Bread is my favorite food and garlic isn’t far behind it—marry them into garlic bread and it’s my idea of nirvana. The essential link between garlic and bread is garlic butter. I used to make it with a heavy hand, pounding raw garlic to a paste in a mortar and pestle. The result was powerfully delicious but also overpowering to everything else on the menu. I’ve made a lot of garlic bread since then and have found that if I simply sauté the garlic first, I can get the fresh garlic flavor and aroma I crave—and still taste the rest of the meal.
I always make the same garlic butter, but by deciding whether to reheat a whole loaf of bread or broil slices, and by choosing a thin-crusted Italian loaf or a thick-crusted peasant bread, I can get two distinctly different results.
Method 1: Reheat a loaf in a wet paper bag
Heat the oven to 400ºF. Make diagonal slices in a 1-pound loaf of bread at 3/4-inch intervals, stopping short of the bottom crust. Slather some of the garlic butter into each cut.
Slip the loaf back into the paper bag it came in (or use a torn paper grocery bag; avoid those with printing or plastic on them). Wet the entire bag with a spray bottle or a very fast pass under the faucet.
Pop the package into the oven until it smells of popcorn and the crust is crisp, 10 to 15 minutes.
Make a potent—not pungent—garlic butter
Garlic butter should be filled with fresh garlic flavor, not big chunks of garlic. I can avoid these chunks by mincing the garlic very finely with a chef’s knife (this works best if I add the salt to the garlic as I mince) or better yet, I’ll make the garlic into a paste with a garlic press, a Microplane grater, or a mortar and pestle.
I also sauté the garlic in a little olive oil to soften its flavor. This only takes a minute or two, and I watch it closely to make sure the garlic doesn’t start to brown and turn bitter. After sautéing, I pour the garlic and hot oil over cold diced butter; there’s just enough heat to soften the butter to a spreadable consistency when I mash it together.
Another way to moderate the pungency of the garlic is to introduce other flavors. The sauté is a good time to add spices (I almost always include black pepper) or dried herbs so that their flavors can meld with the garlic as it cooks. Other additions, like fresh parsley, are better left uncooked; you should wait to mix them into the butter at the end.
Method 2: Toast slices in the broiler
Heat the broiler. Cut 3/4-inch slices on the diagonal off a 1-pound loaf of bread and spread the garlic butter all the way to the edges on one side of each slice (see the photo at right) to keep the edges from burning. Arrange the slices on a baking sheet and broil until dark around the edges, 2 to 4 minutes.
Add toppings like cheese or pesto about halfway through broiling, when the bread just begins to brown and the butter starts to bubble. This way, the bread gets a little crisper and the topping won’t burn.
Toss on toppings like tomatoes or arugula right before serving.
Choose a bread and a cooking method
I like to treat different kinds of bread with different cooking methods: I reheat a loaf of thin-crusted grocery store Italian bread in the oven, and I broil slices of thick-crusted peasant bread bruschetta style. I prefer these combinations, but they’re not cast in stone. Both breads produce excellent results with either technique when the mood or the menu demand it.
The wet paper bag method is a great way to reheat any loaf of bread, and a perfect way to make classic garlic bread. The evaporating water gives the loaf a burst of steam, which refreshes the interior (this type of bread tends toward the dry side). Then the bag dries out to let the crust crisp and brown.
Slices of thick-crusted peasant bread are great for broiling because they have an open texture that catches the garlic butter and any extra toppings you add (see the box below). Just remember that toasting in the broiler demands your undivided attention, lest you end up with, well, toast.
Garlic butter additions and toppings for slices
Add to the sauté
3/4 tsp. dried herbs suchas thyme or oregano
3 small anchovy fillets (cut the salt to 1/2 tsp.)
a pinch of saffron
Add to the butter
1/4 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
2 Tbs. chopped fresh thyme, oregano, chives, or basil (or 1/2 tsp. dried)
Top and broil
Parmesan, provolone, or mozzarella
a dab of tapenade or pesto
Top and serve
thinly sliced prosciutto
seeded and chopped tomatoes
arugula or watercress