Friday, September 16, 2016

Homemade Croutons - Let me count the ways...

Traditional German Nut Bread on the
right, Pretzel Rolls on the left. (The
pretzel croutons are especially good
on chili or soups--think potato soup
or cheddar cheese. Yum!)
With so much great bread here in Germany (and cheap!), sometimes I go a little overboard. You too? Glad I'm not the only one.

Naturally, with a family of only four, I often end up with bread we can't get through because it goes stale. My son loves to save it for the ducks at the duck pond, but my favorite thing to do with it is to make homemade croutons!

Homemade Croutons are so great because a) they cost next to nothing (especially when the bread is already a sunk cost and would otherwise go to waste), you can make them with absolutely anything you have in the house, customizing to go with your personal tastes, c) they keep in the freezer for weeks so you can make them and use them when you're ready, and d) they make normal, run-of-the-mill salads and soups extraordinary!

Croutons can also be a surprising, unusual addition to many other types of dishes from ragouts to stews. Love your slow cooker, but still complain that everything comes out the same texture? Throw some homemade croutons on there, and you've just elevated your dish to a whole other level.

Here's a guide for you so you can give it a shot.

Step 1:
Cut or tear your bread (sandwich, French, ciabatta, pretzels, bagels, English muffins, corn bread, you name it), depending on how you like it. Smaller is great for salads and "fancy" dishes, big is great for soups, and hand-torn is very rustic (kind of like a big hug, if you ask me!).

Step 2:
Decide whether you want to bake or sauté your bread crumbs. Baking makes them more uniformly crunchy, while sautéing gives you a bit of variation in texture. Both are equally easy, but sautéing requires that you watch the bread crumbs from start to finish.

Step 3:
Prepare your toppings. This is the fun part....
For about three cups of breadcrumbs, I use about 2-3 Tbsp of melted butter or olive oil. The most versatile three ingredients are garlic, salt and pepper. If you want to use garlic, you should peel 2-3 cloves, smash them, and add them to the butter while you're melting it (or simply heat your olive oil up until you can smell the garlic). It's not wise to use minced garlic because it will burn.

Other ideas for additions:
~ Fresh Herbs - parsley, thyme,
~ Spices/Dried Herbs - garlic powder, paprika, chili powder, spice mixes (watch the salt--don't add any extra if your mix contains it), curry powder........
~ Nuts/Seeds - smaller varieties like poppy and sesame would work best
~ Cheese - hard cheeses, like parmesan, shredded small work best
~ Prepared Sauces like Pesto or Romanesco (usually better with olive oil)

Step 4:
Mix up your croutons in a large bowl with your desired additions. Just add a bit of whatever you like from the list above to the melted butter or olive oil, then toss with your croutons.

Step 5:
Bake or sauté! For baking, just line a large baking sheet with foil, and spread your prepared croutons onto it in an even layer. Bake at 350 degrees Fahrenheit until crispy and gold brown, about 15 minutes.  For sautéing, simple heat up your pan over medium heat until warm. Add croutons and a little butter/oil from the bottom of your mixing bowl - IN BATCHES - into your warm skillet and sauté until browned. Be sure to move your croutons around a lot, and do not overcrowd the pan to avoid steaming your croutons. Remove croutons from oven and let cool on pan, or if sautéing move the croutons onto a paper-towel lined plate to cool.
I wish you guys could smell this right now!
Step 6:
Use or Store. Use your croutons warm immediately, or store them in an airtight container or Ziploc. They'll keep on the counter for a few days, or in the freezer for a few weeks. To use from the freezer, just bring them to room temp on a plate (so any condensation can evaporate) and warm them up quickly in the oven.

Step 7:
Get ready to impress your family and friends with this hand-crafted yummy garnish that you secretly know is super easy!!

Let me know what your favorite combination is, and the unique ways you've used your homemade croutons!