Since fire and bread have both been part of the human life support system for thousands of years, it was only a matter of time before the two met formally. The result is a crunchy form of bread known as toast. Toast is the product created whenever a dry heat source, such as an open flame or electric heating element, meets a slice of fresh bread. Within a few minutes of direct heat, the proteins and sugars on the surface of the bread experience what professional cooks call the Maillard reaction. In essence, the heat changes the outside of the bread into a new creature we call toast.
Toasting is one of the oldest cooking methods known to mankind. Bread takes very well to the process because of its unique protein, moisture and starch structure. While baking is another form of dry heat cooking, the baked bread still retains much of its moisture and "raw" quality. By exposing the bread's surface to dry heat, the toasting process gives it a crunchier texture and a pleasant lightly charred flavor as opposed to a harsh burnt taste. Toasting also provides a sturdier structure in order to accommodate spreads, cheeses, meats and other flavorful additions.
There are a number of different types of toast, ranging from the lightly browned pieces of sliced white bread to the dark, crisp grain toasts often served as an alternative to crackers. Bread can also be toasted and seasoned to form cubes known as croutons. Croutons are especially popular as salad toppings or as healthier snack alternatives. Many parents use a special toast called zwieback to help their children through the teething process.
The process of creating toast has changed over the centuries. Early toasters would simply skewer a piece of bread and hold it over an open flame. Later, special bread holders would be placed near a heat source and turned several times until the proper level of toasting had been reached. Following the Industrial Revolution, electric heating elements allowed users to place their bread into a dedicated machine called an electric toaster.
The connection between toast and the ceremonial dedication ritual known as toasting is an interesting one. At one point in history, wines and other fermented beverages often had dubious manufacturing histories and were of variable quality. Some beverages destined for royal use may have also been poisoned or contaminated. In an attempt to remove impurities and improve the quality of the beverage, some imbibers would add a few pieces of toasted bread to the wine or mead.
As an added safety feature, the celebrants would first lift their goblets to the sky in order to receive the blessings of the gods. Uttering a few well-chosen praises to the gods or royal host would also be in order. From this practice of adding toast to wine in order to remove poisons or other contaminants came the modern tradition of offering a "toast" to the host of a dinner party.