Croutons are typically cubes of bread that have been mixed with butter or oil and crisped in the oven or on the stove. Sometimes they are seasoned with garlic, herbs, or cheese. Croutons are one of the simplest recipes to make, and they add so much flavor as a wonderful textural contrast to soups, salads, and other foods, including casseroles. Once you've experienced the rich, buttery, fresh taste of homemade croutons, you might never go back to the purchased kind. Another advantage of the homemade variety is that you can customize the croutons to suit the dish: choose the bread, the seasonings, and the cooking method. Croutons are also a great way to use up leftover artisan bread that is starting to dry out. You can make them ahead of time, too: Store cooled croutons in an airtight container for up to three days in the refrigerator.
You can use just about any kind of bread, but top-quality croutons start with top-quality bread. Artisan breads, such as French, Italian, ciabatta, or sourdough, usually have a tuggy texture and firm crust, which work well for croutons. Rye bread also makes a tasty crouton, especially suitable for salads and hearty soups such as split pea or cream of cauliflower. Should the crusts be cut off? The choice is yours. Another choice is whether to cut or simply tear the bread. Again, it's up to you, depending on the look you want. Some people like the traditional appearance of neat cubes, while others like the more rustic look of torn pieces of bread.
- Preheat the oven to 300 degrees F.
- Cube or tear bread to make 2 cups (this will yield eight 1/4-cup servings). Aim for 3/4-inch cubes or pieces. For ease of cutting bread, use a serrated knife. Set bread aside.
- Melt 2 tablespoons butter in the microwave on 50 percent power (medium) about 45 seconds or until melted, or melt the butter in a small saucepan over medium-low heat. Stir in any of the following seasonings or your favorite seasoning blend:
- 1/2 teaspoon Italian seasoning
- 1/2 teaspoon Greek seasoning
- 1/2 teaspoon herbes de Provence
- 1/2 teaspoon Mexican spice blend
- 1 clove minced garlic (or 1/4 teaspoon garlic powder)
- 1/2 teaspoon curry powder
- 2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
- 1 teaspoon pumpkin pie spice
- 2 tablespoons cinnamon-sugar (this option is great on a salad with fruit, such as a strawberry-spinach salad)
Tip: You can substitute 2 tablespoons olive oil for the butter, or use half of each. Do not use margarine-like spreads in plastic tubs; they can contain more water than butter, so you'll end up with soggy croutons.
- Add bread cubes to butter mixture, stirring until cubes are evenly coated.
- Spread bread cubes in a single layer in a shallow baking pan or on a baking sheet. Bake in a 300 degree F oven for 10 minutes; stir, bake about 10 minutes more or until bread cubes are crisp and golden. Cool completely.
Tip: If you want to flavor croutons using a natural cheese, such as cheddar, Gruyere, or Asiago, sprinkle about 1/4 cup of shredded cheese over the croutons midway through baking.
- Prepare bread cubes as for oven method (above); place in a large bowl.
- In a large skillet heat butter over medium-low heat. Stir in seasonings. Drizzle butter mixture over bread cubes in the bowl, tossing to coat evenly.
- Pour cubes into the skillet. Cook over medium-low heat for 6 to 8 minutes or until cubes are lightly browned and crisp, stirring occasionally. Remove croutons from the pan; drain on paper towels.
How to Make Other Kinds of Croutons
Because croutons can add so much to a dish, some cooks have gone way beyond plain bread to create these novel croutons.
- Grilled Cheese Sandwich Croutons: Prepare Grilled Cheese Sandwiches. Cut them into 1-inch squares. These are great in cream of tomato soup or chili.
- Cream Cheese Croutons: Cut an 8-ounce of brick of cream cheese into 1/2-inch cubes. Coat with 1/2 cup finely chopped sliced almonds or pistachios. Refrigerate or freeze in an airtight container until ready to cook. To cook, spray a heavy medium saucepan with cooking spray; heat over medium heat. Add cream cheese cubes to skillet; cook and stir 3 minutes or until golden brown. Try these on fruit-base salads.
- Cake Croutons: Cut one-fourth of a 15-ounce purchased angel food cake in half horizontally. Brush all sides of each piece with melted butter. Grill cake sections on the rack of an uncovered grill, directly over medium coals, for 2 to 3 minutes or until lightly browned, turning once. Cut cake into large cubes. Serve with grilled or fresh fruit.