Crumbs can be a cook's best friend

Chicago TribuneApril 1, 2014 

  • Which crumb?

    Which crumbs you use in cooking will depend on the job the crumb needs to perform, as well as personal preference. Each has a slightly different texture. And when lightly browned in a skillet or on a baking sheet in the oven, the toasting deepens their flavor, adding another dimension to a dish.

    Panko: Use these flaky Japanese-style bread crumbs for coating meat or seafood.

    Dried bread crumbs: Use these very dry or toasted crumbs for coatings or lightly buttered as a topping.

    Fresh bread crumbs: Use these soft crumbs for meatballs, fish cakes or stuffings.

  • Make your own

    Supermarkets 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. Many cooks prefer to make their own , because nothing ruins a great dish like stale crumbs.

    Fresh bread crumbs: 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.

    Dry bread crumbs: Take those fresh bread crumbs you just made and toss them onto a rimmed baking sheet. Dry them for 15 minutes in a slow oven, 250 degrees. Don’t let them brown.

    Cookie crumbs: Put cookies in a food processor and pulse. Or place in a resealable plastic 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 sugar (depending on the sweetness of the cookies and filling).

    Press the mixture into the baking pan. Then bake 6 to 8 minutes at 350 degrees before cooling and filling with a pudding, mousse, cheesecake mixture or ice cream.

Crumbs deserve respect.

Those 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.

Cooks 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 downright dull.

So 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.

Coating

Imagine 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.

There are three key components to breading success. “The Science of Good Cooking,” by the editors at America’s Test Kitchen, explains: “flour (or some flour-like substance); an egg wash (or something like it); and bread crumbs (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 everything together.

Crunch

Crumbs 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.

Don’t 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.

Flavor-maker

The 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 bread crumbs have flavor power. Plain crumbs are often used to stretch the flavor of ground meats or fish (think meatballs and fish cakes). When bread crumbs are toasted, their flavor deepens. Consider the role of bread crumbs 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 flavors.

Body builder

Julia 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 bread crumbs that has been popular since medieval cooks began thickening sauces that way.

Spain’s 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, bread crumbs bulk up the fish roe dip, in much the way they work in the garlicky spread called skordalia. In Provence, bread crumbs 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 bread crumbs to soak in the milk, letting the starches swell and thicken the sauce.

Moisture saver

It’s 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.

Better 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.

Credit crumbs for making eating more interesting.

Pork Schnitzel

From “The Complete Cooking For Two Cookbook,” by the editors of America’s Test Kitchen, 2014.

4 slices hearty white sandwich bread, crusts removed, cut into 3/4-inch cubes (4 cups)

1/4 cup all-purpose flour

2 large eggs

2 cups plus 1 tablespoon vegetable oil

1 (12-ounce) park tenderloin, trimmed

Salt and pepper

Garnishes:

Lemon wedges

1 tablespoon minced fresh parsley

1 tablespoon capers, rinsed

1 large hard-cooked egg, yolk and white separated and passed separately through a fine-mesh strainer

SET wire rack in rimmed baking sheet.

PLACE bread cubes in single layer on large plate and microwave until bread is dry and a few pieces start to brown lightly, 4 to 6 minutes, stirring halfway through. Process dry bread in food processor to very fine crumbs, about 45 seconds (you should have about 2/3 cup crumbs); transfer to shallow dish. Spread flour in second shallow dish. Beat eggs with 1 tablespoon oil in third shallow dish.

CUT tenderloin crosswise on angle into 2 pieces. Lay each piece between 2 sheets of plastic wrap and pound until roughly 1/8- to 1/4-inch thick. Pat cutlets dry with paper towels and season with salt and pepper. Dredge cutlets one at a time in flour, dip in egg mixture, then coat with bread crumbs, pressing gently to adhere. Transfer to prepared rack and let coating dry for 5 to 10 minutes.

