A wise guy associate of mine, on reading the bread project for the week, said what basically amounts to: “Now you’ve gone and done it! You’re gonna have a hard time flapping your fingers on the subject of toast all week!” Not true in the least, for toast is an endlessly engaging topic. Well OK maybe not endlessly, but there’s more material here than a you might think.
You won’t be surprised to learn that toast has been around for as long as there’s been bread, possibly 6,000 or more years. The Pharoahs ate toast as did the Greek philosophers, the Emperors of Rome, the Merovingian Kings, the Holy Roman Emperors, the Renaissance painters, the great explorers, the colonists, the American founding fathers, the list goes on. In fact one could argue that throughout the ups, downs and tumult of Western culture, toast has been one of the few constants. No wonder we wake up to it every morning. Talk about a comfort food.
On a practical level, toast is just a way of extending the life of a piece of bread. Exposing bread to heat removes its moisture, making it less susceptible to microbial infestation. Plus heat makes bread rigid, less likely to crumble in the pocket.
Yet toasting entails a lot more than moisture removal. Toasting browns bread, a process that changes its flavor from bland and wheaty to crispy and nutty. Just how this happens has been a subject of intense debate over the years, if you can believe it. Some claim the browning of bread is due to caramelization (the molecular breakdown of sugars) while others say it’s the Maillard reaction (the breakdown of proteins). Either one seems plausible to me, since bread is full of complex carbohydrates (sugars) that break down to simpler forms with heat (which can then be technically caramelized). Yet bread contains gluten, and gluten is a protein, so the Maillard reaction idea works too. Both are probably happening right this very second in your Black & Decker.
Really, toast is a much more complex and interesting thing than most of us give it credit for. More on toast as the day goes on.