Panko is great sometimes, and so are boxed bread crumbs, but homemade bread crumbs? They’re next-level.
I used to avoid recipes calling for bread crumbs. To me, they seemed like an inauthentic way to shellac capital-T texture onto a dish. And I wasn’t baking much, so the excuses for bread I had kicking around tended to be potato rolls (for burgers, tuna melts, and egg-on-cheeses, and too gummy for crumbs), sliced whole wheat (likewise), or a store-bought baguette (always reserved for tartines and French toast).
Then I started baking my own bread (particularly this no-knead loaf recipe) and in a thoroughly unoriginal fit of pique after I’d made a mess of slicing the loaf, I tossed the bazillion resulting crumbs on top of cooked, creamy pasta. Not bad. Not bad at all. Next, after a trip to Popeyes left me craving fried chicken, I discovered Melissa Clark’s faux-fried chicken legs, which employ a genius mustard butter to adhere the crumbs. They emerged crisp and juicy, and although nothing like fried chicken, they scratched the crisp-chicken-skin itch.
Voilà. An obsession was born. Soon I was hoarding the things like Smaug hoards his gold. I avoided eating actual slices of my fresh bread, thinking greedily about how I’d smash them up later. It wasn’t a totally logical move, but once I’d breaded chicken, dredged it in homemade crumbs, and popped it on a rack set on top of cauliflower florets tossed with a tiny bit of olive oil and Kosher salt, I had a sheet pan meal fit for a queen. It made three to four servings, and there was no going back. I use rough-chopped bread crumbs, and leave the big ones in the sheet pan with the cauliflower, giving the veggies a good stir halfway through the chicken’s cooking time so nothing burns. The schmaltz from the cooking chicken drips into the sheet pan, which is an excellent thing. (If you get nervous about that sort of thing, just cook the two on separate pans.)
I am far from alone in my crumb fixation. Open nearly any cookbook and spy a recipe for fancy bread crumbs with pancetta and prunes (Canal House Cooks Every Day), herbaceous bread crumbs with parsley and thyme (Hugh Acheson’s A New Turn in the South), or just fresh bread crumbs (Tartine Bread). This April (hot on the heels of Toast: The Cookbook), Alexandra Stafford’s “Bread Toast Crumbs: Recipes for No-Knead Loaves” will hit the shelves.
Stafford does a nice job distinguishing among fresh bread crumbs (which are what you want when using a broiler or anything else that might burn them) and toasted bread crumbs, which will be more pleasant on most pasta dishes. The title slightly belies the nature of the book; there are about 30 bread crumb recipes encompassing sweet and savory options, but the dozens of other recipes are for fresh loaves, toasts, croutons, and more. Some of the flavor combinations are traditional favorites—she has a riff on my beloved breaded mustard chicken that I didn’t adore quite as much as Clark’s version—but among her various breads she includes her mother’s no-knead peasant bread recipe, which has a sweet backstory and a buttery crust. I’ve only tested two recipes so far, but I’m going to keep using the book for inspiration. (A blueberry brown betty recipe using bread crumbs instead of brown sugar and oats looks fairly divine.)
So don’t toss your bread crumbs, even if they’re not homemade. Toast them or fry them in butter or olive oil and add a small handful to pasta, casseroles, baked mac ‘n cheese, salads, or anything else that could use texture. Use them to bread fish and broil it, or—a Stafford inspiration I’ll try—make your own fish sticks! This is one of those smart no-waste moves that can fancy up the easiest weeknight meals.
Alex Van Buren is a food and travel writer living in Brooklyn, New York whose work has appeared in Gourmet.com, Bon Appétit, Travel & Leisure, New York Magazine, Martha Stewart Living, and Epicurious. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @alexvanburen.