Food & Drink

What’s the secret ingredient for better French toast?

Using whole milk and adding a bit of cream in the batter can go a long way to creating great French toast.
Using whole milk and adding a bit of cream in the batter can go a long way to creating great French toast. Jessica Emily Marx/The New York Times

If you’re like me, when it comes to French toast, you’re a slosher, someone who throws the ingredients together. Your method might go something like this: Slosh milk into bowl, add a couple of eggs and whisk. Soak the bread, and sizzle in butter until done.

Sometimes it’s delicious, and sometimes it’s disappointing. But it’s rarely as good as the $12 French toast you spend an hour in line to get at a Sunday brunch.

French toast that good demands a recipe. Fortunately, it’s one that calls for no new ingredients, tools or technology. You don’t even need stale bread.

When I set out to make a worthy French toast, I called the ace of the new American breakfast: Jessica Koslow, chef and owner of Sqirl in Los Angeles. At Sqirl, the French toast is cut so thick that it’s cooked like a steak: seared on the stove, then roasted in the oven. (It’s also stuffed with a pocketful of jam.)

What could home cooks do to make their French toast better?

“Cream,” she said immediately. Many cooks think of French toast as an egg dish, but restaurant recipes lean just as heavily on cream and whole milk.

And, she said, the bread shouldn’t be soaked, only dunked, making it possible to use fresh bread, which is less absorbent.

French toast that has been oversoaked stays damp and gooey in the middle even after the outsides are crisp and brown. A dip lasting for a few Mississippis on each side is enough.

Stale bread is the traditional choice. French toast is a classic in part because it uses an ingredient that people tend to have around. But thick slices of fresh bread work just as well. They soak up slightly less liquid than stale bread, but if the bread itself is delicious, the result is just as good. (Heresy alert: Maybe better.)

While freshness may not matter as much, the type of bread does. This isn’t the place for whole-grain bread: Nothing ruins the custardy pleasure of French toast faster than a stray rye grain or wheat berry. Sourdough, with its chewy crust and tang, is almost as bad.

Basic white bread is the clear choice, as are brioche or challah. It’s worth seeking out a whole loaf, so you can make substantial slices.

Whether French toast should be sweet itself, or unsweetened, is a matter of taste. Many recipes include sugar (alongside Grand Marnier, amaretto and other cloying concoctions) in the egg-milk mixture. I prefer it unsweetened, to let the egg-milk-bread flavors shine through – the better to enjoy with maple syrup.

The final, irresistible flourish of restaurant French toast is in the lacy brown crust. You’re looking for the golden brown of caramelized sugar, not the dull brown of overcooked egg whites. Adding egg yolks is part of the solution. Dusting the French toast with sugar at the end of the cooking, flipping it often to build a crisp crust, is another. This is optional, but it does make people mad with lust – for more French toast.

Skillet French Toast

2 whole eggs

2 egg yolks

2 cups whole milk, or 1 3/4 cups milk, plus 2 to 4 tablespoons cream

1 teaspoon vanilla extract (optional)

Pinch of salt

Unsalted butter, for cooking

8 slices white bread, such as Pullman, brioche or challah, sliced 1/2- to 3/4-inch thick

Cinnamon sugar or granulated sugar (see note)

Heat oven to 200 degrees, and place a wire rack on a sheet pan inside.

In a wide, shallow bowl, whisk the eggs, additional yolks, milk, vanilla (if using) and salt until foamy and smooth. Set aside. Place a small lump of butter (enough to coat the bottom of the skillet when melted) in a large, heavy nonstick skillet over low heat. It will melt very slowly.

When butter is just melted and bubbling, raise heat and bring to a sizzle. Place 2 slices of bread in the bowl with the egg mixture. Turn them a few times in the mixture until evenly saturated, about 5 seconds on each side. Do not soak.

Lift a slice out of the egg mixture, gently shake off any excess, and place in the pan. Repeat until the skillet is full, and let the slices cook at a sizzle for about 2 minutes, until just turning golden brown on the bottom.

Add another small lump of butter to the pan and flip the slices over, swirling the pan so that the fresh butter coats the bottom. (This will allow the second side to brown.)

Continue cooking over low heat until the second side is golden brown. Dust with cinnamon sugar, flip again, and dust the other side. Test for doneness by pressing the center: The dent should slowly spring back. If it remains, the interior is not yet cooked. Continue cooking at low heat, flipping occasionally, until done. Serve immediately, or transfer to the oven to keep warm while cooking remaining bread. Serve as soon as possible. Top with maple syrup, berries, jam or fresh fruit.

Yield: 4 servings

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