The Food Lab's J. Kenji López-Alt says, shockingly enough, that it has to do with science (and also butter)
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The well-publicized backlash to “fancy,” pricey toast a couple years ago spoke volumes about the relationship Americans have with cooked bread. Toast is the first thing many of us cook when we’re young. It’s the last resort meal any self-respecting college student can scrounge up that doesn’t involve eating a condiment straight from a jar. And in diners, it is manna: the vehicle for delivering runny egg yolks, grape jellies, and the last remnants of a breakfast plate’s grease and gristle to our mouths.

Most everyone I know, even healthy eaters who normally don’t consume anything but an avocado and grass puree, will go for toast in a diner—where it seems to be made perfectly every time. It’s the culinary equalizer between the white and blue collars, can be understood by young and old alike, and in our current political and cultural fighting cage climate, it might be the only thing that can truly unite us.

I spoke with J. Kenji López-Alt, author of The Food Lab, managing culinary director of Serious Eats, and serious toast devotee, to find out why it’s so universally satisfying.

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He first broke down the chemical changes happen to bread to make it so tan and delicious. “There are a few things going on when you make toast,” López-Alt says. “First is dehydration. High heat will drive off water content, which leaves you with that crunch.” Good toast, he believes. should be dry on the outside but still moist and tender on the inside. Then there’s the Maillard reaction, which gives toast its brown color and complex flavor.

“As proteins and carbohydrates are exposed to high heat, they break down, triggering a cascade of complex chemical reactions that produce hundreds of new aromatic compounds,” López-Alt explains, adding that it’s the same reaction that gives flavor to a seared steak, renders crispy brown skin unto a roasted chicken, and creates that heavenly roasted-coffee aroma.

The fact that toast is like the perfectly seared steak of the carb world couldn’t be its only charm. In fact, as Kenji points out, it’s the way the flavor of the toast changes what we eat—like fatty or spicy foods change the flavor of wine—that makes it so vital on the breakfast plate.

“Toast can definitely serve simply as a vehicle and a tool, a means for picking up egg yolks or delivering jam, but it's also an important flavor and texture element on its own,” López-Alt says. “Without toast, jam would be cloyingly sweet and completely soft. Toast adds savory notes as well as crunch and structure.”

And at a diner, the same element that balances sweet jam or cuts through rich egg yolk can also act as a safe space for your taste buds; a respite from the onslaught of competing flavors on your plate. It’s the same reason pancakes make the ideal canvas for butter, syrup, and herby pork sausage or fatty bacon, stretching out their bold flavors. But toast has the crispness that pancakes lack. Waffles might have the crunch, but they lack the ease and complexity of a well-toasted slice of bread.

“To make great toast you really want to maximize that textural contrast between crunchy exterior and moist center, which means that timing is important,” López-Alt says. “Cook too hot and you burn the outside before it dries out enough to give significant crunch. Cook too slowly and you dry out the center by the time the outside is browned.”

For everyday toast, he selects freshly thick-sliced bread (all the better to achieve ideal softness inside) pops it in his toaster oven and spreads it with softened, salted butter. But to take it that extra step further, López-Alt points to the genius of the diner cook’s way.

“For the very best toast, do it the way they do it in the very best diners: on a griddle or pan, in butter,” López-Alt says. “Slowly frying bread in a buttered skillet will give you deeper, more even browning and less internal moisture loss because conduction (as opposed to dry heat convection, in a toaster) is such an effective means of heat transfer. It also builds that moist, buttery flavor right into the bread—sort of like a grilled cheese but without the cheese.”

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But breads are a regional pleasure. Many diners in New York City opt for rye, while diners in the South and Midwest might default to a plain white slice. I prefer a whole-wheat slice because it has the bare minimum of flavor competing with my eggs, sausage, and jam.

López-Alt agrees. “In a diner, I do want a soft, white, or wheat pullman loaf as opposed to, say, a San Francisco-style sourdough or a French boule, which would be too crusty,” he says. “Plain sliced bread, like Wonder Bread, would be okay if it were sliced a little bit thicker. As it is, though, it ends up just kinda too mushy as toast for my taste.”

His ideal toasting bread is Japanese style shokupan, made with milk or cream and possessed of a great buttery flavor and a texture that takes so well to toasting. “It holds up to vigorous post-toast butter-spreading, but is still soft and feathery when you bite into it. Try it and you’ll never go back to any other toast!” López-Alt claims.

I bought some shokupan and put it to my toast whisperer’s taste test. Indeed, it was a superior bread for toasting compared to American white bread. Its extra sugars caramelized better. And richer dairy flavor made it taste like some featherweight pancake/waffle/toast hybrid that I never knew I needed. While I’ve had few complaints about my diner toast in the past, and would most certainly frequent one that served toasted shokupan, previous toast backlashes have taught me that Americans like our toast unfancy and kind of unremarkable.

There’s something to be said for how ordinary bread becomes extraordinary toast. That transformation is why we keep coming back to it day after day, and why the ritual of feeling it crunch on first bite will always provide us with more satisfaction than $4 could ever buy.

Ben Mims is a food writer, recipe developer, and author of Sweet & Southern.