Why is bread dipped in beaten egg and milk then fried until golden called French toast? Was it invented by the French?
Stale bread dunked in eggs and milk then fried in butter has been around since the Medieval Ages. It was known by many names in England, France, Bavaria and Italy. The French called it pain perdu (literally, “lost bread”). If I am to guess where the term “French toast” came from, I’d say that when the dish crossed the ocean from France to America, pain perdu was too problematic to pronounce for the Americans so they simply referred to it as French toast.
Why is French toast made with stale bread? Can’t newly baked bread be used? French toast is a way of salvaging old bread by giving it a boost both in looks and flavor. Much like how Asians recycle day-old rice by turning it into fried rice. Bread has to be a little dry to benefit from soaking up the beaten eggs and milk. If you use freshly baked moist bread, it will turn too mushy with the addition of eggs and milk.
Can any stale bread be cooked as French toast? Theoretically, yes. But, in reality, although it is possible to dip any bread in eggs and milk, and fry it, too soft breads make terrible French toast. Commercial load bread, especially. The best French toast is made with bread dense enough to absorb liquid without getting soggy. Unless you’re into soggy French toast; I am not.
For this French toast recipe, I used slices of day-old baguette. And, yes, there are only three steps in making French toast.
1. Whisk together egg and milk; adding sweetener like sugar or honey is optional but recommended.
2. Dip both sides of sliced bread in the milk-egg mixture.
3. Fry the bread in hot butter until golden brown, flipping the bread over to brown the underside.
Why is adding sweetener optional? Because you can add that after cooking. Just like pancakes, you may pour syrup over French toast.
Personally, I prefer to add a bit of sugar or honey to the egg-milk mixture. During frying, the sugar or honey caramelizes beautifully leaving a lightly crisp crust on both sides of the French toast. The following recipe has honey.
In a bowl, whisk together the eggs, milk, honey, salt, cinnamon and nutmeg.
Set the stove to medium heat. Melt two to three tablespoons butter in a frying pan.
Dip (oh, please do not soak) both sides of three to five slices of baguette in the egg-milk mixture then fry in a single layer in the hot butter. Cook about a minute per side or just long enough to brown the bread. Repeat, adding more butter to the pan, until all the bread slices have been cooked.
You may also try the following variations:
Drizzle salted caramel over your French toast
For those with a sweet tooth, try drizzling salted caramel over the French toast (get the recipe for salted caramel sauce).
Not a fan of caramel? Try dark chocolate ganache (see instructions).
Chopped toasted nuts also add a lovely texture to the dish (see tips on toasting nuts).
Make the flower-shaped French toast
Something I picked up from an episode of Nigella Lawson’s cooking show from long ago (can’t recall anymore which show it was). She made flower-shaped French toast to make the dish more exciting for her kids. It does take a little extra work but the result sure is pretty.
Using a flower-shaped cookie cutter, cut out flower shapes from the center of each slice of bread.
Reserve the leftover bread for making bread and milk pudding.
Dust the French toast with cinnamon sugar
Cook your French toast using the basic recipe but leave out the cinnamon and nutmeg, and use less or totally omit the sugar or honey.
In a shallow bowl, stir together half a cup of white sugar, half a teaspoon of ground cinnamon and a generous pinch of nutmeg. Roll the cooked French toast in the mixture before serving.