Between the book, the blog, and magazine articles, I’ve developed at least 100 new recipes in the last six months. (Ninety-nine, I think, for vegetables, but I did get to do one dessert!) All that time in the kitchen made me super-aware of the many cool tips I’ve gleaned over the years, both from the great cooks I’ve worked with and from my own experience. Tips for making things easier, tastier, faster, or just plain niftier. I don’t always get to include my favorite tips in published recipes, so I thought it would be fun to share one here every so often. This week I’m starting with a tip (or two!) about making fresh bread crumbs.
Surprisingly, I use fresh bread crumbs a fair amount in vegetable dishes. I use them to make a topping (usually combined with a little Parmigiano, chopped fresh herbs, and olive oil) for oven casseroles, including gratins and baked pastas. And I use them to make a crunchy topping for a stovetop pasta or sautéed vegetables. For baking, I want to start with fresh, moist breadcrumbs, as they will toast in the heat of the oven. For stovetop dishes, I actually want to start with those same fresh, moist breadcrumbs. Rather than drying them out to make them crunchy, I “toast” them by frying them in just a little bit of butter or oil in a small nonstick skillet—much tastier. (I never buy packaged dry breadcrumbs—the texture is too fine and often they have unwanted added flavors.)
Either way, I always start with the same thing: bread I have whizzed in my coffee grinder. This little machine (mine is a Krups; $20 at Amazon) is incredibly efficient at ripping bread to shreds in seconds. I am partial to using English muffins for bread crumbs, because I love the generous texture they yield. I can rip up one fresh English muffin, whiz in the coffee grinder, and have fresh breadcrumbs in seconds. (I don’t over-whiz so that the crumbs stay somewhat coarse.) I also like to use up the ends of my sandwich loaves (which I collect in the freezer, where I keep most of my bread) by making them into bread crumbs. You can certainly turn artisan bread into bread crumbs, too, but it shouldn’t be more than a day or so old (unless it is coming from the freezer). Contrary to popular belief, rock-hard bread does not make good fresh breadcrumbs; it makes powder.
If I have lots of bits and ends on hand, I’ll use my food processor instead of my coffee grinder. A few quick pulses and I’ve got not just one cup but several cups of fresh bread crumbs. The food processor will work for small amounts, too. So if you don’t have a small coffee grinder that you can dedicate to cooking (it will chop spices and nuts too) rather than coffee, go ahead and use your food processor. Whatever you use, put any excess crumbs in a zip-top freezer bag and pop them in the freezer. There, they actually stay “fresh,” so that you can pull a half cup or so whenever you need it—they’ll defrost in seconds.