Like wood-fired pizza, garlic bread originated in Italy and became an American favorite. And like pizza, American versions tend to follow a more-is-better philosophy. Enter cheesy garlic bread. In theory it should be great. But often, cheesy garlic bread disappoints. Good cheesy garlic bread requires a balance of flavors and textures. We set out to make a cheesy garlic bread that delivers on the promise of the name. This version will be a great addition to your Superbowl fare—and become an easy go-to comfort food.
Traditionally toppings redeem “old” bread
When Chad Robertson‘s book Tartine Bread first came out, I was excited to see his chapter called Days-old Bread. Robertson explained, “in every place bread is a staple, resourceful cooks have found ways to incorporate it into a meal, wasting nothing.” Nothing beats good freshly-baked bread; warm out of the oven or cooled to room temperature, plain or with butter. It needs nothing else.
But when bread gets past that perfect fresh stage, the right toppings give it new life. In the tradition of bruschetta and raclette (we need a blog on this), cheesy garlic bread is a perfect fit for bread on days 2-3. That’s great news when you’re throwing a party and won’t have time to make the bread (or buy it) that morning.
Good idea, poor execution?
Not all garlic bread is equal, as all of us know from experience. Google “garlic bread” and you’ll get plenty of recipes and advice. I agree with author and chef Deb Perelman that excellent garlic bread is “absolutely not pale and soggy or crouton hard.” Add to those requirements that cheesy garlic bread must not be greasy. Excellent cheesy garlic bread must meet these requirements:
- Good structural integrity and texture, not soggy or greasy
- Thoughtful proportion of bread to topping
- Integrated toppings that work together
- Slightly blistered top for texture and flavor boost
- Easy to prepare in advance
Our ultimate cheesy garlic bread is more of a technique than a recipe. Of course it gets an added flavor advantage from the wood-fired environment, but you can follow this technique using a conventional broiler too.
Cheesy garlic bread topping
The key to great cheesy garlic bread is to pre-mix the garlic, butter, and cheese. This crucial step prevents the cheese from melting into a greasy puddle, and makes the topping ingredients work together.
Use a fork to incorporate the garlic into softened butter. This works equally well with chopped fresh garlic, roasted garlic cloves, and fried garlic bits. The goal is to distribute the garlic evenly through the butter. Then add grated cheese and incorporate it into the garlic-butter mixture.
At this point, you can add herbs, spices, or other small toppings. I usually make more of this than we “need” because it works on all kinds of things. (Try it in Hasselback potatoes.) Make this in advance and refrigerate it for up to a week. Just bring it up to room temperature before spreading it on the bread.
If you have home-baked bread, or bread from a wood-fired baker like John Murieko, you’re set. This week I tested the technique using a decent country-style bread from Costco to prove that you don’t have to have perfect bread for spectacular results. First, cut the loaf in half across the middle, dividing the top and bottom.
This makes everything easier. You can see the proportion of topping to bread. You can slice the loaf into pieces without smashing it since the heartier crust is facing down. Finally, you can control where the topping goes as it melts by pre-slicing.
The partial pre-slice
Partial pre-slicing lets the cheesy garlic bread topping spread down between the slices a bit without running out the bottom. Creating this path for the melting butter and cheese prevents the topping from spilling over the outside edges (making the crust greasy).
Be sure to pre-slice after the topping is in place so you can see the slices when it comes out of the oven. I like to do a partial slice, down to just above the bottom crust. Leaving the crust intact helps keep the loaf together without needing foil for structural support. The slices make it easy for to cut or tear off a pieces without smashing the soft interior.
Slide the cheesy garlic bread into your wood-fired oven on a tray or hotel pan (or under the broiler of a conventional oven). Alternately (depending on the heat in your wood-fired oven) you can just hold the bread on your metal peel until the topping melts and blisters. By the time the topping is slightly blistered, the bread will be warmed throughout.
Keep it simple
After the cheesy garlic bread comes out of the oven, you can add fresh herbs if you like. This loaf has roasted garlic, a mix of mostly cheddar cheese, and a few garlic chives.
In keeping with our prohibition on soggy, I didn’t bake the bread in foil (where it will steam). If you’re taking this on the road and need to wrap it, I recommend setting each half-loaf on a large piece of foil, and drawing the sides up high to make a tent over the top. This keeps the foil off the melted cheese and gives you a carrying handle too. Leave a little opening for steam to escape.