LINE large plate with triple layer of paper towels. Add remaining 2 cups oil to large Dutch oven until it measures about 1/2 inch deep and heat over medium-high heat to 375 degrees. Carefully lay cutlets in hot oil, without overlapping, and cook, shaking pot gently and continuously, until cutlets are wrinkled and light golden brown on both sides, 1 to 2 minutes per side. Transfer cutlets to paper towel-lined plate and blot well to absorb excess oil. Serve with garnishes.

Yield: 2 servings.

Artichoke and English Pea Au Gratin

From “The BTC Old-Fashioned Grocery Cookbook,” by Alexe Van Beuren and Dixie Grimes, Clarkson Potter Publishers, 2014.

8 cups frozen English peas, thawed but not cooked

2 cups frozen artichoke hearts, thawed and quartered

2 cups heavy cream

1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce

1 tablespoon dry white wine

2 cups shredded Parmesan cheese

1 garlic clove, minced

1 teaspoon dried basil

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

1 cup panko bread crumbs

HEAT oven to 375 degrees. Spray a 9-by-9-inch baking dish with nonstick cooking spray.

IN a large bowl, combine the peas and artichokes; set aside.

IN a separate medium bowl, combine the cream, Worchestershire sauce, wine, cheese, garlic, basil, pepper, nutmeg and salt. Gently fold the cream mixture into the peas and artichokes. Pour into the prepared baking dish and sprinkle the bread crumbs on top.

Bake until bubbly and bread crumbs are golden brown, 45 minutes. Let sit 15 minutes before serving.

NOTE: This casserole will keep in the freezer for up to 3 months. For best results, freeze it before baking; thaw overnight in the refrigerator, and then bake according to the recipe.

Yield: 8 servings.

Banana Cream Pie With Vanilla Wafer Crust

From “Teeny’s Tour of Pie,” by Teeny Lamothe, Workman Publishing, 2014.

For the filling:

1/2 cup granulated sugar

3 tablespoons packed cornstarch

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 cups whole milk

4 medium egg yolks

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 teaspoon banana extract, optional

2 bananas

1 pre-baked 9-inch Vanilla Wafer Crust (recipe follows)

Whipped cream

For the crust:

1-1/2 cups vanilla wafer crumbs (about 45 cookies)

7 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

MAKE FILLING: Whisk together sugar, cornstarch and salt in a medium saucepan with a wire whisk. Add the milk and egg yolks and whisk until there are no lumps.

PLACE saucepan over medium heat and cook, whisking constantly, until mixture comes to a low simmer and begins to thicken, about 7 minutes. Continue cooking, whisking constantly, scraping the bottom of the pan to prevent scorching, until the mixture begins to boil, about 2 minutes. Still whisking constantly, let it boil for a full minute, then immediately remove it from the heat.

ADD the butter and banana extract (if using), and whisk until butter has melted and the mixture is smooth.

PEEL the bananas and thinly slice them directly into the cream. Stir gently with a spoon to incorporate.

POUR the banana cream into the pre-baked pie shell and, while it is still hot, cover it with plastic wrap to prevent a film from forming on the top. Refrigerate the pie until the cream has set, at least 4 hours.

BEFORE serving, remove the plastic wrap, top with whipped cream and serve cold.

MAKE THE CRUST: Heat oven to 350 degrees with rack in the middle position.

TRANSFER cookie crumbs to a medium bowl, pour melted butter over them and stir to combine. The crumbs should clump easily when pressed together.

SPOON three-quarters of the crumb mixture into a 9-inch pie plate and using your fingers, press the mixture up the side of the plate until you have a 1/4-inch-thick shell all the way around. Spoon the rest of the crumb mixture into the plate and press it to form the bottom of the shell, making sure the bottom and side are joined.

BAKE shell until lightly browned, 5 to 7 minutes. Remove from oven, let cool and fill.

Yield: 1 9-inch, single-crust pie.

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