Salty, sweet, savory and spicy: How to take your French toast to the next level

The breakfast mainstay is a classic for a reason — why not subvert it?

By Michael La Corte

Deputy Food Editor

Published March 25, 2023 5:30PM (EDT)

Cooking French toasts on a frying pan (Getty Images/moriyu)
Cooking French toasts on a frying pan (Getty Images/moriyu)

If we're being frank, French toast is never at the forefront of my breakfast desires.

My ultimate go-to is almost always a bagel (I was born and bred in New Jersey, of course). I like any iteration, but I do really like an egg and cheese on a poppy with salt and pepper, but no ketchup. My dad and I used to order "overstuffed" at our local bagel place, which was double-egg and double-cheese and I have a hard time eating anything but ever since.

On a luxurious weekend morning, though, I am often seduced by the siren song of loftier breakfasts: pancakes, French toasts, waffles, hash browns, juices galore (apple is a must), copious amounts of coffee, piles of scrambled eggs and towering amounts of toast, piled high as the sky. Something about that type of spread is so convivial, so craveworthy, so lax, so enjoyable, so comforting. Each of these items, at their core, is essentially straight-forward — but something about the intricacies of French toast has always been alluring to me.

So many recipes, for some reason, include barely any cinnamon or just a light sprinkle towards the end or after cooking. For whatever reason, cinnamon (and the egg-milk mixture) has always been the "core" of French toast for me — plus lots of butter and real maple syrup, too.

I have an aversion to overtly saccharine breakfast items (like pancakes piled high with vanilla icing or something equally odious), but French toast can veer either deeply sweet or deeply savory. Because of this, I thought French toast deserved the matrix treatment, just like bacon, pesto and soup.

So, here's a comprehensive review of each component, long with the various swaps, iterations, additions and changes you can make. Please enjoy!

The standard approach can be gussied up even further beyond the requisite maple syrup and/or powdered sugar. I'm especially partial to some sort of caramelized or brûléed banana or peaches with brown sugar which is then poured over the French toast, but some rehydrated dried fruit is also a wonderful inclusion.
Some sort of whiskey or bourbon inclusion might be up some people's alleys or perhaps even a flavored whipped cream of sorts (perhaps flavored with cardamom?) Another cool option would be going in a whipped cream direction, but with another ingredient, such as labneh, buttermilk, sour cream or maybe a mix of all. The slight tang and subtle difference in texture is a fun way to offset the sweetness.
I don't eat it anymore, but a bacon jam would be an amazing savory topping here: a mix of deeply crisp, rendered bacon cooked until undistinguishable with onion, vinegar, brown sugar, seasonings and spices.
Another interesting approach could be incorporating fresh herbs into the "batter" or perhaps even warm spices. You could also delve into something like chorizo which is browned, drained and then tossed with some maple syrup as a means of grounding the flavors and turning the French toast into something entirely new.
As you've certainly come to realize, I'm a big miso guy. I think it'd be delicious mixed into the batter. You could also go vegan, opting for plant-based milks, eggs and butters, which might change the inherent flavor or texture but will definitely be closely akin to the original.
I also like the idea of serving the French toast over a puree of sorts . . . perhaps a maple-and-fruit combo? Then you can dust with some powdered sugar and call it a day. You also can never go wrong with citrus: grapefruit zest in the batter, lemon juice spritz over top, orange juice both in your cup and in your French toast. 
Another idea would be incorporating maple extract into the batter itself and then foregoing the syrup, if you're not into the texture or consistency of a doused piece of French toast. I can be very iffy about "soggy" items (matzah balls, tiramisu and French toast itself), so the extract swap might help with that.

You can't beat challah, brioche or even croissants, but if you only have some plain white bread on hand, that could also work. Thicker-cut is best and I like an egg-based bread — since it'll be dipped in egg shortly anyway.


Or get really out there and use thick-cut slices of leftover banana or zucchini bread . . . that'd be terrific. 

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By no means my "cup of tea," some find spice to be the perfect addition the sometimes too-sweet brunch and breakfast mainstay. Put some cayenne in the batter, a maple syrup that's been steeped in fresh chili or red pepper flakes, top with a pat of chili-spiked butter.
Adding any spice-inducing flavors can take a dish that can sometimes be flat, plain and overly sweet into a dimension that is much more complex and dynamic 
I don't like a long, languorous soak: I'm more of a dip and go type person. I like using a flat, skillet-type cooking vessel and a flat spatula or fish spatula.
The essential basics of the dish, of course, are bread + egg/milk/cinnamon + quick bath + let drip + cook in lots of butter, flipping often, until beautifully browned and warmed through. I also like some vanilla extract in the batter, along with, of course, a healthy sprinkle of salt — as always.
Where you take it from there is entirely, completely up to you . . . after all, it is your kitchen after all. 
Toppings and garnishes
Interestingly, I guess I'm a purist in this category?
Fresh fruit can never be beat, along with fresh herbs or any sort of whipped component. I also do love the pomp and circumstance of powdered sugar over the top, along with the customary butter and maple syrup, but you can go in any direction you like here — even a minimalist iteration with no toppings whatsoever, if you see fit.

By Michael La Corte

Michael is a food writer, recipe editor and educator based in his beloved New Jersey. After graduating from the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City, he worked in restaurants, catering and supper clubs before pivoting to food journalism and recipe development. He also holds a BA in psychology and literature from Pace University.

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Breakfast Brunch Cooking French Toast Home Kitchen