Jennifer McLagan's Toast Soup

March 18, 2015

Every week -- often with your help -- Food52's Executive Editor Kristen Miglore is unearthing recipes that are nothing short of genius.

Today: It's time to embrace burnt toast.

Toast soup -- containing both toast and soup -- ought to be the most primal of comfort foods, suitable to be fed to any ill person or baby. Not to mention the rest of us -- grown, technically-well adults who've maybe had a long day. And, yes, toast soup is all that its name implies: soothing, restorative, uncomplicated. So what's it doing in a book called Bitter?

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At first, the answer isn't clear. (It's not like it's called radicchio soup or lemon pith soup.) The bitter element here is the toast, which you burn intentionally. "Don't be afraid," the author Jennifer McLagan writes. "Toast that bread until it is burnt on the edges and very dark in the middle."

And she's right -- if you don't burn the toast, the finished soup will lack depth. Mustard will run rampant and milk will wash the rest out, with nothing to pin it all in place. As Nicholas Day wrote in his review of the book on Slate, "If we cook without bitter, we cook with an impoverished palate; we eat food that has less character." Bar Tartine even advises putting burnt toast dust on roasted carrots, or anywhere else you'd like to add a little nuttiness and smoke.

More: If you like comfort-wrapped bitterness, try brussels sprout and chickpeas.

For toast soup, which McLagan adapted from L'Astrance restaurant in Paris, you'll first make an enriched broth out of bacon (a.k.a. let bacon sit in warm chicken stock for 20 minutes), then sop it up with burnt sourdough. After adding hot milk, Dijon, and vinegar from the jar of cornichons you forgot were in the fridge door, you blend all of it. Yes, even the bacon. Don't worry about it.

It's a soup out of almost nothing, and yet somehow, as written, the recipe will only work for people who eat meat, gluten, and dairy, and don't keep kosher. (The rest of you, please substitute at your own will.) I will look a bit like a full-bellied mushroom soup, but its taste -- yeasty, earthy, tangy -- is oddly reminiscent of a beer and cheese soup, without beer or cheese. I credit the bread, which also makes the broth thick and hearty, with delightful tiny bits of bacon and softened bread crust to bite down on as you go.


These ragtag ingredients balance each other gracefully, but you can do this anytime: Next time you make a bread soup -- pappa al pomodoro, ribollita, salmorejo -- consider toasting or even charring the bread first. The Maillard reaction isn't limited to steaks -- browning just about anything will give it a more developed flavor.

Should I have run this recipe, which we have been lovingly calling "brown sludge", in the more barren depths of winter? Maybe. But it will still comfort us until it gets hot enough that we want gazpacho instead. Once spring finally arrives in earnest, you may want to have your toast soup with a simple salad, rather than a platter of roast pork (or maybe not).

At any time of year, it would not be gilding the lily to serve with good bread on the side.

Jennifer McLagan's Toast Soup

Adapted slightly from Bitter: A Taste of the World's Most Dangerous Flavor, with Recipes (Ten Speed Press, 2014).

Serves 4

1 3/4 ounces bacon (about 1 thick slice)
2 cups chicken or veal stock, preferably homemade
5 1/4 ounces sourdough bread, about three 1-inch slices
1 cup hot milk
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon vinegar from a jar of cornichons
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 1/2 ounces butter, cut into 6 pieces

See the full recipe (and save and print it) here.

Got a genius recipe to share -- from a classic cookbook, an online source, or anywhere, really? Please send it my way (and tell me what's so smart about it) at [email protected]. Thanks to Food52er hardlikearmour for this one!

Photos by James Ransom

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  • Norma
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I'm an ex-economist, lifelong-Californian who moved to New York to work in food media in 2007, before returning to the land of Dutch Crunch bread and tri-tip barbecues in 2020. Dodgy career choices aside, I can't help but apply the rational tendencies of my former life to things like: recipe tweaking, digging up obscure facts about pizza, and deciding how many pastries to put in my purse for "later."


Norma April 30, 2015
I am happy to report that I have tried this recipe (sort of) and love it! I didn't have bacon or cornichons so I just put a handful of dried mushroom in the broth along with the burnt sourdough bread that was on the verge of becoming a science experiment. I tried to follow the recipe as closely as possible but I only have some beef broth in the fridge, which I dumped in... anyway the result is a rich and filling soup that is smokey and slightly tangy. This is such a simple recipe that can be easily adjusted to suit whatever you might have in the pantry. Try it if you haven't already!
Mr. M. March 31, 2015
CW: Transphobia
Marian B. March 26, 2015
Maggie March 24, 2015
Sounds like it would make a really good sandwich.
Kristen M. March 24, 2015
Marguerite March 22, 2015
any ideas what to substitute for the bacon? something with a strong taste, maybe sun dried tomatoes that have been soaking in oil put in a strong veggie broth???
Kristen M. March 24, 2015
I bet just a nice mushroom broth (from dried mushrooms steeped in hot water) would be a great vegetarian substitute for the chicken broth and bacon.
Kenzi W. March 19, 2015
This soup changed my life.
jenniebgood March 18, 2015
Wow - it's amazing how one recipe description can change your mind about a book (and it doesn't hurt that it's one of your fantastic-can-taste-it-in-my-mouth descriptions!). I wasn't super interested in this book until I read through this recipe - thanks for making me put it on my wish list!
hardlikearmour March 18, 2015
It's surprising how much flavor this soup has. Gorgeous char on your toast photo, too.
Posie (. March 18, 2015
This truly does sound genius -- in the best, weirdest way. Thank you for giving me another reason to eat toast for as many meals as possible.