May 2, 2021

🍞 What Toast Teaches Us About Cooking

Making toast shows you how to start cooking without a recipe.

One of my goals with this newsletter is to make people feel comfortable cooking without a recipe. And coming up with a dish on the fly can be intimidating. But even if you’ve never cooked without a recipe before, you at least have toast! Whether you call it bruschetta, crostini, molletes, tartine, or toast, putting delicious ingredients on bread is universal.

Do you know what I love about toast? It’s the perfect way to practice creating a dish without a recipe. And it might even give you ideas to improve an existing one. How? Well making toast has set boundaries for what you can do. It’s bread plus toppings. And that set formula lets you be creative and play with flavors. And the best part? It’s low risk because (1) it’s only a small amount of ingredients and (2) it’s food on bread. You can’t screw it up. 😋

3 Parts of Any Dish

In The New Rules cookbook, Milk Street talks about any dish being made up of three parts: (1) the foundation, (2) the counterpoint, and (3) the embellishments. Think of a taco. 🌮 The foundation is the filling that makes up most of the dish. The counterpoint is the tortilla around it. It contrasts the filling through that soft sensation. The embellishments are the salsa and squeeze of lime. They improve the taste of the ingredients around them while adding their own touch of flavor.

Building Your Toast 🏗️

Now let’s apply those 3 parts to the classic avocado toast. The bread is your foundation. It’s crunchy and has a wheat flavor. The counterpoint is the creamy avocado spread. It also adds some freshness. The embellishment is the sprinkle of flaky sea salt and the squeeze of lemon juice you add at the end. Think about all the flavors and textures you’ve got going on! Crunchy and creamy. Sweet and salty. Acidic and fresh. Yum, right?

But don’t limit yourself to avocado toast. 🥑 There’s more to life. So let’s talk about how to make restaurant-worthy toast with whatever you might have in your pantry.

Start With The Bread

Bread is the foundation. And while it seems simple enough, there a few important considerations:

  1. Since it makes up the majority of the dish, get a high-quality loaf. This isn’t the place for Wonder bread.
  2. Go extra crispy on your bread. You need it to hold up under pressure. It will also soften as it sits and as you add toppings.
  3. Think about the flavor of your bread. It could be neutral tasting. Or it could add extra acidity if it is sourdough. Or sweetness if it’s brioche. Or fat and salt if it’s focaccia.

When you know the basic flavor and texture you get from the foundation of a dish, you can figure out the counterpoints.

Think Through Your Toppings

When thinking about what to top the bread with, I love to start with something creamy. The creamy nature contrasts the crispy bread beautifully. It’s the perfect counterpoint. And remember, don’t limit yourself to avocado! Try soft cheeses, refried beans, tahini, nut butters, or soft scrambled eggs.

Then I often add a fourth element to toast. It creates even more contrasting flavors! Roasted veggies on bread topped with tahini add substance. Diced cucumbers add extra freshness and texture to avocado toast. Crumbled bacon on top of soft scrambled egg toast adds smokiness and crunchiness. Pickled jalapeños on top of refried beans add acidity, spiciness, and texture. Prosciutto and apples add fat and sweetness to ricotta toast.

Depending on how much of the fourth element you use, it could become the “foundation” for the toast. Think of bruschetta piled high with tomatoes. You can make the argument that the foundation is the tomato. And the bread is the counterpoint. But don’t sweat classifying things perfectly. When crafting a dish, the important thing to remember is to create contrast between the elements on the plate.

Amplify Flavor and Add Extra Contrast

To take your toast to the next level, add embellishments. The embellishment is the finisher or garnish that amplifies the flavor and creates contrast. And you might not think it’s worth the trouble when your avocado toast tastes fine by itself. But you’re wrong. 😉

What is a bowl of spaghetti and meatballs without a sprinkle of parmigiano cheese? The parmigiano adds saltiness and umami to what otherwise might be bland pasta. Embellishments are the soundtrack to a movie. 🎵 They aren’t the star of the show, and they’re not even the supporting actor (that’s the counterpoint!). But what’s Star Wars without the background music and sound effects? A bunch of dorky people running around with stage props. Don’t let your food be a bunch of dorky people running around with stage props. Okay? Rant over.

Embellishments add flavor, texture, and whatever it is that your toast might be missing. Sliced almonds help out the bread by adding extra crunchiness. Goat cheese crumbles on avocado toast doubles up on the richness and adds some tang. A drizzle of balsamic vinegar gives your apple and ricotta toast extra sweetness and acidity. Fresh herbs add needed freshness to a mollete with creamy refried beans. Pickled veggies give you crunch and sharpness to just about every kind of toast.

So when you consider how to take your toast to the next level, think about the flavor and texture it’s missing. Does it need more creaminess? Is it missing acidity and brightness? What textures would make it more interesting to eat?

And the same idea goes for any dish you cook.