What Is Milk Toast?

A comfort food that heals the soul, it would seem.

When you hear someone say "milquetoast" out loud, they're probably referring to a spineless, unassertive person. It's also a sign that you might have some pretentious friends.

As it turns out, though, the phrase has its origin in a soggy comfort food with apparent regional roots in New England and a surprising history. Here's our guide to everything you need to know about milk toast's qualities and origins, with an eye towards how you can revive this unexpected classic yourself.

So What Is Milk Toast?

At a basic level, milk toast is a combination of the food and the beverage that make up its name. It's usually served with the bread cut up into cubes and placed into the milk, but depending on which 100 year-old you ask or where you are in the world, it can also take the form of (sometimes condensed) milk on top of the toast itself.

As the name implies, the ingredients are incredibly simple. Most recipes recommend a fairly bland bread (so no rye). Depending on what kind of taste profile (or lack thereof—more on that later) you might be going for, other ingredients can include (brown) sugar, vanilla, and spices like cinnamon. Butter is also fairly fundamental to both the toast's composition and the dish's taste.

milk toast in a blue bowl
Tammy Lynn

Get the Recipe: Milk Toast

How Do You Make Milk Toast?

Preparations can vary based on how you want to jazz things up, but every good milk toast starts with, well, toasting the bread. From there, it's buttered and adorned with whatever sweet or salty ingredients you want, chopped up, and placed in a bowl. While your bread is toasting, heat the milk in the microwave or on the stove until it's warm (you can also dump salt, cinnamon, etc. in there if you want), and then pour it over the bread. As a general rule of thumb, use about ¼ to ½ a cup of milk per slice of bread for the optimal ratio.

When Was Milk Toast First Served?

It's hard to find a definitive record of when milk toast came to be, but one could argue that its roots date back to the Middle Ages. Back then, "sop," essentially bread or toast soaked in some sort of liquid, was fairly common. In fact, the linguistic roots of "soup" and "supper" can be traced back to the basic dish.

If you're looking for the more specific origins of milk toast, the dish seems to date back to about the late 19th century, supposedly concentrated in New England. The dish either gets a mention in or is at least somehow associated with Little Women, so it was likely served in the region around that time.

Why the Heck Did People Eat This?

For a pretty good reason, it turns out. To those who loved it in its heyday, milk toast epitomized comfort. As 20th century food writer MFK Fisher noted, "[milk toast] has been a source of reassurance and moral and physical strength for hundreds of years … it seems to soothe the nerves and muscles and mind altogether," going so far to describe it as a thing to eat if you're seeking "to feel right in your skin."

While that praise may register as a bit hyperbolic, milk toast seems to have been widely lauded as an ideal "sickroom food" served to ill friends and loved ones. Easy to chew, easy on the stomach (if you can tolerate lactose, at least), and fairly bland if prepared in a certain way, this warm preparation of dairy and carbs may not cure what ails you, but it probably can't hurt.

Is Milk Toast a Thing in Other Parts of the World?

It sure is. You'll find a version of milk toast that uses sweetened condensed milk and white bread in many Asian cafes, and it seems to be particularly popular in Hong Kong.

A variation on milk toast called "soll" or "brødsoll" can be found in Norway, with chunks of flat bread crumbled into sweet or sour milk (yes, really). Sometimes berries and jams are used to sweeten the deal.

So Is This Where the Word "Milquetoast" Comes From?

Yes. In 1925, the dish inspired a comic strip character named Caspar Milquetoast, described by creator Harold Tucker Webster as "the man who speaks softly and gets hit with a big stick." Marked by his timidity and spinelessness, the strip became popular enough that the character's last name entered the lexicon. Referring to someone as "milquetoast" has functioned as a way to disparage someone's assertiveness and fortitude ever since.

So Is Milk Toast Ready to Make a Comeback?

Maybe not, but it's got more history than you might think. And given that it's so simple to make, it could be a worthwhile way to mix things up at breakfast or snack time. After all, we could sure use a bit of physical and mental comfort right now.

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