One of our favorite mindgames is to think about what we can do without, or perhaps better put: What do we really need? We started doing it rigorously in the kitchen when we had to downsize years ago, and began to ask ourselves,”What equipment is truly necessary for the way we cook”. Not only did we discover that we did NOT need the wealth of gadgets being touted as essential, but we didn’t even need some things that people take for granted, like an electric toaster. In our smaller space, we saw an electric toaster as a space glutton that we didn’t want on our counter. About the same time, we came across an inexpensive stovetop fish grill in a Japanese kitchenware store. Hmm, we thought, wonder if we could toast bread on this? It worked wonderfully and we’ve been using it to grill our bread on a burner ever since…(sometimes we put the buttered toast back on it to melt…)

So naturally we LOVED stumbling upon Ellen Lupton‘s essay, Are Toasters Necessary?, from her book Design Your Life: The Pleasures and Perils of Everyday Things.

Lupton, curator of contemporary design at Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York City, has a lot to say about toasters, the meaning of toasters, and what toasted bread actually is, as well as some fine, simple alternatives (with charming illustrations):

“It turns out that there are numerous ways to make toast, and I tried many of them while awaiting the return of the tl90 [a high-tech Rowenta toaster designed by British designerJasper Morrisen]. An oven broiler works well if you are mindful of burning and you flip the bread to achieve toasting on both sides. A stove-top frying pan allows for easier surveillance and possibly less heat waste than the oven broiler. Indeed, I often “fry” a bagel or sliced baguette after employing the pan for something else, giving the heat and oil already stored there a second tour of duty. The cook who loves danger can toast bread slices directly in the stove’s gas flame, while the more cautious pyromaniac will enjoy charring thick slices of bread on an outdoor grill, placing them on a low flame for a few minutes just as the grilled meats are nearing completion.”

Lupton distilled the true gist of toast: “Whatever the method, the toasting process is a tiny miracle that has the power, Phoenix-like, to revive our daily bread with its healing fire.”

Stale bread, born again.

You can find different iterations of the Japanese Stovetop Grill in Asian cookware stores; we found ours at Katagiri in New York City (and there’s a version here on Amazon). We also recommend this classic, foldable 4-slice Camp Stove Toaster.

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10 replies on “dept of unnecessary things: electric toaster

  1. okay- hold on. let’s back up a minute.
    what is the difference b/w stale bread and toast?
    i grabbed a piece of sliced bread on the way out the door this morning which had not been wrapped up and when i got to work and bit in to it – i found it was stale. it was dried out and bland. but somehow when you intentionally dry bread out with heat, it doesn’t get stale. it becomes toast! why is that? it’s an honest question…

  2. When we were renovating our kitchen several years ago we ate food cooked on a hotplate and in our toaster oven (ok-that’s beyond just a plain old toaster, but still) and all the dishes were washed in the bathtub. I still have that toaster oven and love it.
    The one piece of equipment I’ve never owned is a microwave. One thing I can live without, though I know many cannot.

  3. Good question! Ellen Lupton explained it wonderfully in her PDF. “The toasting process makes old bread better than new, transforming its very molecular structure. As bread goes stale—a process that begins the moment the loaf exits the maternal oven—the water molecules inside the bread begin migrating to the crust, making the outer layer tough and gummy while the interior goes dry. Exposing the bread to high heat disrupts the bonding of the water molecules, restoring the tender, toothsome texture of the outer layer. As the bread burns, the sugars and starches begin to carmelize, becoming sweet, dark, and flavorful.”

  4. Funny you should mention your rigged kitchen. I’m going to post one some friends devised for their recent renovation. But yeah, I think toaster ovens are a whole other deal because they can do so much besides toast. I had a microwave for a while that someone had given me. Ditched it too, since I’m a believer in FIRE in cooking. Thanks for your comment.

  5. Thanks for bringing the Lupton book into my consciousness–looks very interesting. I will admit to having a beautiful beast of a Dualit toaster squatting on my counter–it gets a pretty good workout for morning toast. But I also have fond memories of a summer I spent in Scotland many years ago, toasting bread on a fork in front of a coal fire. The process required constant attention but it was also a wonderful moment when you couldn’t do anything else but watch the toast–it really enforced awareness.

  6. Nice memory, watching the toast. Nice thing to do still….

  7. We’ve been toaster free for a year! Broiler and a pair of tongs works great.

  8. On ditching the toaster: Hmm, clearing my counter of one more appliance–pro. Losing out on my kids being able to make their own breakfast by popping bread in the toaster–con. I could teach them to use a stove-top method I suppose, but the toaster just “feels” safer. Need to give this one some more thought . . .

  9. I guess the bigger point is: What really works in YOUR life. For me, a toaster is extraneous. For you, it seems to make great sense. Maybe there’s something you consider unnecessary that I can’t live without. It’s whatever works.

  10. Exactly. You have to figure out what works for you, knowing that this will change later on.

    Our second (and clearly inferior newfangled electronic) Dualit conked out recently. The first one had served us for 20+ years and made really good toast. I know this sounds silly, but it just tasted good. But there were no repair shops I could find (though they are super simple). So we took W-S up on their offer to replace the old lever-action Dualit with the clearly inferior electronic version. It died within a couple years. And now W-S no longer carries Dualit.

    We went without a toaster for two weeks. I really wanted to skip it altogether. Electronica makes me sad in the kitchen somehow.

    But the reality is my kids LOVE feeling big and making their own toast. I have a mind like a steel sieve these days, and I just know I would cause a fire in the oven or on the stovetop since I am so often interrupted/distracted. Half the time I forget the kettle and a kid notices it for me. So, caution and awareness of my own risk factors must prevail. For now, until life calms down.

    In the meanwhile, whenever there’s a goodly-sized hunk of Tartine-inspired stale bread in the cupboard, it WILL find its way into a cast-iron frying pan with a generous dose of olive oil. I had no idea how wonderful this–it doesn’t taste like “a good use of leftovers” at all, it becomes its own wonderful thing–until I read about it in Tartine Bread. Highly recommended.

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