Top | Unexplained Bacon
(article, Matthew Amster-Burton)
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Among the many names I have taken on in my imaginary rap career is Big Crust. This is, after all, the literal translation of the French word croûton. I'm confident that I bust phatter croutons than my East Coast compatriots, and in a few minutes, so will you. (Substitute "West Coast" for "East Coast" as necessary.)
To get a sense of the contemporary issues in crouton science, I asked my friends what they'd like to know about croutons. Here's what I got in response:
"Is is possible to get croutons that aren't too hard to spear with a fork?"
"Do croutons have to be oversaturated with salt and powdery dried herbs?"
"Why do croutons explode when I poke them?"
[%image promo-image float=right width=400 credit="Photo © Culinate" caption="Homemade croutons tower above the rest."]
I think some of my friends are used to croutons from a bag. Poor souls. We're going to fix this, right now. Pre-made croutons are so readily available in supermarkets, we've forgotten that the homemade version is so superior — and so easy. You could even say it's the best thing since sliced bread. (Sorry.)
Here’s all you have to do: Grab a loaf of rustic bread. Cut off the crust and cut the crumb into 1-inch cubes (or smaller, if you prefer). Toss the crumbs with olive oil, salt, and optional pepper. Bake in a 400-degree oven for about 10 minutes.
The resulting croutons will be crunchy enough to earn their name, but chewy enough in the center to yield to the stab of a fork. As for the crust you cut off, gnaw on it while the croutons bake, or throw it in the food processor and make especially hearty breadcrumbs.
That's enough crouton theory to garnish a lifetime of soups and salads, but I know you. You want more. Big Crust is here for you, baby.
First, you can flavor your croutons by tossing ingredients with them before baking. Parmesan cheese is brilliant. So is Pecorino Romano. Aged Gruyère will make croutons that remind you of French onion soup, without the goopy cheese slick.
Garlic is an obvious and delightful move. In fact, I was first initiated into the world of homemade croutons after eating a great tomato soup at Gramercy Tavern in New York that was topped with garlic croutons. Happily, the recipe was published in Bon Appétit and is available on Epicurious.
The tomato-soup recipe illustrates an important crouton principle: If you like drier, crunchier croutons, or if you're going to be using them for soup rather than salad, bake them for a longer time at a lower temperature.
[%image croutons float=left width=400 credit="Photo © Culinate" caption="Fresh from the oven."]
What about other flavors? I stepped into my crouton laboratory and performed one of those molecular-gastronomy operations about which the less said, the better. (I will say this: protons, neutrons, and croutons are not so different.) Ten minutes later, I emerged triumphant in a cloud of smoke and a fetching apron, with three new flavors: cumin, smoked Spanish paprika, and thyme. Just stir the herb or spice into the olive oil before tossing with the bread cubes, and bake normally. True to the conventional wisdom, dried thyme worked better than fresh. Playing with infused oils seems like the next logical step.
Finally, a couple of dispatches from the crouton vanguard:
Recently, I made a bean soup that was blander than I'd hoped. To jazz up the leftovers, I made grilled-cheese croutons by slicing a grilled-cheese sandwich into 1-inch squares. No need to bake them before serving. (My daughter loved this, of course. This was not the first time she'd had croutons for dinner, but at least these had some protein.)
Jill O'Connor's outrageous new book, Sticky, Chewy, Messy, Gooey, features a recipe for Dark Chocolate Soup with Cinnamon-Toasted Pound-Cake Croutons. I can't wait to try it.
So Big Crust is going to keep dropping fresh croutons on everything he can think of: salads, soups and stews, and hybrids like the amazing Panade of Leeks and Mixed Greens with Cantal Cheese from Paula Wolfert's [%bookLink code=0471262889 "The Slow Mediterranean Kitchen"]. I might even have them for dinner. Don't blame me. I learned it from Li'l Crust.
p(bio). [firstname.lastname@example.org "Matthew Amster-Burton"] writes about cooking and culture from his home in Seattle. He keeps a blog titled Roots and Grubs.