French toast has long been a standby when it comes to comfort food. Bread, soaked in an egg-and-milk custard, crisps up in a pan, becoming a full meal in a slice of bread. In terms of pure pleasure, there’s not much to argue with here.
Still valued for its ability to salvage stale baguettes, French toast, however, has grown in prestige over the course of its existence, evolving into an indulgent weekend breakfast specialty in the hands of kitchen pros across the country. As such, its simple form has been upgraded and re-mixed endlessly.
“It’s the ultimate brunch dish,” says Ryan Angulo, chef at Brooklyn’s Buttermilk Channel and French Louie restaurants, where he churns out masterful versions such as pecan-pie and crème-brûlée. “It’s more like dessert. You need an excuse to eat it as your main course, so you go to brunch.”
Angulo is not alone in this stance. “It’s crispy and crunchy and moist,” summarizes Emile Castillo, chef at Le Parker Meridien’s brunch mecca Norma. His French toast menu involves descriptions like “cheesy,” “doughnut,” “foie gras,” and “smothered in chocolate sauce.”
To help you fry up your ultimate French toast—however crispy or dessert-like you want it to be—we asked these two breakfast gurus to put down their spatulas and show us how to make the ultimate at-home French toast.
Since French toast has so few ingredients, you want the main ones to shine on their own. For that reason, you’ll see a lot of enriched breads like brioche—Portuguese-style sweet bread—and challah. Angulo prefers pain de mie or slices from a Pullman loaf, which are “basically really nice white bread,” he says. You don’t have to stop at loaves, though. Croissants, doughnuts, and even cinnamon buns sliced into flat pieces can become the base of your signature French toast. “For Christmas, we use panettone,” says Angulo. And if all you have is a half loaf of supermarket bread, then you’ll just have to make supermarket French toast—a piece of Arnold’s wheat bread could do worse than a custard soak and a buttery sear. French toast has a historical association with stale bread, but both chefs cook with the freshest dough they can get.
Very important: Buy unsliced bread so you can control the thickness of your pieces. Angulo likes that pain de mie is square shaped, since “it’s flat on all sides, [so] you can be creative with the shapes and thicknesses,” he says. For his pecan-pie version, he actually cuts the wedge into pie-like triangles. Castillo says to aim for about an inch-and-a-half thick, he says.
Custard sounds complicated, but French toast marinade is anything but. “You make the custard by beating the eggs in a bowl, then you add the cream,” instructs Castillo. There are two decisions to make as you complete these ultra-simple steps. Firstly, what fatness level to make your dairy. Using some heavy cream turns out a toast that’s very rich; Angulo uses a 1-to-2 cream-to-milk proportion for moderation. Know that using just milk will yield a more temperate French toast—not necessarily hangover-brunch material, but still solid weekday breakfast fodder.
The second decision is whether to use some or all of your eggs as egg yolks; doing so delivers a more condensed custard that guarantees your toast won’t emerge with eggy edges. A good set of custard proportions for one loaf of bread is as follows: 1 cup cream, 2 cups milk, 2 eggs, 2 egg yolks, a dash of vanilla, a pinch of salt, and a few tablespoons of sugar. In general, you won’t want more than a ¼ cup of sweetener so that you don’t diminish the need for maple syrup or other sweet toppings. If the bread you’re starting with is already sugary, like panettone or cinnamon raisin, you can probably skip the added sugar completely.
Plain French toast is never something to be scoffed at. To keep it simple, stir together nothing more than dairy, egg, and a touch of sugar. But if you want to build out a theme, from the bread to the toppings, this is the place to start. One classic flavor is a pinch of cinnamon. Other ideas lie in the pumpkin-pie spice cupboard, including nutmeg, allspice, ginger, and cloves. Citrus notes, from orange zest to Grand Marnier, offer a brighter start. A touch of maple syrup right in the custard encourages caramelization during cooking. Vanilla extract is always welcome.
5. Soaking and Draining
You want your bread to absorb a good amount of the custard, and yet you also want to prevent over-saturated sogginess at all costs. To strike the right balance, first take a careful look at your bread. Stale bread or denser loaves will need to rest in the juice longer, while softer, fresher breads need only a quick dip lest they fall apart. “You can soak overnight if it’s a stale French baguette,” says Castillo. “For the bread not to be too soggy, don’t soak it too long, and squeeze it very gently before cooking it to extract the excess French toast batter.” Angulo soaks pan de mie for just 20 seconds, then drains it on a baking rack before baking. Challah, which is dense, needs a few minutes. Mix your custard in a shallow pan or pie plate for easy dipping, flipping, and extraction.
6. Stuffed, Coated, or Sticks
At brunches nationwide, chefs have busted out all the tricks for French toast stuffings and coatings. To make crunchy French toast at Norma’s, Castillo combines Rice Krispies, cinnamon, nutmeg, cocoa powder, and sugar on a plate; then, after dipping the bread in custard, he places it in the crunch mixture, flipping once and patting down before cooking as usual. To tackle stuffed French toast, make a sandwich of two thinner slices, using creamy cheese and fruit, for example, as your sandwich filling. French toast sticks, which have a stronger proportion of crispy edge to custard middle, are a nostalgic throwback perfect for making French toast part of a finger-food brunch spread. Cut your bread into sticks instead of slices, then use the baking method (see below) for cooking, and finish quickly on the griddle.
The goal of French toast is to have a “crispy and crunchy exterior and moist interior,” says Castillo. You’ll want to heat a heavy skillet or griddle over medium-low heat for at least 5 minutes before cooking the toast for 4 to 5 minutes per side, until crisp. To grease the pan, Castillo uses clarified butter, which doesn’t burn. You can also pour a neutral oil like canola, which has the same quality, and then slip in pats of butter right at the end of cooking time for flavor. If you choose to cook in butter all the way through, make sure to turn the heat low and monitor carefully.
Angulo has pioneered a method that focuses on the oven instead of the skillet: “I bake them in a 350°F oven till they are just cooked, cool them, and then I put them on a very lightly greased griddle to crisp them up and reheat them.” The baking time is about 10 minutes, and the skillet should be pretty hot to ensure good browning. This technique is also useful for hosting large amounts of people; you can bake the slices off in advance, and then quickly griddle them when folks arrive without worrying if you’ve cooked the custard through.
Just because it’s often dessert posing as breakfast does not mean that French toast can’t be adapted to something savory. You can start by leaving out the sugar and maple syrup. But to really transform its identity, try adding grated cheese, herbs, or tons of black pepper to the custard. You can also stuff your French toast with ricotta or goat’s cheese. “You could put some braised short rib on it, mushrooms and béchamel, escargot in garlic cream,” says Angulo.
Toppings are your opportunity for a final personalized flourish. “At the restaurant I like to be specific,” says Angulo about creating a theme with toppings. For his over-the-top pecan-pie rendition, he simmers the ingredients for pecan-pie filling in a double boiler, then spoons them on top. On the other hand, you can never go wrong with fruit. Try a puckery jam, like huckleberry, advises Angulo, if the toast you’ve made is already quite sweet. You can also stew frozen fruit with sugar into a compote, or cut bite-sized bits of your favorite fresh fruits, like bananas, pineapple, fresh berries. “They’re healthy, and they taste great.” Toasted nuts and homemade granola contribute crunch; a pat of butter melts delightfully into the crust. And never forget that real maple syrup goes a long way.