A Short Guide to Toasties
The application of heat to the outside of a sandwich does several things. It warms contents, melts cheese and crisps perimeters all at the same time.
I. The Good Old Days
Do you remember? Somewhere between the focaccia and brioche* dynasties, toasties held their place as the number one takeaway lunch option; and what a golden leadership it was.
Back in those days, patrons could feel confident that the pale little oblongs in the store’s display cabinet would soon be handed back to them, transformed - burning their fingertips a little, and hopefully already sporting some oily patches on the paper bag wrap. They’d pay something like $5.00 and they could walk out that door feeling good, already a few mouthfuls in, embracing the irreversible process of toasting as they listened to something on their discman.
But, as the brutal waves of time have battered our culinary shoreline, it seems our relationship with the toasted sandwich has eroded away.
Within the public sphere, toasties haven’t kept up with the wider food movement towards quality ingredients and finessed flavours. They’re now pushed to the corners and mostly found in those soulless sandwich joints owned by a dickhead who stole his shop logo from a place two blocks away and somehow believes he’s improved on Subway’s business model.
Just the other day I found myself inside one of these stores. I was offered my sandwich toasted and, reflexively, I accepted. But as the Turkish roll was lifted onto the press plate, I saw both avocado and salad leaves already inside the bread. I think I might have managed to squeak out a small cry for help. I could only watch the salad slowly become critically wilted and the avocado steam itself into hot green toothpaste. The sandwich was handed over with a few weak and dry scorch marks across it the bread. The flavour was a 3 / 10.
It was there and then I decided the risks were too great to trust anyone else with making a toasted sandwich, and it was to become an ‘at home’ thing. Within the safety of my own kitchen, I could logically unpack the science behind a toasted sandwich, and ensure myself some crunchy stunners as well as helping all those other lost souls while I was at it. I needed help.
Turns out, there were many out there who could offer help. 72 Comments! The damn post went viral.
Many had exciting ideas. Some of them seemed shocking, mentioning tinned spaghetti, mayo and tomato sauce. Most folks could agree on one of two methods - using a cast-iron pan or using a traditional ol’ sandwich press.
But hey, all of these people bothered to comment for the same reason. They care about this. They feel the same responsibility that I do to share their folklore and protect the lunch item that protected them. To try and prop up a fellow on a culinary leg that has seen them through some good times.
II. The Cheese
Let’s begin by tackling the core element of most toasties. By my latest calculations, 91% of toasties feature some kind of cheese as a primary ingredient. (A declining number, as we now see some promising vegan alternatives rise up, but that’s a discussion for a future article.)
The Cheese Shield
A common remark amongst collaborators is not so much that of the cheese variety, but the placement of cheese relative to the position of other ingredients (including bread) and the heated surfaces of the sandwich press. The goal is to allow some cheese to melt out of the bread, allowing the cheese to caramelise on the toasting surface. This results in a beautifully marbled crunchy outer layer that simultaneously protects whatever other ingredients are dwelling inside and maintains structural integrity whilst being eaten.
But beware - this needs to happen without the cheese drying out, burning, or becoming an impossible mess.
This is the goal behind The Cheese Shield, but the jury is still out on how this should happen. It seems the sensible option is to use some nice holey sourdough and put the right amount of cheese down for it to leak from strategic points, but it seems the adventurous prefer to put cheese on the outside of the bread.
Choosing the right cheese
If you’re not quite ready to branch out from your Kraft singles, that’s okay. You can now close this browser window and return to sucking your thumb in the darkness of your rumpus room. But if you are ready, oh dang! There is a beautiful world of possibility out there for you!
I’d heard whispers of a place called Penny’s Cheese Shop in Potts Point, so my sidekick and I headed over without delay. There, within a charmingly tiny retail space, we met curdmaster Penny Lawson, who curates cheeses - ranging from the classic to the iconoclastic - from all around the globe. She’s clearly just as passionate about toasties as us.
At the time of writing, Penny uses a blend of eight cheeses in her toastie recipe, but she tells me you can get away with just three if you’re not legit.
“You at least need one to provide the ‘bite’, something for stretch and something for [extra] flavour”, she explains, “So that could be a nice vintage cheddar, a mozzarella and a comte, respectively.”
Penny pulls out a large tub from her fridge which is filled with a colourful mix of cheese strands and she loads a generous handful of the cheese mix onto sliced sourdough.
“I’ve tried a few methods of slicing but the best method is to grate your cheeses. Grate them and blend them together for evenness.”
If you want that real arm’s-length stretch, the best in class would be a scamorza or a oaxaca cheese, but mozzarella is enough to do the trick”.
Timing is also of the essence. Penny advises adding your ‘melters’ first and your aromatics later. For the hardcore cheese fans, she recommends adding things as far-out as a blue or a soft stinky cheese toward the end of the toasting process for greater complexity of flavour.
Those who are attempting to create an external cheese shield should also carefully experiment with timing to get the outside and inside of the toastie cooked at the same time. Penny is a wild-child who adds a handful of cheese to the outside of the toastie.
We eat in silence, meditating on what we have learnt.
III. The Bread
Bread should be of a high quality and thickly sliced, about 2cm thick. Consider the compressibility of your sliced bread as a key to achieving maximum crunch during the toasting process. A firm pressure sandwich pressing / spatula pushing is required to create a consistent, crunchy outer layer. That said, the inside of the bread should remain soft and moist without too much oil. When cut through, a benchmark toastie will have a clearly visible layer of unadulterated bready goodness between the shell and the centre ingredients.
