Breadcrumbs: Easy and Handy

by Elizabeth Skipper | April 2nd, 2014 | Ask the Chef

breaded shrimpI would like to make my own breadcrumbs.  Is it as simple as placing bread in a food processor? Do I need to season or toast them?  Any insight is appreciated!

Making your own breadcrumbs is easy, especially with a food processor. Older recipes call for making them with a rolling pin or a grater, and that’s time-consuming; but with a food processor, it goes quickly. It can also be done in multiple smaller batches with an appliance like a coffee grinder, which is the way I usually do it for smaller amounts.

For years, I’d collect my stale bread and allow it to dry out, then process it into crumbs. You need to cut it into smallish cubes, approximately ½” to 1″ squares, or it won’t process evenly. That’s best done before the bread is too stale. However, I found that this often resulted in crumbs and a fine, almost flour-like dust, which didn’t work well for coating foods or crisp well as a topping. So I’d take the extra step of shaking the crumbs in a sieve to remove the finer crumbs and dust – which just fall out (work over a piece of wax paper or directly over the trash) and can be discarded.

This is a great way to use up stale bread which otherwise might get tossed. However, I’ve come to appreciate both the performance and the texture of crumbs made another way. I think they’re more like the popular panko crumbs, which I find pricey for what’s, after all, nothing but dry bread.

For this, I cut the bread of choice into ½” cubes. Removing the crust is optional; if color is important to you, you may want to cut it off before cubing the bread. Then process the cubes in batches in a food processor until you obtain the desired size crumbs. Spread them out in a thin layer on a sheet pan and dry in a low oven. Depending on the amount of bread and the temperature of the oven – about 200° is right – it can take from 15 minutes to 30 minutes or more. Stir from time to time for even drying. You don’t want to toast the breadcrumbs, just dry them out. Allow to cool on the pan, either in or out of the oven. There’s no need to sift these.

Breadcrumbs are also good used fresh. When they try breading cutlets in fresh breadcrumbs for pan frying, my students are surprised by how delicious and crunchy the result is. Sometimes dried breadcrumbs become hard used like this; fresh ones don’t. You have to use plenty of butter or oil because fresh breadcrumbs absorb more moisture, but I think it’s worth it.

You ask if you need to flavor or toast breadcrumbs. I prefer to leave them plain for storage and flavor them according to whatever recipe I’m making. For example, for an Italian dish, I might add any of the following: garlic, oregano, basil, and/or finely grated parmesan cheese. These will just get stale if kept on the shelf – and the cheese might mold – so hold off on until it’s time to cook. This also keeps the crumbs neutral, so you don’t find yourself with one flavor of breadcrumbs when you want another.

As for toasting, unless it’s for a garnish which will be added after cooking, don’t bother. They’ll toast or brown while the dish is cooking. If you do want them for a garnish, simply put them in a moderate oven, about 350°, and toast to the desired shade of brown. Be careful not to burn them. Your nose will tell you when they’re ready, but check often; they won’t take long at that temperature.

A word of caution: think about what kind of breadcrumbs the recipe calls for. Most people assume the kind in the can (dried) is what’s needed. However, that’s not always so. A friend of mine made a dessert called spongy pud, a steamed pudding, from a recipe which she claimed was off. She said it needed much more golden syrup than was called for. I requested a copy of the recipe because the spongy pud was delicious and I was curious. Sure enough, when I tried making it with fresh breadcrumbs, the recipe worked perfectly. She’d been using dried breadcrumbs which absorbed all the syrup; there was supposed to be some left as a sauce after the pudding was steamed.

Bet you didn’t think there was this much to say on the subject of breadcrumbs. I didn’t either, but once I started thinking about it, I realized it’s not that cut-and-dried a subject. So to speak.

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