preparation shot shows how to use a glass to press
crumbs into a piecrust.
morsels of breads, cookies or crackers can be a cook’s
best friend — if you master their power to add texture and
flavor to foods.
around the world have. They use crumbs to crisp-coat meats
in Austria (Wiener schnitzel), Italy (alla milanese or alla
parmigiana) and Japan (tonkatsu). To add body to Spain’s
gazpacho as well as Greece’s taramasalata and skordalia.
And to bring personality to a dish that might otherwise be
think of crumbs as more than annoying leftover bits
scattered across a table. Know their secrets, then let them
work for you in savory and sweet dishes.
a plain pork chop, fish or chicken cutlet, cooked sans
coating. Could be lovely. Could look and smell delicious.
Now imagine it breaded and cooked with a perfectly crisp
exterior. The coating seals in juices, and those browned
crumbs create another level of flavor, thanks to the
Maillard reaction, a complicated process involving heat
playing with amino acids and sugars.
are three key components to breading success. "The
Science of Good Cooking" — by the editors at America’s
Test Kitchen — explains: "flour (or some flourlike
substance); an egg wash (or something like it); and
breadcrumbs (sometimes toasted, ground cereal, or crushed
crackers)." Pat the food dry first, then apply each
element with a light hand in the order listed, starting with
the flour or cornstarch. Let the coated food rest to set the
breading before deep frying or pan frying. If coated
correctly, the starches and proteins will, well, glue
can change up the textural interest of casseroles, say,
adding a crisp finish to mac ‘n’ cheese. Sprinkle plain
or toasted crumbs atop vegetables, from roasted cauliflower
to halved tomatoes. Or get creative, mixing crumbs with
melted butter or herbs, spices, garlic, grated lemon rind or
umami-rich grated Parmesan.
limit the crunch power of crumbs to appetizers and entrees,
though. Crisp cookie bits transform potentially dull
desserts. A simple pudding or custard or mousse takes on
star quality, layered in parfait glasses with crumbs and
whipped cream. Baked fruits (apples, rhubarb) become
crumbles when topped with a crumbs-sugar-butter-spice mix.
And when crushed cookies are pressed into crumb-crust
service, their crisp texture and buttery flavor play well
with tangy Key lime or cheesecake fillings.
variety of crumbs, whether made from bread, cornflakes,
matzo, crackers or corn chips, will influence the flavor of
a dish, of course. But even plain white breadcrumbs have
flavor power. Plain crumbs are often used to stretch the
flavor of ground meats or fish (think meatballs and fish
cakes). When breadcrumbs are toasted, their flavor deepens
— it’s that Maillard reaction again. Consider the role
of breadcrumbs in a classic Italian preparation that begins
by toasting crumbs in olive oil before tossing them with
cooked pasta. They add crunch and, by absorbing the dish’s
elements (garlic, olives, tomatoes, etc.), help extend those
Child suggested using crumbs to bulk up fillings and absorb
moisture, a job they do well in soups and stews. The late,
great chef didn’t invent the concept, of course, she just
supported the body-building power of breadcrumbs that has
been popular since medieval cooks began thickening sauces
traditional gazpacho would just be a thin, watery
tomato-cucumber soup if a bit of white bread weren’t
allowed to soak up and dissolve in that mix. In Greece’s
taramasalata, breadcrumbs bulk up the fish roe dip, in much
the way they work in the garlicky spread called skordalia.
In Provence, breadcrumbs thicken the garlicky-spicy sauce
called rouille that’s served with fish soups. And in
Britain, the classic bread sauce that’s often served with
roasted poultry begins by infusing milk with onion and
spices (cloves, bay leaves, peppercorns, etc.), then relies
on breadcrumbs to soak in the milk, letting the starches
swell and thicken the sauce.
in meatballs and meatloaf that crumbs exert crucial
influence. When those crumbs are mixed with milk (a
starch-liquid mix called a panade), then worked into ground
meat, the mix will "keep ground meat moist and tender
and help meatballs and meatloaf hold their shape," note
the America’s Test Kitchen editors.
that than a brick-hard meatloaf or dense meatballs, right?
Credit the milk (moisture) and the crumbs (starch) for
keeping the meat proteins from clumping together.
crumbs for making eating more interesting.
THIS FOR THAT
Panko: Use these flaky Japanese-style breadcrumbs for
coating meat or seafood.
Dried breadcrumbs: Use these very dry or toasted crumbs for
coatings or lightly buttered as a topping.
Fresh breadcrumbs: Use these soft crumbs for meatballs, fish
cakes or stuffings.
BRING DIFFERENT FLAVORS, TEXTURES TO DISHES
crumbs you use in cooking will depend on the job the crumb
needs to perform, as well as personal preference. Fresh
breadcrumbs are popular for coating foods, though some cooks
prefer using dried crumbs. Others opt for the flavor
cornflakes offer. Those who favor the Japanese crumbs called
panko cite the lighter coating they produce.
has a slightly different texture. And when lightly browned
in a skillet or on a baking sheet in the oven (yes, it’s
that Maillard thing at work again), the toasting deepens
their flavor, adding another dimension to a dish.
offer a variety of crumb products: plain, seasoned,
cornflake, cracker, panko, matzo and gluten-free. Sweet
crumbs may be made from graham crackers, chocolate wafers,
vanilla wafers and gingersnaps. Whichever crumbs you choose,
make sure they’re fresh, which is why many cooks prefer to
make their own, because nothing ruins a great dish like
make fresh breadcrumbs, remove crusts from bread slices that
are a day or two old; French or Italian breads with good
body are preferred. Tear up the slices and drop them into a
food processor. Pulse gently to cut into crumbs; you can
also use a blender. For fine crumbs, sieve them through a
fine strainer. For coarser crumbs, rub torn up pieces of
bread between your fingers.
make dry breadcrumbs, take those fresh breadcrumbs you just
made, toss them onto a rimmed baking sheet. Dry them in a
slow oven, 250 degrees for 15 minutes. Don’t let them
make cookie crumbs, put cookies in a food processor and
pulse. Or place in a resealable plastic storage bag and
crush with a rolling pin. For a 9-inch crust, you’ll need
about 1 cup cookie crumbs and 2 to 3 tablespoons melted
butter (just enough to hold the crumbs together when you
gently squeeze them in your hand), plus about 1 tablespoon
of sugar (depending on the sweetness of the cookies and
the mixture into the baking pan. Then bake 6 to 8 minutes in
a 350-degree oven before cooling and filling with a pudding,
mousse, cheesecake mixture or ice cream.