Some time back, I received this despairing email from a reader:
"I haven't bought bread for two months now. I make it all myself, but I'm still having a huge problem - cutting the bread. My husband said I needed a better knife so I got a better knife, but still no luck. I froze it and then cut it partially thawed, trying to give me something sturdier to attack. I even have one of those bread cutter things to keep you in line, but I still either wind up with a clumped-up mess or only about six super-sized slices . . . On the upside, we have a lot of breakfast casserole with the mutilated remains. How can I cut perfect slices of bread?"
Making great slices of bread is easy, but there is a knack to it. Around here, I cut the bread. No sooner do my kids head to the kitchen for a snack than I'm hearing, "Will you cut me some bread?" Maybe they're lazy. Maybe they're afraid I'll yell at them if they mash the bread. (I would never do that. Well, maybe I have a time or two.) I do understand that a lot of people have trouble cutting homemade bread because some of those people live in my house.
First, you need the right tool. A good bread knife has a serrated edge and is long enough to cut all the way across the loaf. No smooth knives. No short serrated knives. You want a nice, long serrated knife. A good bread knife doesn't have to be expensive, either. My favorite knife is an old knife.
Don't cut bread hot unless you have to. And honestly, I often have to. I mean, have you had fresh bread right out of the oven with butter melting on top?
If I'm going to cut hot bread right out of the oven, I will sometimes just go ahead and use my bread knife to cut off a piece or two on the end, risking life and limb and loaf-mashing.
It's important to not press down on hot bread. Go at it carefully, lightly, and you will still probably mash it a little on the end, but not too badly if you work it just right. Don't think about cutting a whole loaf that way when it's hot. You'll mash the whole thing. If you want to cut an entire loaf hot, use an electric knife. An electric knife allows you to cut hot bread without mashing it and you can also get very thin, even slices that are perfect for sandwiches. (With either hot or cooled bread, thin sandwich slices are most easily achieved with an electric knife.)
Cutting with an electric knife doesn't require you to put any but the most minimal pressure on the loaf. I touch the loaf just enough to hold it steady in place, with my fingertips on the sides of the loaf and not touching the top of the loaf at all, and let the electric blades do the work. When you first start to make each slice, go at it a little bit from the side, not quite straight across the top. Once you cut through the crust, straighten up the knife and slice it straight down.
With a cooled loaf, you can easily use a long serrated bread knife. I cut cooled bread with a bread knife using the same technique I use with an electric knife. Put minimal pressure on the loaf, fingertips lightly on the sides, start in a little at an angle then straighten up to finish the slice.
Avoid placing your hand flat down on top of bread - hot or cooled - while slicing. That's what children and men tend to do. They think they need to take control of the loaf as if it might escape and run away to the circus. The bread's not going anywhere.
It wants you to eat it. Go easy!
Writer Suzanne McMinn lives in Roane County, where she writes every day in her blog, Chickens in the Road, at www.chickensintheroad.com.