I thought my days as a short-order cook were long behind me, but in recent months I’ve been logging a lot of hours on the test kitchen’s breakfast line. It all started with my recipe for Easy Pancakes, in which I prioritized pantry-friendly ingredients and minimal effort so that the flapjacks could be thrown together anytime—not just on leisurely weekend mornings. That got me thinking about an equally simple formula for that other breakfast mainstay, French toast. Soaking bread in an eggy custard and browning the slices in a pan until they’re golden on the outside and custardy within doesn’t take long, but all that dipping, flipping, and batch cooking is fussy business, especially if you’re trying to serve a crowd. And the custard-to-bread ratio rarely works out just right: Either you’re short on custard and the last slices are dry—all toast, no French—or you’re left with an excess of custard that gets poured down the drain.
So back to the breakfast station I went with my sights set on a recipe for French toast that could transform ordinary sandwich bread into a creamy, crisp-crusted treat. No fuss. No mess. No waste.
I mixed up a basic custard—just eggs, milk, and sugar flavored with vanilla, cinnamon, and salt—but quickly realized that simply dumping all the ingredients into a bowl and whisking wasn’t the best approach if I wanted the custard to be homogeneous. To break up the eggs, I had to whisk vigorously, which caused milk to slosh out of the bowl while stubborn clumps of yolk slid past the tines of the whisk. Going forward, I held back the milk, adding it once I had beaten the eggs with the vanilla, sugar, salt, and cinnamon until they were completely smooth. At that point, the milk could simply be stirred in.
I proceeded with the conventional dip-and-fry approach, dunking each slice into the custard and browning a few slices at a time in a hot skillet. The custard’s flavor needed tweaking—it lacked richness and depth. Whisking a couple of tablespoons of melted butter into the custard made it more luxurious, and I found that adding the butter to the egg mixture before the milk prevented the butter from clumping. Meanwhile, switching from granulated to brown sugar and adding more vanilla (a full tablespoon) boosted the custard’s flavor.
Calibrating exactly how long the bread should soak was trickier. A quick dip yielded toast that was dry in patches, while fully saturating the slices left them downright soggy. With some trial and error, I figured out the ideal scenario: The custard needed to penetrate ¼ inch into each slice, leaving a slim “backbone” of dry bread in the center that supported the weight of the custard to ensure that each piece cooked up creamy, not soggy.
I know what you’re thinking: No one would go to the trouble of measuring the soaking depth of the custard for French toast. But I did. And happily, those tests helped me figure out a really simple way to get each slice perfectly saturated.
I poured the custard into a rimmed baking sheet, which caused it to spread into an even layer. Then I laid out the bread slices like tiles on the custard-covered surface. By the time the last slice was in place, the first side of the first slice had soaked up just the right amount of custard. I flipped each slice, and in barely a minute I was rewarded with eight perfectly soaked slices of bread and no excess custard in the sheet.
The only problem was that the custard‑laden slices were too delicate to transfer to the skillet. But maybe I didn’t need a skillet at all. Why not bake the slices instead?
There were two potential advantages to baking: The saturated slices would stay intact, and they could be cooked in a single batch (no need to worry about keeping the first batch warm while the remaining slices cooked). For the next batch, I coated the baking sheet generously with vegetable oil spray to prevent the bread from sticking during baking, poured in the custard, added the bread, flipped it, and popped the sheet onto the lowest rack of a 425-degree oven. The bottoms of the slices browned in about 10 minutes.
I was about to flip each slice to brown the second side when I had a better idea: Instead of painstakingly flipping each slice (and potentially burning my fingers), I could broil the toast. All I had to do was move the baking sheet to a rack set about 5 inches below the broiler and switch the oven from bake to broil. Three minutes later, the custardy toast was browned on both sides. The crisp broiled surface contrasted beautifully with the toast’s creamy center—even after I'd doused it with maple syrup.
This French toast is so quick and easy, you can make it in your sleep—or at least while the coffee is brewing.