French toast is a delicious Sunday breakfast that comes together easily if you have stale bread on hand. But what if you don’t?
Well, you can learn how to make bread stale for French toast, even if you just bought it from the store. It adds a few steps to the recipe, but the end result is always worth it.
First and foremost, though, why do we even need stale bread for French toast? Let’s find out!
Every French toast recipe starts with stale or dried-out bread. It’s become common knowledge that we don’t even stop to question whether we need stale bread or if fresh bread is alright.
Well, fresh bread is great for a lot of things. I mean, you can’t imagine an appetizing BLT or Pb & J on bread that’s been sitting around for a while, right?
But is stale or dry bread for French toast just a stuffy old rule made by someone a hundred years ago? Or does it actually affect the overall texture and flavor of the dish?
Turns out, you actually do need somewhat dry or stale bread to achieve the desired outcome of golden, fluffy, yet custardy French toast. And I’ve tested why stale bread is the best option for French toast, so you don’t have to!
Here are several reasons you need to go through the step of staling or drying your bread to make the ultimate French toast:
This is probably the biggest reason why you shouldn’t use bread that isn’t stale or dry to make French toast.
Stale bread has a much lower moisture content than fresh bread; that’s why a slice of stale bread is tougher and more rigid than a fresh slice.
So, adding moisture, in the form of the egg and milk custard, softens it a bit, however, only to an extent where it’s still possible to handle and flip it on the stove.
If you were to soak fresh bread in the custard, it would completely disintegrate before it even hits the pan or griddle.
This is related to the previous point, but it’s more of a gastronomical consideration than a practical one.
If you put a piece of stale bread to soak in the egg custard, it can be cooked while maintaining its height, which makes the end result fluffy in a way.
In contrast, a piece of fresh bread will cave under the weight of the egg custard and collapse into a gummy, flat piece of toast. The result is almost always inferior to the one with the stale toast.
Last but not least, stale bread acts as a sort of sponge that soaks up the egg and dairy custard. Depending on how flavorful you make the soak, the resulting French toast will be on the same level.
Adding vanilla extract (or vanilla bean if you’re feeling fancy), cinnamon, or orange zest can elevate the end product significantly. All of this flavor gets into the bread, making it delicious on the inside and out.
If you use fresh bread, most of the soak will remain on the outside because there’s no capillary action pulling it inside. So, the flavor won’t penetrate the fresh bread as well as it does in its stale counterpart.
So, now that we know why stale bread is a must for French toast, let’s find out how to make the bread stale!
There are a few ways you can make bread stale or dry enough to make French toast. Each method depends on how much time you have before you want your French toast ready.
This is the no-frills, straightforward way to make bread stale—just let it go stale the old-fashioned way, with air and time.
Stale bread is a result of the migration of moisture from the starch granules to the surrounding air pockets in the bread. This happens quicker if there’s more surface area where that moisture can escape.
So ideally, the bread should be sliced and laid out so the air can circulate around it. I like to cut my bread slices about half an inch thick, lay them out on a wire rack (or a crumpled piece of aluminum foil), and leave them out overnight.
Come morning, and you’ll have bread that has lost most of its moisture and is ready for dunking in some egg and milk custard!
If you’re craving French toast right now, the only option you have is to dry out the bread by evaporation. You can do this in a toaster oven or a regular oven; just make sure the temperature on it can go pretty low.
I like to do this right on the oven grates to allow the bread to lose its moisture faster, but you can do it using a baking sheet and wire rack. Just be prepared for it to take longer.
Cut your bread as thick as you’d like, then put it in a 250-degree oven for about 20–30 minutes, or until it’s mostly dry to the touch.
It won’t be bone dry right when you take it out, but if you leave it to cool for 10–15 minutes, it’ll steam out, and you’ll see how dry it’s become.
This method is actually perfect if you’d like your French toast to maintain a little bit of the “freshly baked bread” aroma and flavor.
However, for this to work, you have to be patient and not take the bread out too soon, or else you’ll have some of the problems we mentioned above!
If you don’t have an oven, just a regular toaster, this can actually work just as well. All you have to do is toast the bread till it’s blond, and then let it steam and dry out.
If you have a desk fan, you can place the freshly toasted bread in front of it. This will drive out even more of the moisture that’s trapped inside to the outside, leaving you with a drier product.
You should be aware that this will give the bread a slightly different flavor, though. Toasted bread has some of the surface sugars caramelized, yielding the “toast” flavor we all know and love, so it’s not as blank a slate as regular stale bread.
If you want to override the toasty flavor, just add a few warming spices to the custard, like cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg. Those spices go so well with French toast and can give you a more interesting, complex result.
Here are some of the most common questions people ask about making bread stale for French toast and other applications:
Well, the French name for French toast is pain perdu, which translates to “lost or forgotten bread,” but this sweet treat dates back to the Roman empire. They, too, wanted to dip their bread in eggs and fry it.
Back in the day, bread was made using whole grain, or sometimes crudely bleached, flour. This usually makes the bread bake a lot tougher to begin with.
Moreover, additives that kept bread soft (dough conditioners) weren’t invented yet, so bread went stale pretty fast. And because they didn’t have freezers that could preserve the bread for longer, it had to be used even when it was stale, dense, and chewy.
That’s where the magic of French toast comes in; it transforms a barely edible, unpleasant thing such as stale bread into a genuinely pleasurable eating experience.
Yes, it does, and pretty fast, too! Cooler temperatures, like those found in the refrigerator, cause the starch granules in bread to re-crystallize, forming complex structures that yield stale, chewy bread.
However, using the refrigerator to make the bread go stale isn’t advisable.
Aside from the uneven exposure to the cold, which makes the bread go stale in some spots but not others, the humidity inside the refrigerator can cause the bread to develop mold.
This is especially a problem if you keep it inside its plastic bag, then take it out and leave it on the counter.
You can use stale bread to make stuffing (or dressing), bread puddings, French toast, as well as croutons for soups and salads.
If you want to make French toast but only have fresh bread on hand, you can learn how to make bread stale for French toast in a pinch!
All you have to do is make use of your oven, toaster, or toaster oven. You can make the bread dry out using low heat and a little bit of time.
If you’re planning ahead for the next day, you can also leave the sliced bread out on the counter to go stale overnight. Just make sure the slices aren’t overlapping so the bread dries out evenly.
Sarah is the founder of Baking Kneads, LLC, a blog sharing guides, tips, and recipes for those learning how to bake. Growing up as the daughter of a baker, she spent much of her childhood learning the basics in a local bakery.