My sister and five-year-old nephew have been staying with me this week, so, trying to be a good uncle, I asked beforehand what his favorite foods were. On the list, among Cheerios and chicken feet (yeah, he's a pretty awesome five-year-old), was French toast. It was a nice little bit of kismet: Kenji and I had just been talking about how Serious Eats needed a tried-and-true basic French toast recipe, which meant that I could be the awesome uncle who makes French toast every day while getting work done at the same time!
When I told my sister the plan, and explained how I would make multiple batches of French toast each day to zero in on an ideal basic recipe, she didn't quite get it. "What's there to it?" she asked. "I just eyeball it when I make it at home." She isn't wrong. On one level, French toast is simple enough that you can just toss together some eggs, milk, bread, and whatever else, and probably not go too horribly wrong. And yet, if you look at recipes, there isn't a ton of consistency. Some call for more eggs, some call for fewer; some call for sugar in the batter, some don't; some call for milk, others cream. All these version yield different results, and I wanted to figure out where the sweet spot was.
Before proceeding to the specifics, just a word on the scope of this: the goal here is to determine the best way to make basic French toast, the kind you'd throw together using only ingredients that most have on-hand at all times. This isn't a tricked-out, no-holds-barred version that would require a special shopping trip just to make—we'll tackle the ultimate French toast in a future article.
On to the nitty-gritty!
The first question you're likely to ask when making French toast is, how many eggs and how much milk? I took a quick look at various recipes and found the typical range to be anywhere from two to four eggs per cup of milk. If I were to tell a fairy-tale version of this test to my nephew, it would go something like this:
Goldilocks, having taken her nap in the comfiest of the three beds, approached the breakfast table. There, she found three plates of freshly-cooked French toast. Taking a bite from baby bear's plate, which was made with two eggs per cup of milk, she declared, "This French toast is too mushy and wet."
Next, she tasted Papa Bear's toast, made with four eggs per cup of milk. "This French toast is too eggy and dense," she remarked with a frown.
Finally, she took a bite of Mamma Bear's French toast, made with three eggs per cup of milk, and behold, this French toast was just right! "Yum, it's custardy and moist, light and fluffy," she cried, and then returned to the comfy bed for another nap.
(Moments later the bears returned, got pissed off that she'd eaten their French toast, and decided to eat Goldilocks as a savory lunch instead. Moral of the story: Don't eat a bear's French toast.)
To Sugar or Not to Sugar?
Interestingly, some recipes call for sugar in the French-toast batter, some don't. I tried three versions: no sugar, 1 tablespoon of sugar per cup of milk, and 2 tablespoons of sugar per cup of milk. I thought for sure this would be another Goldilocks situation, with the middle one being best, just sweet enough without becoming cloying. But the fairy tale falls apart here, with the winner being the one with the most sugar. It turns out that when topped with syrup, the sweetest French toast blends with it the best—less sugar and the contrast between syrup and toast is just plain jarring. (We also tried it with an equal volume of maple syrup in place of the granulated sugar, but there wasn't much of a difference in texture or flavor.) Either way, forget your health and remember: sweeter is better.
Milk vs. Cream
In some ways, this part goes outside the technical scope of this recipe given that it's supposed to be limited to common pantry items, and while most people keep milk at all times, not everyone stocks a ready supply of cream. Still, it seemed worth asking the question since it's such an integral part of the batter.
I made batches with two-percent, whole, and heavy cream. The two-percent and whole milk were hard to tell apart, but cream, unsurprisingly, made a difference—whether it's better, though, is a toss-up. The cream created a more luxurious, thicker batter that resulted in a richer-tasting French toast, but all that extra fat also left a greasy feeling in the mouth that I found unpleasant. Others might not be as bothered by that, so it's really a matter of personal preference. The good news is that milk makes a fine batter and by no means should be considered a concession. (As for skim milk, I skipped it for two reasons: French toast isn't supposed to be health food, and I hate skim milk.)
The Bread: Fresh, Stale, or Oven-Dried?
French toast, in its essence, is all about using up old, stale bread—the French don't call it pain perdu ("lost bread") for nothing. There are a lot of recipes devoted to making old bread delicious (pretty much anything with bread crumbs, for starters), and in my experience, most of those taste best when made not with stale bread, but oven-dried bread. There's something about oven drying that dehydrates the bread while preserving its fresh taste. Plus, it tends to deliver the best textures: super crisp and toasty on the outside, yielding (but not mushy) within.
Surprisingly, I found that the ideal state of the bread depended heavily on the type of bread being used. Basic soft, white sandwich bread was best oven-dried. When fresh, the overly moist slices fell apart easily after soaking and had a wet, pulpy center when cooked. Stale held up better, but the oven-dried version performed the best, retaining its shape while soaking up plenty of batter, cooking up moist, but not soggy.
Crusty artisan loaves, however, were best either fresh or just slightly stale or toasted—fully stale or oven-dried and they had a hard time soaking up the liquid even after several minutes, with crust that remained way too hard and chewy. To get good results with really stale, crusty bread, I'd suggest trimming the crust or soaking it overnight.
Mixing the Batter
One question that came up while working on this was whether there was any difference depending on how the batter is blended. To test this, I whipped up one batch where I dumped the milk, eggs, and sugar into a bowl all at once and whisked vigorously, and another where I whisked the eggs and sugar first and then beat in the milk. Taste-wise, there was almost no difference between the two, but I did find it easier and faster to beat the eggs with the sugar first. The dump-and-blend method always seemed to have little blobs of egg white and yolk that took a lot longer to incorporate.
The last thing I wanted to find out was whether sprinkling sugar on the surface of the soaked bread made an appreciable difference. No big surprise here: the coating of sugar formed a pleasant crackly caramel crust. Total bonus!
What about flavorings, you ask? This is perhaps the trickiest, if only because it's the most open-ended. But for a basic recipe using only pantry staples, you can't really go wrong with a pinch of cinnamon and nutmeg and a dash of vanilla. Beyond that, anything is possible.