When I first began to cook regularly, one of the items I learned to keep on hand was a container of store-bought bread crumbs. It never occurred to me that I could make my own, or indeed that I would want to make my own, using an actual loaf of bread. Aren’t bread crumbs just tiny crumbs of bread?
Well, not exactly. Like so much of our food today, those bread crumbs you typically find in cylinder-shaped containers in the middle aisles of the grocery store are highly processed. For example, here’s the list of ingredients in Progresso’s Italian Style Bread Crumbs (accessed from the company’s website on February 19, 2015):
Bread Crumbs (enriched flour [wheat flour, malted barley flour, niacin, ferrous sulfate, thiamin mononitrate, riboflavin, folic acid], high fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, partially hydrogenated vegetable oil [soybean and/or cottonseed and/or corn and/or canola], water, salt. contains 2% or less of the following: yeast, honey, molasses, sugar, wheat gluten, whey, soy flour, whole wheat flour, rye flour, corn flour, oat bran, corn meal, rice flour, potato flour, butter, dough conditioners [mono-and diglycerides, sodium and/or calcium stearoyl lactylate, soy lecithin, calcium carbonate], yeast nutrients [ammonium sulfate, calcium sulfate, monocalcium phosphate], vinegar, nonfat milk, buttermilk, lactic acid, calcium propionate and potassium sorbate [preservatives], sesame seeds, egg, sunflower seeds), Oat Flour, Salt, Dried Parsley, Spices, Onion Powder, Garlic, Natural Flavor.
Frankly, I am baffled by the need for so many ingredients in something as simple as bread crumbs.
More significantly, many of those ingredients are unhealthy. For example, there are five types of sweeteners (high fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, honey, molasses, and sugar) as well as that bane of healthy diets everywhere, hydrogenated vegetable oil. There is also a huge amount of salt: one-quarter cup of bread crumbs has 470 mg of salt, which is between 20% and 31% of the maximum daily sodium intake recommended by various health organizations for most people.
Fortunately, there’s a better way: Make your own bread crumbs. It really is quite simple to do. Take a loaf of high quality bread (translation: the bread has just a handful of ingredients, starting with flour, water, yeast, and salt), cut away the crust if it is thick and chewy, tear the bread into small pieces, and then process the pieces in a food processor until they are of uniform size. Dry the processed crumbs on sheet pans placed in an oven set at a low temperature (200° F) for 1-2 hours, and then process the dried crumbs again if you want a finer and more uniform consistency. Any crumbs you don’t use right away can be stored in the freezer.
Besides the obvious health benefits, making your own bread crumbs is a great way to use up bread that is past its prime or for one reason or another you haven’t used up. (For example, the bread I used for the photographs in this post had a huge hole in it that I only noticed after I got home and tried to use it for sandwiches.)
The most important thing to remember is not to use mass-produced, industrialized bread. You know what I’m talking about. That’s the bread that comes in a long rectangular cube with identically sized slices and stays soft for days. Using that bread means you’ll end up with a home-made version of the Progresso bread crumbs that I described at the beginning of this post.
Instead, try to find bread made daily from scratch in a real bakery. (A good example of what I’m talking about is the Great Harvest Bread Company, which is a franchise. You may be able to find one of its locations or something similar in your community.) Alternatively, seek out supermarkets that sell higher quality bread in their bakery departments. (Just be sure to check labels and select those breads with only a few ingredients and no chemicals.)
I promise, once you start making your own bread crumbs, there will be no going back to store-bought.
Homemade Bread Crumbs
Old bread, cut into slices and crusts removed.
1. Preheat the oven to 200°F.
2. Process the bread into large crumbs: Tear the slices into small pieces and place in a food processor. Process until all of the pieces have been reduced to large crumbs.
3. Dry the crumbs in the oven: Spread the crumbs in a ½-inch layer on one or more sheet pans. (If the layer is more than ½-inch thick, you may find that that the crumbs on top burn before the crumbs on the bottom are fully dry.) Place the pan(s) in the preheated oven for 1 -2 hours or until the crumbs have become thoroughly dry. Remove the pans from the oven and let cool.
4. If you want crumbs that have a finer and more even texture, place the dried crumbs back in the food processor. Process until the crumbs are the consistency you want.
5. Store the dried crumbs in the freezer. They can be used in recipes directly as is; no thawing is necessary.
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