Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Homemade Breadcrumbs

Breadcrumbs have always been a conundrum for me.  They are undeniably delicious, adding body and flavor to many dishes, but frankly, they also not very convenient.  Or so I thought.  Inevitably, I'd make a recipe that called for breadcrumbs, which either meant one of three things: 1) I'd have to make fresh breadcrumbs, which was sort of like having to make a whole other dish; 2) I'd have to use the store bought kind, which was bland, frighteningly uniform, and never lasted once opened; or 3) skip the breadcrumbs entirely.  Depending on how critical it was to the dish, I usually opted for option #3.  It was preferable to facing the other two options, but obviously not ideal.  Many a dish would have benefited from the addition of some breadcrumbs, but I did without.

Homemade Breadcrumbs

Why I didn't want to use the stuff that comes from the grocery store in a cannister is pretty obvious.  But why did I consider having to make breadcrumbs like making a whole other dish?  Well, it seemed to me that it was a lot of effort.  First, I'd have to make sure I had the right kind of bread on hand, and recipes everywhere said that it was preferable if the bread was a bit stale.  So that took the spontaneity out.  I'd have to plan in advance to first wait for the bread to get stale, then make the breadcrumbs, then make the actual dish.  I'm not good at that much advanced planning.  Then there was the process of actually making the breadcrumbs, which to me also seemed strangely complicated for such a seemingly simple thing.  Many recipes talked about drying out the stale bread in the oven, for xx minutes at a low temperature, then crumbling or processing it afterward.  Other recipes spoke of grating stale bread using a cheese grater to create breadcrumbs, which seemed like a lot of effort to me.  Then after all that effort, you'd have breadcrumbs enough for the dish you were making, but then you'd have to do it all over again the next time.

Except it turns out that breadcrumbs freeze really well.  That being the case, I could conceivably make a lot of breadcrumbs at one time, freeze it, then use a bit at a time as necessary.  The effort to make the breadcrumbs, in that case, becomes more worthwhile.  Except it also turns out that there's actually a very simple and easy way to make breadcrumbs, that doesn't discriminate against fresh bread (though stale still is better because it takes less time).  Hallelujah!  How has it taken me this long to discover this?

Start with artisan or homemade bread if possible -- something hearty.  Basically, not white sandwich bread.  That would probably work as well, but it would probably be as tasteless as the stuff you buy in cannisters -- in which case, save yourself the trouble and just buy it.  Slice off the crust; it keeps the breadcrumbs from browning evenly.  Slice up the loaf or a few slices, however much breadcrumbs you want to make (keep in mind the volume shrinks by about half once toasted), to 1/2-1 inch cubes.  Put those in a food processor.  In this case, I'm definitely a fan of embracing technology.  Process until the bread has turned uniformly into large crumbs (it'll never get as powdery as cannister breadcrumbs).  Spread the breadcrumbs in a large, shallow baking dish.  Drizzle olive oil over the breadcrumbs -- figure about 1 tbsp per cup of fresh breadcrumbs.  Use a wooden spoon or spatula to mix well, distributing the oil over all the breadcrumbs as best as you can.  Spread out the breadcrumbs in the baking dish again.  Place in a 350°F oven on the second highest rack.  Every 4-5 minutes (more often toward the end), use your wooden spoon/spatula to stir the breadcrumbs and re-spread them out, so that they toast evenly.  How long it takes depends on how many breadcrumbs you have and how thick the layer of them are in the pan.  Here I've made about 3 cups of fresh breadcrumbs, and it took about 30 minutes, but your oven and experience may vary.  When browned to your liking -- be careful toward the end, it will easily get burnt if you're not paying attention -- remove the pan from the oven, give the breadcrumbs another stir, and let cool right in the pan.  I like to keep stirring every once in awhile, because the pan's still hot and I imagine that the breadcrumbs are continuing to toast, but I'm probably just being over cautious.  When completely cooled, use immediately or transfer to a freezer bag or other tightly sealable container.  (If you do it even when the breadcrumbs are even just warm, the condensation will moisten them and they'll lose that lovely crunch.)  They'll keep in the freezer for about a month.

You can obviously get fancy with this; what I describe above is the most basic of breadcrumbs.  You could add salt, herbs, etc.  You could use butter instead of olive oil, or a combination of both.  You could use plain sourdough bread, or you could use a loaf of onion rye.  The bread I used to make the breadcrumbs pictured above was a rosemary olive.  So really, there's no limit on what kind of bread or flavor comination you want to use for your breadcrumbs.  Now that I know they're so easy to make and can be conveniently kept in the freezer, I'll be enjoying breadcrumbs in a wider variety of dishes!  It's been awhile since I added breadcrumbs to my mac and cheese, for instance... >.>

No comments: