Homemade breadcrumbs

Fast, easy, and flavorful

By
February 5, 2009

It’s uncommon for a restaurant to employ designated bread bakers, but the one I cook for does. So I get to see firsthand which type of person is best suited for the craft.

On the one hand, bakers live and die by ratios, digital measurements, and mathematical formulas. Bakers are scientists who study flour and fermentation, keeping eagle eyes trained on bins of rising, jiggly dough.

On the other hand, since bread dough is wet, heavy, and uncooperative, bakers also need to be athletes. Athletes with a flowery side, that is, for the ones I know wrap up their baking days by ranking the loaves of fragrant bread according to artistic merit (the prettiest ones go on top of the pile) and leaving each other poetic notes about the behavior of dough.

toasted bread slices
Slowly toast slices of day-old bread in the oven before smashing them into breadcrumbs.

If you appreciate the results of efforts like these — if you consider it a must to have high-quality, hand-shaped bread on your table — then don’t let any of it slip away. Save stale bread and turn it into breadcrumbs.

Making your own breadcrumbs is thrifty and avoids waste. But more to the point, a stash of good homemade breadcrumbs extends your reach in the kitchen.

Breadcrumbs are all about controlling or adding texture. They’re a crunchy topping for gratins and baked fish, and a protective coating for fried food. Soaked in milk, breadcrumbs lighten meatballs and meatloaf considerably. And when you’re sautéing greens with garlic, toss some toasted breadcrumbs into the skillet and notice how they mop up the flavorful oil and add textural contrast.

Try fresh breadcrumbs for stuffing summer vegetables and chops. While the bread provides filling substance, it also binds the other ingredients and carries their flavors, such as herbs, lemon zest, and capers.

Kelly’s white-bean gratin, with carrots and parsnips.

Inventing a gratin

One winter afternoon, when I didn’t want to go to the store, I set out to make dinner from my kitchen’s miscellany. I pulled a can of white beans from the cupboard and considered the root vegetables in my fridge. But I wasn’t feeling inspired until I remembered that I had a loaf of ciabatta bread in the freezer.

I thawed the loaf, removed the crust, and toasted slices in the oven until they were golden-brown. After they cooled, I put them in a plastic bag and crushed them with a rolling pin for an uneven texture: some fine crumbs, some chunky.

Next, I sautéed onions and garlic in olive oil until golden. I added tomato paste, sage leaves, the canned beans, and some water, and simmered the mixture to encourage the less-than-stellar canned beans to pick up the flavors of the aromatics.

Meanwhile, I steamed cubes of parsnip and carrot until tender. These I simmered with the beans, and then turned the whole thing out into a baking dish. I covered the gratin with the crumbs, which I had seasoned with chopped parsley and garlic. Last, I drizzled olive oil over the top and baked it for about half an hour, until it started to bubble.

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The crunchy crumbs had a nutty, caramelized flavor that offset the sweet vegetables, while the fresh parsley and garlic perked up the overall effect. Underneath, the gratin was creamy and hot. And delicious.

How to make breadcrumbs

For “fresh” crumbs, choose bread that is at least a day old; otherwise it’ll be too moist and will ball up in the food processor. Remove the crust, tear the bread into small chunks, and pulse it in a food processor until ground.

An even coating of fine, dried crumbs keeps fried food from absorbing too much fat and forms a crisp crust. Bake slices of white bread in a 250-degree oven until bone-dry. (Depending on how wet the bread is, this can take up to an hour.) Turn the slices occasionally to help the moisture evaporate. Once cooled, grind the bread into even crumbs.

I have left slices of bread out to dry overnight on a baking sheet, thinking it would be easier. But I didn’t like the results. In the damp climate I live in, the bread never really dried, and it picked up an unpleasant stale taste as it sat out.

Bread in any form is quick to absorb ambient odors, and crumbs are no exception. Keep your dried crumbs crunchy and your fresh crumbs sweet by storing them in a freezer bag with the excess air squeezed out, or in a container with a tight-fitting lid and a layer of plastic wrap. Store fresh crumbs for one week in the refrigerator or up to three months in the freezer.

Dry crumbs will keep indefinitely in the cupboard. If they go stale, spread them on a sheet pan and bake in a 250-degree oven until the crumbs’ crispness and flavor return.

Really, that’s all it takes. No mathematical formulas, heavy lifting, or poetry required.

Kelly Myers is a chef and writer in Portland, Oregon. She is also the co-director of Market Chefs, an organization dedicated to inspiring and teaching consumers to cook local foods.

