Curious Questions: How do you make the perfect slice of toast?

Lightly golden, charred at the edges, hot and dripping with melted butter or cold with a thick topping of the stuff? Rob Crossan evaluates the ultimate way to make toast — and pays tribute to the men and women who made it our go-to snack of choice.

No matter how many times you’ve done it, the denouement is always startling. Hot, comforting and defiantly naughty, a hot, crisp slice of bread bursting out of a pop-up toaster has an extraordinary capacity to deliver pleasure and surprise.

Surprise because, although habit should deaden us to the accompanying noise, our bodies never quite seem to learn. When that analogue, spring-loaded clatter of toast leaps up, our first reaction is to jump.

Our second, which arrives just as swiftly, is to start devouring potentially endless slabs of what is, regardless of our age, status or state of wellbeing, a humble, yet unimpeachable champion of comfort food.

Toast is the great leveller, whether you’re an early riser, a nocturnal pub returnee, a bathrobe-clad sleepyhead, a freshly heartbroken shadow or an economically strapped bohemian. Put two slices of white bread into the slot, push down the lever and you’re guaranteed that, within a few minutes, the world will feel an incrementally kinder sort of place.

There’s science behind those slices — 94.2 million of which are eaten by Britons every single day — but the true toast trailblazer has been all but forgotten by history.

It began in an anonymous factory in Still-water, a city in Minnesota, US, a century ago. One day, a mechanic called Charles Strite decided to take decisive action against the endless burnt toast on offer in the canteen.

He intended to improve upon the primitive prototype toasting machine already on the market. This consisted of an uncovered, enclosed wire grid into which users would insert bread and then flip by hand, trying not to burn themselves in the process.

A variable timer and springs were all part of Strite’s 1919 patent, putting the vital ‘pop-up’ prefix onto the toaster. Originally intended to be sold purely to the restaurant trade, Strite’s automatic pop-up was a huge success in the home on its eventual release in 1926. Adverts from the time proclaimed that the Toastmaster 1-A-1 delivered ‘perfect toast every time — without watching, without turning, without burning’. The only thing missing was sliced bread itself, which wouldn’t appear on American supermarket shelves for another decade.

Toast satisfies us in a way that ordinary bread, as wonderful as it is, simply can’t quite compete with. But why, and — perhaps even more importantly — how do you make the ultimate slice of toast?

Piece of toast - yum

The answer starts with what is known as the Maillard reaction: a kind of carbohydrate-based alchemy. Essentially, a multitude of flavour compounds are created in the chemical reaction that occurs when your own amino acids and the sugar contained in toast collide. These compounds break down and multiply until furanones come into being — another type of compound that emits a slightly charred, sweet smell not dissimilar to maple syrup or burnt sugar. These are both classic, subtle taste undertones in that perfect slice of toast.

The questions don’t end there, however. Length of toasting time and ideal colouration of the slice need to be considered before we even think about adding butter.

Breadmaker Vogel did the hard yards by making a laboratory team crunch through 2,000 slices of toast in the name of research, back in 2011. The conclusions stated that the perfect toast required 216 seconds inside a pop-up set at five on a typical toaster dial. This, they claim, should assure the optimum builder’s-tea colour of the toast, as well as the perfect taste, reached only when the surface is 12 times crunchier than the centre.

A pale, seeded loaf was considered to be the ideal type of bread, but only if the butter is applied immediately after the toast pops up. Dilly-dallying as you put the kettle on can result in the vital heat that helps the butter melt upon first impact being lost.

Sometimes, that tub of butter isn’t enough. Many now worship at the altar of smashed avocado on artisanal sourdough, but we’ve long been happy to experiment with pouring, spreading, mashing or laying almost every conceivable food stuff on a toasted base.

The Victorians were partial to nibbling a post-dinner slice of toast groaning with anchovies, cheese and ham. In the Middle Ages, a common form of sustenance was ‘pokerounce’ or toast topped with hot honey, ginger and cinnamon.

There is a deeply personal, as well as a social, history to toast. More than merely an easy-fix snack, toast is nostalgic; a crunchy portal to a time in our childhood just before we learnt to use cutlery, but shortly after we first began to understand the difference between food eaten for pleasure and food eaten purely for survival.

Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that the greatest ever description of toast and the wellbeing it induces comes from children’s literature. Kenneth Grahame’s Mr Toad is a great lover of toast and, if you can read the following passage without making a hasty rush for the bread bin, you’re built of stronger stuff than most:

‘When the girl returned, some hours later, she carried a tray… and a plate piled up with very hot buttered toast, cut thick, very brown on both sides, with the butter running through the holes in it in great golden drops, like honey from the honeycomb.

‘The smell of that buttered toast simply talked to Toad, and with no uncertain voice; talked of warm kitchens, of breakfasts on bright frosty mornings, of cosy parlour firesides on winter evenings, when one’s ramble was over and slippered feet were propped on the fender; of the purring of contented cats, and the twitter of sleepy canaries.’