bread in the fire, we tried to get the bread as close to the flame as possible without picking up any ash or soot from nearby logs. This was hard.
After a couple of minutes, we decided that our piece of unevenly charred bread would have to do. But it's the perfect piece for the eater who wants a little bit of everything: a gold patch, a burnt patch, a barely toasted patch.
Fire-roasted toast also boasts deep, smoky flavor. And with a little butter, it's quite a nice variation on a quotidian breakfast.
Our next aim was to create toast with the perfect ratio of butter to crumb. Why not practically saturate the bread in this most flavorful of fats and fry until crisp?
We cranked up the stove to high and dropped 4 tablespoons of unsalted butter into a saucepan. Once the butter started to froth and brown, we gently lowered in the slice. After letting it sizzle furiously for about 15 seconds, we flipped it, discovering that the other side had turned gorgeously golden.
Under the light, our toast glittered with tiny shards of butter clinging to the surface. Far from being wet and sticky, the toast was crisp, and almost dry to touch. The taste? Gloriously rich, with delicate crunch and depth. If you want the most calorific way to make toast, this is it. And this method guarantees a perfectly even distribution of butter.
You could say that dehydrated bread is the Slow Food of toast. The plastic plug-in countertop dehydrator is commonly used for turning pieces of fruit into leathery slabs and fresh mushrooms into crispy-dried chips. But we thought it might produce an interesting version of toast, too.
Dehydrating bread into something toast-like takes two days, as a coil of heated metal warms the air, pulls out moisture and sends it upward and out through the ventilation slats at the top.
Like your toast pale and crispy? Good. Because a soft slice of white bread comes out brittle as a matzo cracker after two days in the food dehydrator. In fact, we found the dehydrated bread shattered easily when subjected to the force of a butter knife.
Our conclusion from this experiment: If you want Melba toast the slow way, by all means, plug in that dehydrator. But if you want the sugar in your bread to caramelize, seek out some heat.
We wondered how we could make the most evenly browned toast with the fluffiest center. How about a blowtorch, that star of the modernist chef's kitchen? We headed down to Dad's workroom. The plan was to coax every square inch of the bread to caramelized perfection with the intense propane flame of a blowtorch. Seemed like it could be a slam dunk.
Trouble is, the flame of a blowtorch can be too hot, charring the surface of the bread before the interior warms. The flame is so concentrated that the bread cannot be thoroughly heated — as one corner is torched, the opposite corner is cooling down. Check out our video at the top of the page.
In the end, blowtorched toast was evenly browned and looked quite nice, with the unburned imprint of the tongs embedded in the bread. But it wasn't warm enough to melt butter on the surface. The toast had a singed flavor, fortunately without any hints of propane.
Now, there's no doubt that blowtorching your breakfast will impress guests. And we wouldn't be surprised if professional toast makers begin applying a touch of blowtorch flame to finish their product before their customers. It could be the gateway to $8 toast.
Coffee maker toast:
After our success with the blowtorch, we decided to test out other appliances that aren't exactly made for cooking. Since the dishwasher clearly doesn't create the dry heat needed for toast, our next thought was the tried-and-true coffee maker.
A few months ago, we made an entire lunch in Mr. Coffee. Surely, we could toast a slice of bread on the appliance's burner, right?
The answer is a resounding yes. Once again, the coffee maker proves it can do way more than brew a cup of Joe.
But you can't be in a rush when making coffee-maker toast. Creating a brown, crunchy layer on the bread's surface takes about 20 minutes.
And we had to put something heavy on top of the bread to press it against the coffee maker's burner. We used an apple, but a coffee mug works, as well. Just make sure whatever you choose doesn't crush your soft slice of bread.
Alas, coffee maker toast isn't perfect. The top side gets a bit squashed. And when we tried to flip it over, it stuck to the burner. So not our top choice, but it'll make some passable toast.
Laptop and clothes dryer toast:
Next, we really started thinking outside the box. Why not try a few appliances that aren't even found in the kitchen?
The first item we turned to? A laptop.
We sat the bread next to the laptop's fan. And waited. Like a day or two. And the results were disappointing. Nothing happened. Literally.
The fans on modern-day laptops don't emit enough heat or air to dry out the toast.
The job required a bigger, hotter fan. Hair dryer? Too labor-intensive. How about the clothes dryer? We put the bread right next to the machine's vent and started a 50-minute cycle to dry Sunday night's laundry.
Alas, we were hindered by energy efficiency. The air coming out of the vent was too cool. It barely dried out the toast. And there was definitely no browning or crisping going on. (Note: We didn't use a dryer sheet. So at least the toast didn't pick up a floral flavor.)
The TIY Verdict
If you're looking for a delicious treat — and a few extra calories — try pan-fried toast. To impress your friends, pull out the blowtorch. And when you're stuck in a motel room and get a hankering for toast, the coffee maker should do the trick.
Or just wait for a toastery to open up in your neighborhood.
Copyright 2014 NPR.