Related recipe: Root Vegetable, White Bean, and Breadcrumb Gratin; article: Leftover bread; article: The chronic

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1. by magpie26 on Feb 6, 2009 at 8:10 PM PST

I can’t believe it has never dawned on me to make bread crumbs! I don’t use a lot of bread crumbs in my cooking because I never have any around. I bake bread at least every 2 weeks so I really don’t have an excuse not to have any in my pantry anymore! Loved the article!@

2. by kelly on Feb 7, 2009 at 7:31 PM PST

Thanks, magpie26! Crumbs made from homemade/handmade loaves are such an underrated but important pantry ingredient. Besides texture, they contribute all the great flavor of the bread.

3. by riceoflife on Feb 11, 2009 at 4:04 PM PST

I love this post, cause I feel exactly the same way. I actually grind up my favorite crackers, which seems to do the trick for me.

4. by jdixon on Feb 13, 2009 at 10:14 AM PST

Kelly,

My approach reflects my own laziness. Whenever a loaf has been sitting around for more than a few days, I cut it up and put the slices in a baking dish or sheet pan. I’ll either leave that out on the counter for another few days until the slices are dried out, or if I’m in more of a hurry, I’ll put them into my 1950s vintage gas oven so the pilot light can speed the process.

I store the dried slices (often crudely broken up by hand so they take up less space) in a plastic bag until I’m ready to grind them up in the Cuisinart. I use crusts and all, and the food processor results are a mix of fine and rather chunky crumbs, but I find the uneven texture adds more interest.

I toast crumbs by heating extra virgin olive oil in a cast iron skillet, adding some crumbs, and stirring occasionally over low heat until they’re browned. I add these to simple pasta dishes, like this one I call quatro gigli (gee-lee, Italian for lily, the family to which onions belong):

Cook chopped garlic, onion, shallot, and leek in extra virgin olive oil with a healthy pinch of sea salt. Cook an extruded pasta (rigatoni or penne, for example) in well-salted water, then ladle it into the vegetables with a slotted spoon (it’s good to get a lottle of the pasta water, too). Toss in toasted bread crumbs (a common substitute for more expensive grated cheese among the poor), cook a few minutes longer, and serve.

I use untoasted crumbs when I make fritters, meatloaf or meatballs.

Jim

5. by izzy's mama on Feb 13, 2009 at 8:09 PM PST

You forgot to mention that homemade breadcrumbs far surpass anything you might find at the store, especially when made with homemade or artisanallly baked breads. The laziest way to make them is just toast slices in a toaster and pulse in blender or food processor. I used mine recently to make this excellent and simple roast fish:
http://www.izzyeats.com/2009/02/fresh-fish-fast-oven-roasted-striped.html

6. by kelly on Feb 14, 2009 at 6:31 AM PST

Jim, Thanks for the glimpse into your kitchen life. As always, you have ideas that are practical and doable, yet true to the Italian tradition. Breadcrumbs are essential. Yesterday, at work, we got so busy with preparations for a busy holiday weekend that we had to make breadcrumbs three times!

7. by AsTheNight on Feb 21, 2009 at 8:33 PM PST

I guess I’m the lazy cook in the bunch. I make home-made bread in the breadmaker a couple of time a week, and pre-slice and freeze it since I hate even day-old bread. I slice it in a slicing guide over wax paper, and let the crumbs air dry on the paper for an hour or however long it is until I bother with them again...and then I add them to my container of crumbs. Since I use bread crumbs so seldom, I always have enough when I do need them.

Kelly’s way sounds so much nicer. I suppose I should feel ashamed...

8. by kelly on Feb 23, 2009 at 11:21 AM PST

AsTheNight, your method is resourceful and practical! As far as home cooking goes, isn’t it all about finding routines and tricks that make cooking from scratch rewarding yet easy enough to pull off?

9. by Tina on Nov 14, 2010 at 3:44 PM PST

It is SO easy to make breadcrumbs and a great way to not take part in the great food waste.

http://foodbeforeshoes.wordpress.com/2010/11/13/saving-the-world-with-breadcrumbs/

10. by Zulma on Feb 23, 2011 at 3:57 PM PST

Just wonderful!

11. by Laura on Apr 18, 2012 at 5:26 AM PDT

I eat sprouted grain bread. I think it will work for breadcrumbs........any comments?
Thanks for a great article!

12. by Kathryn Grace on Sep 17, 2012 at 11:06 AM PDT

I’ve been saving stale bread in much the same fashion all my cooking life. I bake artisan loafs at home. Every time we slice or tear a hunk, we leave crumbs on the bread board. I scoop them up with my handy chef’s blade, slide them into a bowl in the freezer, and whenever I need fine crumbs, I’ve got them, ready to go.

I also cube slices of stale bread, let them dry on the bread board, then toss them in another freezer bowl. When a recipe calls for croutons, all I need do is toss the frozen cubes in a skillet with a little oil or butter and the required seasonings. They’re soon perfectly toasted.

Btw, I loved the bit about the chefs ranking their loaves by artistic merit and leaving poetic notes to one another about the dough. Would love to see some examples of those!

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