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(article, Kelly Myers)
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.
[%image reference-image float=left width=400 caption="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.
[%image feature-image float=right width=400 caption="Kelly's white-bean gratin, with carrots and parsnips."
h3. 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.
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.
h3. 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.
Kelly Myers suggests not using the crusts in this endeavor: "If you are going to toast the crumbs, or fry something coated with them, the crust crumbs, which are already caramelized, may turn too dark before the remaining crumbs brown. And even if you are going to use the crumbs fresh, say in an Italian salsa verde or as part of a stuffing, you may not want the nutty, caramelized flavor the crust crumbs impart. And their texture is tougher."
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.
p(bio). 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.