Sunday, December 9, 2018

A Toasted Bagel Tutorial and Manifesto

This starts off about bagels, then blears without warning into something more broadly about toast. I was going to re-jigger it for consistency, but I really want to say both things, and it's my party, so I'll blear if I want to.

Much like my overwrought ravings about perceptual framing and karma yoga, it's just another poorly organized missive from an eccentric, enfeebled former writer, the poor dear!

Ok, cue the curmudgeonly, condescending food snob voice, and....go!

Every toaster has a hotter side, and the brown part of the bagel must face that side. You want the brown side thoroughly caramelized, its blisters well-crisped. The cut side is a more delicate matter. There is an extremely brief window where a wide diversity of toasty coloration and texture can exist. The outer rim has just begun to display a dark golden brown hue while virginal white wheaten patches still punctuate a fast-widening golden landscape. Wait another second, and the entire surface will be browned, dry, monotonous. Pull a second too early, and there'll be little crunch or resistance (#resistance).

To zero in on that vanishing moment requires high-level attention-paying. As I wrote last year:
I've made toasting a spiritual practice, honing my tolerances to milliseconds, aiming to extract the bread at its peak. That's working out quite well, but it's just a matter of vigilance and commitment - of wanting it (watching me peer expectantly into my toaster oven, you'd think I was slicing atoms).

You must commence buttering immediately, and work swiftly. You can't pause for an instant, because the surface is rapidly cooling and drying - i.e. becoming less absorbent. Soon, your buttering knife will kick up micro-powder from the desiccated surface (if you hear that awful scraping sound, you're too late), and the powder will settle back down and absorb the butter. Greasy grit. Awful.

You must strive for very thin yet very thorough coverage. Know that there's a theoretical limit to buttering thoroughness. One can never completely cover the surface without using huge quantities of butter. So one must triage. Darker ridges are the highest priority. Being more caramelized, they're more flavorful, so non-butteriness will stick out more than with butterless gaps in milder, breadier portions.

There must be no pooling of butter. I understand the French aesthetic of bread-and-butter (i.e. tons of the latter), but a bagel - a homely, sturdy carb bomb - is no sophisticated Frenchie delight. A bagel is earthy, and whether you're a Hispanic Indian pounding out tortillas or a Japanese crunching through the rooty delights of kinpira, earthiness is something to connect with directly, and not to defile with reckless gussying-up.

Also: this is toast. Fresh bread can receive infinite butter while remaining bread, but toast absorbs, and no one wants to suck saturated pockets of liquid butter from their toast. Yuck.

This is more or less where it becomes about toast, generally. Hey, happy holidays, everyone! Be careful out there, and don't forget to tip your waiters! Ok, I'll let you get back to it...

The butter's nothing more than a necessary compromise to mitigate what would otherwise be unendurable blandness. So paint with your knife, rather than smear. Butter quickly, yet thinly, yet thoroughly, a devilishly tricky goal. In my fifth decade of effort, it still doesn't come easily. It requires inhuman commitment.

If your first bite comes more than 10 seconds post-buttering, you've committed an atrocity. That hard-won diversified landscape of toasty texture is quickly stiffening into the inevitable end state of hard, dry unity; what industry types call "bagel rigor mortis". The clock's ticking, so you'd best be chewing.

If your ideal breakfast is to leisurely work on a crossword puzzle with periodic interruptions for a bite of toast and a slurp of coffee, for god's sake, find some other bready vehicle. Toast must be eaten not calmly, like a croissant, but eagerly, like xiaolongbao.

I realize much of this contradicts widespread beloved life habits. But people acclimatize themselves to hideous culinary results all the time. The average American is perfectly fine with roaringly rancid nuts (e.g. 75% of the nuts in packaged foods like breakfast cereal or granola), and see no problem at all with "skunked" beer, where light's interacted with the hops through clear or green glass bottles to conjure up horribleness. We accept awful tastes out of habit, and toast is among the most grievous victims.

If you enjoy crap like Taco Bell, bless your heart. It won't taste any better if you're diligent, so scarf freely. Botched toast, however, is a crime, and a waste, because toast can be great.

Ok, cue the singing angels (and click, please, for full porn):

...and no, you can not have my bagel plates when I die. They will be shattered and buried, because I have looked long and hard but found no one worthy of the mantle.


Display Name said...

Jim I'm almost afraid to ask but what do you think of those of us who prefer cream cheese on our toasted bagels? /gets ready to duck fast

Jim Leff said...

It’s as unrelated in my mind as snowmobiling through the methane slush of Europa.

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