Why It Works
- Using white bread with a fine crumb, instead of a more open-structured artisanal loaf, means better absorption and retention of the custard.
- Bread that’s been dried out in a low oven is more absorbent than stale bread.
- A low, 325°F (160°C) oven cooks the custard gently.
- Covering the strata with aluminum foil for part of the baking prevents the surface from drying out.
For those unfamiliar with strata, it’s essentially a breakfast casserole reminiscent of a savory bread pudding or eggy stuffing. Built on a foundation of bread, eggs, and cheese, enhanced with milk and cream, and gussied up with an endless combination of add-ins—in this case, that includes crispy bacon and tender kale. All the work can be done the night before, so all that’s left is the simple task of putting it in the oven when you wake up.
The ideal strata should be creamy, not rubbery, and easy to slice into neat portions, with a slightly crisp top. Strata is composed of layers, just like the name suggests (‘strata’ is a geological term that refers to layers of rock or soil), which ensures that the ingredients are evenly dispersed, much like a lasagna.
In theory, you can use any type of bread: I tested with crusty baguette, sourdough, and even rye. None of these were particularly disappointing, but the clear winner was supermarket-style “French” or “Italian” bread. The finer hole structure, thin crust, and soft, pillowy texture improves the absorption and retention of the flavorful custard. Another great option is a quality white sandwich loaf, but I don’t recommend brioche, which is a bit too rich given the other ingredients in the dish.
In order to create a custardy strata, the bread should really be one with the custard. A beautiful strata combiners the two ingredients completely, producing a fluffy, cloud-like texture. After some trial and error, I chose to measure by weight (not volume) and settled on the following ratio: 2 parts bread, 3 parts eggs, 4 parts dairy, 2 parts add-ins, and 1 part cheese. Keep in mind that a large egg generally weighs 2 ounces.
To ensure the bread absorbs the maximum amount of custard, it must be dried out. Drying the bread in the oven extracts moisture while leaving the crumb’s structure intact, making oven-dried bread a better option than stale bread, staling actually restructures the starch molecules, which can lead to unpleasantly chewy bread. Luckily, it’s straightforward and doesn’t take long to dry bread in a low oven.
I let the bread and custard soak in a large bowl for 30 minutes, stirring periodically to ensure the bread is well hydrated, before building the strata. I found that combining the two directly in a baking dish allows the custard to pool on the bottom, preventing some pieces of bread from being fully submerged, which produces an uneven texture in the final strata.
When baking a strata, please remember that not all bakeware is created equal and many brands are not broiler-safe—before proceeding, be sure to double check that your baking dish can withstand the heat of a broiler! I like the baking dishes by Emile Henry, which are both oven- and broiler-safe. If you use a dish that isn’t broiler safe, like the ones. made by Pyrex, skip the broiling portion of the recipe (see note).
Strata is easily customizable, so feel free to try out your favorite add-ins or swap in different cheeses. Just keep in mind that high-moisture ingredients, such as mushrooms, spinach, or diced tomatoes, should be cooked or drained prior to assembly. Get creative and remember that beyond breakfast, strata also makes a wonderful lunch and dinner!