Culinate

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.