Nice work, cheese shield.
A ‘slimline’ alternative is possible using thinner supermarket bread, however cooking time must be halved and less ingredients used to accommodate for the smaller overall mass. Consider making multiple smaller toasties instead of overloading the poor thing.
Maillard and Temperature
It’s worth putting in some time to appreciate the complex Maillard Reaction, as it really is a backbone of delicious flavours across dishes far beyond the humble toastie.
Caramelisation is a word often used to describe that crisping and browning of the outside of the toastie, but it’s in fact a bit of a misnomer - Caramelisation is just one aspect of Maillard. The main carbohydrates in baked bread are Glucose and Maltose, which caramelise at 160 and 180ºC respectively. For them, the magical Maillard Reaction occurs when your bread reaches a point between those two temperatures.
As the heat begins to permeate the bread, moisture evaporates. At some point the outer surface of the bread reaches a tipping point and CRANG! A bunch of stuff happens. Melanoidins are formed. Acetyl Tetrahydropyridine is formed - the biscuit or cracker-like smell we associate with freshly baked good things.
If your temperature is too low, you won’t get much colour happening at all and your bread will just sorta… dry out. Sad. Any higher and you’ll quickly find your bread is a burnt smouldering carbonised wreckage. Note this doesn’t take into account whatever butter, oil or mayo (you maniac) you might be adding, as this means you’ll be effectively sautéing your bread instead of dry-toasting it. (delicious).
Sandwich press manufacturers are unforthcoming with details on what temperature their gadgets run at. But from the extent of my findings, It seems most units run at about 190ºC when fully heated up. It makes sense that a household press would sit at a temperature just higher than 180ºC, so that one can still achieve a good crisp with minimal risk of burnination.
I believe the toastie’s role in the food ecosystem is as a place for old bread to gain new life. Splash out on sourdough loaves from a really good local outlet (say, Iggy’s or Brickfields if you’re in Sydney) and if you don’t finish it all on the day the remaining slices are perfect for toasties. Anything that isn’t used should be sliced and then kept well-wrapped in a freezer. If you’re bold, try asking your local cafe, deli or market for leftover bread at a reduced price. If it’s rescuing it from the bin then why not?
The double-sided toast
One method that has turned a lot of heads is to toast both sides of your bread. Best described in this article by Kenji Lopez-Alt, the idea is to butter some slices and put them, nude, on your toasting surface for some time. (This can be done either on a hot pan or on your sandwich press.) Use some pressure with a spatula to get the slices browned. Then, flip them over, add your ingredients and close the sammich to commence the main toasting session. Be aware that this method has led to ‘slipping’ of ingredients once assembled and should be not be attempted by children or messy eaters.
IV. The Condiments
Here’s a top-ten list Condiments to add to your toastie. Of course it’s by no means comprehensive - if it’s crunchy, spicy, sour or sweet it should be considered fair game! Just remember, please for the love of pete don’t put fresh tomato in the toastie before toasting if you want your tongue at the end of all this.
Moonacres Pickled Zucchini
Pickled Green Chilis / Jalapeños
Tomato Relishes (add before toasting to seep out of the bread and caramelise the outside a bit. Shoutout to Toby Wilson for this trick)
Chunky Pineapple Chutney
Hot Sauce - Oh I don’t know, something like Don’t Fear The Reaper from Lulu’s
Worcestershire Sauce - I think Cornersmith do a really good one
Oh hang on, what?! Turns out you get quite a few of those condiments in the latest Autumn Box!
V. The Technique
Once you’re confident that your little toastiepillar is cheesed, buttered, loaded, locked, give it one small kiss before sending it into the hot cocoon for metamorphisis to take place.
You can’t walk away. Listen out for that first sizzle, as it will inform your ears if there’s not enough (or too much) oil happening at the critical meeting point of bread and hotplate.
Spatula at the ready, flip your toastie after the first minute of toasting, and wiggle and slide around different points of the hotplate during cooking. This will see moisture loss to happen at a faster rate, and gain a glassier crunch by the end of the toasting process.
The toastie can be considered ‘done’ when the cheese is melted, but the colour of the outside of the toastie is the preferred metric. I’m not going to enforce any strict rules on how far to take your toastie’s outside but all I’m saying is don’t be afraid of getting ‘medium-well’. Nothing more satisfying than the shattering crunch of a well-toasted toastie.
As soon as it’s time to remove from the heat, transfer to a board. Working quickly and carefully, gently pry open the lid of the toastie. Add condiments. Close toastie. Cut in half. Serve very hot.
Adding fresh ingredients
Fresh ingredients can be used to add a little extra crunch and life to your toastie. Consider herbs like coriander and mint, a squeeze of lemon or even some raw sliced red onion.
A short note on Jaffles
The jaffle iron was patented in 1949 by Dr. Ernest Smithers from Bondi, and became a household craze from 1950 onwards. The jaffle was likely inspired by the waffle iron, a tool used by Belgians since medieval times.
The original jaffle irons were used outdoors and could clamp shut thick sandwiches with big long handles and thrown into a campfire. Now that’s cool. This is the only time a jaffle can be considered superior to the toastie.
(*)Brioche can officially die and burn in hell forever.