Shockingly enough, it involves butter
In a time of cracker and flatbread abundance, the pedestrian saltine gets short shrift. The grocery aisle teems with boxes of whole grain crispbreads, fruit and nut studded wafers, crackers anointed with olive oil and truffles. There are whole sections devoted to crackers made of alternative flours to serve the needs of the gluten-free and dairy-free and vegan, from nutty versions to papery rice crackers that are like communion wafers for cheese. Tiny snackable crackers flavored with aged cheeses and spice, sweet ones redolent of vanilla and cinnamon. With such an embarrassment of riches, the lowly saltine, that staple of small plastic packages discarded next to diner soup bowls or abandoned in mom and pop restaurant bread baskets, is forgotten by all but those suffering from morning sickness or the flu.
But all lovers of food should embrace the delight and wonder that is the saltine cracker. Think back to a simpler time, before the cracker section explosion, when saltines were king and your parents only bought Ritz or Town House when company was coming. The soups of your childhood were paired with these crackers, sometimes buttered, sometimes plain, always delicious. Afternoon snacks saw mini sandwiches of peanut butter and jelly spread thin between their crispness. And yes, if you were feeling poorly, they might just be plain, served with a glass of ginger ale to settle whatever was upsetting you.
Breaking into a new box of saltines is for me like cracking the spine on Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree in culinary form. No other cracker is a workhorse like a saltine. Whole, it lets the toppings be the star, fading into the background with just the right amount of wheaty simplicity against meats or cheeses or smears of preserves. It starts off crisp when you drop broken shards of it in your soup or chili bowl, and then absorbs the liquid without losing its structure, becoming almost dumpling-like in its softness, soothing pap.
But it also can be uplifted, taken to new heights of perfection. Gilded with clarified butter and rebaked to a slightly deeper shade of amber, it suddenly jumps ahead of the pack, still your sturdy surface to anoint, but now more sensually appealing, more complex. Add a bit of spice to the butter, Kashmiri chili powder or za’atar or a sprinkle of Tajin or togarashi, and this most American of crackers becomes deliciously global. Mix sugar into the butter and bake, and you get a crackly caramel exterior that can be dunked in chocolate and sprinkled with chopped nuts for a toffee-like confection that lives on the border of sweet and salty where taste buds are happiest.
If you take the butter and sugar and add them to coarse crumbs instead of whole crackers, you get a pie crust that is the basis for Atlantic Beach Pie, a citrus pie similar to Key Lime, but with a lot more sass thanks to the saltine crust. Try it once and you’ll relegate your graham crackers to being a delivery device for melted marshmallow forever. Make your crumbs a bit finer and they will step in for breadcrumbs wherever you may need them, elevating your schnitzel to überness or lightening your meatballs, or topping your next baked casserole with a perfect golden crust.
It’s time to revisit the saltine. To set aside our stoned wheat crackers and befigged thins and buttery rounds alike and go back to basics. Start small. A few saltines spread thinly with softened butter the next time you make soup or stew will begin the awakening. Try putting them out with your next charcuterie or cheese platter and watch your guests tuck in happily and unironically. If you are in possession of pimento cheese or another smooth spread, the saltine will have your back.
2 sleeves saltine crackers
1/2 cup clarified butter, melted (I usually use ghee, which you can find in the Indian section of your grocery, because I am lazy, but feel free to clarify your own)
1. Preheat your oven to 400°F and line a sheet pan with parchment.
2. Spread the crackers in a single layer on the pan salted top side down. Using a pastry brush, brush the crackers with a thin layer of butter, then turn them over and brush the tops.
3. Bake for 6-10 minutes, watching carefully, until the crackers are golden brown. Remove and cool completely on a rack before serving. They will hold fine in a zip-top bag or airtight container for up to a week.