The beauty of breadcrumbs

Cherish the humble crumb

By
January 13, 2012

Breadcrumbs are a hidden treasure.

If I have a bowl of them on the counter, they will get used. But a treasure, you ask? Well, that might be going too far, but I do find that breadcrumbs are incredibly useful. Plus, they allow you to use up all that good bread you’ve baked or that expensive bread you’ve bought. Sometimes, after all, there is an excess of bread, and even if it’s only a small piece, you can turn it into breadcrumbs.

I cut off the tough parts, tear the rest into pieces, and submit them to the blades of the blender. If I had a food processor, I’d probably use that instead, but the blender works well enough. Whether you use them fresh or toasted (and I find they’re really pretty interchangeable), now you have a resource at hand.

Where to use them? Well, here’s how I’ve cooked with them in the past two weeks: I’ve mixed them with salmon to make salmon cakes. I’ve used them browned and crisped in butter to add savor and crunch to soups. I’ve done the same, then sprinkled them over a dish of penne with cauliflower, garlic, and pepper flakes. They have coated slices of fennel before frying. I’ve sprinkled crisped breadcrumbs onto my morning scrambled eggs instead of having them with toast.

A bowl of treasure.

There are other ways to use bread that has strayed too far from fresh to enjoy. Toast it, rub it with garlic and olive oil, then tear it into pieces and ladle a soup over it — Savoy cabbage with Gorgonzola being a current favorite. You can make panades, or wet, bready, layered bread-and-vegetable soups that are homely and comforting.

You can tear that good toast into rough pieces and toss those into a salad of bitter greens. Or you can make a bread pudding, but that’s a different sort of creature altogether.

In short, old bread is a great resource.

But why so much and so often? Is stale bread really that good? Yes! But the reason for so many uses the past two weeks is that over the holidays, we acquired quite a few loaves of very good bread that in the end the two of us just couldn’t finish. Plus, I had been experimenting with baking with Red Fife wheat, so there were loaves from those attempts as well — and no room in the freezer to store them.

Fresh breadcrumbs made from bread that is still moist are best used right away. If you put them in a bowl, they’ll soon grow moldy — unless you dry them out first, which you can do in a slow oven or in a skillet on the stovetop. You can include some butter or olive oil in the drying process to make them extra-tasty. Or not.

Once they’re dry, breadcrumbs will keep fine in a bowl, on the counter, even uncovered so that you’ll see them and then think to use them. You don’t have to wait for a recipe that calls for panko. There are plenty of opportunities just in our everyday cooking to use breadcrumbs.

I especially appreciate that this humble ingredient makes delicious use of something that might have been discarded.

Here’s a recipe to get you started:

Toasted Breadcrumbs with Sage

These are really good sprinkled over bean soups or winter-squash soups or winter squash cooked just about any way.

1 1/2 cups fresh breadcrumbs
2 or more tablespoons olive oil
3 tablespoons finely chopped fresh sage leaves
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

Toss the breadcrumbs with the oil and sage to moisten them, then put them in a skillet and cook them slowly over medium heat until crisp and golden, about 10 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.

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1. by jdixon on Jan 14, 2012 at 8:47 AM PST

A couple more really good uses for breadcrumbs...

-Browned in good olive oil and sprinkled over pasta (poor person’s Parmigiano)
-Judy Rodger’s eggs fried in breadcrumbs (here on Culinate: http://www.culinate.com/books/collections/all_books/The+Zuni+Cafe+Cookbook/fried_eggs_in_breadcrumbs); really, really good
-what I call fritters: leftover vegetables (mostly) bound with egg, breadcrumbs, and pan fried (http://realgoodfood.com/recipes-2/the-fritter-chronicles/)

Even here in the damp of Oregon I can leave old bread on the countertop to dry and it doesn’t get moldy. How I make breadcrumbs: http://realgoodfood.com/recipes-2/basics/bread-crumbs/

2. by Deborah Madison on Jan 17, 2012 at 8:10 AM PST

I’ve always felt that Judy Rodgers is the queen of breadcrumbs, leftover bread, and many other things too, of course! I’ve never read a book that is so fully of uses for old bread as The Zuni Cafe Cookbook!

3. by Stefanie Samara Hamblen on Jan 18, 2012 at 3:11 PM PST

Just put a layer of rye and pumpernickel crumbs (mixed with a little olive oil) as a topper on a creamy cabbage potato casserole - the flavor of the caraway seeds in the casserole and the rye and pump came together beautifully - served with a glass of dark beer and a side of pickled beets with red onions.

4. by debra daniels-zeller on Jan 19, 2012 at 7:20 AM PST

Thanks for these great ideas for bread crumbs, I especially like the idea of using dark bread crumbs to compliment casseroles.

5. by Deborah Madison on Jan 19, 2012 at 7:33 AM PST

Stefanie - a good idea. Similarly I like to make a cabbage panade, using rye or pumpernickel for the bread - a great combination of flavors, with or without potatoes.

6. by marcyincny on Jan 26, 2012 at 7:08 AM PST

I hope I’m not too late to comment or ask a question. I’m very interested in knowing how your efforts with the Red Fife turned out. Is there another article about it or will there be? Thanks.

7. by Deborah Madison on Jan 26, 2012 at 7:58 AM PST

Hi Marcy. I used the Red Fife to make a no knead bread and it turned out really well! I used 20 ounces Red Fife to 4 ounces whole wheat (would have used bread flour but didn’t have it) and the texture and taste were good, plus the loaf was quite handsome. The next challenge is to find a less expensive source of the flour. With shipping and all, it was pretty expensive, but I’d love to be able to use it all the time.

8. by marcyincny on Jan 27, 2012 at 5:24 PM PST

Deborah, thank you for the info. You’ve encouraged me to up the proportion of Red Fife in my no-knead dough although I also consider the cost when I use it. I’ve been getting mine from Anson Mills who also offer my favorite whole wheat flour, what they call their colonial-style flour. I just find it amazing how many wheat varieties are available now and how different they can be in so many ways but it’s not always easy to find others who are trying them. Thanks again.
http://ontwoacresintown.blogspot.com/2010/05/first-effort-was-loaf-from-batch-of-no.html

9. by Deborah Madison on Jan 28, 2012 at 12:20 PM PST

Yes, I get mine from Anson Mills as well, along with a lot of their other good items, but the postage doubles the price of all. There’s got be another way.
I just bought some amazing corn meal at my farmers market this morning - freshly ground heirloom corn - I suspect it’s going to make a great corn bread!

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Deborah Madison, the celebrated cookbook author and local-food advocate, feeds us with her occasional reflections. Her latest book is Vegetable Literacy.

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