Hi, I’m Brian J. Geiger. Some of you may know me as The Food Geek, and perhaps have read my work in Fine Cooking magazine or on their web site. Some of you may not know me at all, which is cool if it’s true. I wanted to introduce myself because, even though I write a lot about food, I am in no way a chef. Which is a very handy thing for home cooking.
You see, chef’s have a lot of skills that allow them a great deal of flexibility in making dinner for hundreds of people in an evening. They can create new dishes from years of experience, and they can make the same dish exactly the same way as many times as they need to make it. These are all fantastic skills, but the effort that they put towards them is, in many ways, completely opposite to what you want for home cooking.
This is not to say that a proper chef can’t cook at home. That’s an absurd thing to suggest. What I am suggesting is that, while all those skills will allow them to do home cooking, most of what they learn is completely unnecessary for the task of cooking at home. You are not going to make the same dish hundreds of times in a week, because your family will get bored with it right around day two or three. You’re not going to have the amount of people necessary to eat it all before it goes bad, nor the buying power to make it economical, much less the freezer space to store all of the extras that you make with the otherwise wasted parts to stretch its value even further. You are not cooking to scale, and that makes a huge difference in how you approach the home kitchen.
For the home cook, everything you need to do in order to make your cooking stand out, easier to make, more economical, and better for you than the store-bought stuff can be summarized in one word: croutons. Croutons are not a recipe. Croutons are not an ingredient. Croutons are a lifestyle.
No, no, hear me out. It’s not crazy, I swear. Here’s the thing: most people (in the US at least) don’t make croutons at home. This is because they buy sliced bread on the bread aisle. Sliced bread, by and large, is baked at a factory and shipped to a store, where it sits on the shelf for days or longer before it’s bought. It goes to a home where it’s eaten quickly or where it sits for up to a week. Or maybe longer, it’s been a while since I’ve really stored that kind of bread.
Now, in that week, you have plenty of time to eat the bread up. If you don’t, its fate is most likely going to be mold. You’ll get fuzzy green bread, make jokes about penicillin or science experiments, and throw it out. The reason the bread lives that long is because it’s pumped so full of preservatives in response to a market that loves its sliced bread. Its tasteless, lifeless, sliced bread.
However, if you make your own bread at home, or you have a really good bakery down the street like I do, then you’re going to have real bread that goes stale in a day or two and no longer is useful for sandwiches or eating it by itself. And then, trained by decades of mass-produced breadstuffs, you throw out the bread and start thinking that you want to eat bread that lasts more than two days. That is a mistake.
Hundreds of years of bread baking in various cultures around the world have found ways around the bread staling problem. The solution we are discussing today is, yes, croutons. When you make croutons, you’re removing all of the water from the bread, adding some flavor, and adding some salt. The combination of removal of water and addition of salt means that the croutons will last for a good long while in a plastic zip-top bag in your pantry. A good long while. They are tasty like garlic toast. They are just about free, because most of it is bread you would have thrown away in any case. And they’re just about the easiest things to make.
Take some bread. I have some tasty French bread from my local store, but as I said, you can use pretty much anything. I would stick with the basics to start with, though, because cinnamon-raisin or apple cider bread might be a bit odd with the garlic salt. The recipe’s below, but let’s start with the basic steps.
Cut the bread into 1” cubes. There’s some leeway here, but the closest they are to the same size, the better. Alternately, if you wanted to make crostini, you could slice into rounds, especially if you’re using a tasty French baguette. Either way, be relatively consistent, and don’t try to mix your crostini with your croutons. I went with cubes.
Combine some pepper, garlic salt, and olive oil together. I use fancy olive oil here, but use what you like. For my garlic salt, I’m using the Penzey’s Spice garlic salt, because I just found out that there’s a Penzey’s about an hour and a half away and I went kind of crazy on buying spices, but you could use what you have handy or even make your own. Heck, it doesn’t even have to be garlic salt. You could mix some other herbs and spices with regular salt, pepper, and olive oil. The possibilities are endless.
Find a big bowl and toss the bread cubes with your olive oil mixture. I mean a really big bowl. I have a stainless steel bowl from IKEA that I could sleep in if the economy were to take more of a downturn, but anything that fits the bread with plenty of room to mix is good.
I’ve just lightly covered the bread with the oil and spice mixture, as you can see above. There’s a light sheen on the bread. Next you’ll take a baking sheet with a cooling rack placed inside, and arrange the croutons on top of this. If you don’t have a cooling rack with a tight enough grid, you could either use larger croutons or just place the croutons on the baking sheet. If you place directly on the sheet, you’ll have to toss them half way through for even cooking.
Then you bake for about 10-12 minutes, or until golden brown, crunchy, and delicious.
Ta-dah! Eat some just to enjoy them, put them in a salad, or store in a zip-top bag for a long time, or until they’re eaten up. “But Brian,” you may say, “What if I’m really slow at eating bread, and I start filling the house with croutons?” Fear not, for if you take some of those croutons and put them into a food processor for not very long at all, you’ll have breadcrumbs, which are another good ingredient that will store forever and be usable in many circumstances as a kitchen staple. Breadcrumbs are also much more compact that croutons, so you’ll be unlikely to run out of space with those.
Also, if you grow weary of toasted croutons and toasted breadcrumbs, just put the bread straight into the food processor before all of the cubing, spicing, oiling, and baking, and make yourself some fresh bread crumbs. Those will go a long way towards making some unbelievably good meatballs or as a filler for a number of dishes.
1 baguette (or other loaf of bread), cut into 1-inch cubes
1.5 tsp garlic salt
1/2 tsp roughly ground black pepper
4 Tbl extra virgin olive oil
Preheat the oven to 375°F.
Combine pepper/garlic salt with oil.
Mix oil mixture with bread cubes, by hand, in a big bowl.
Put bread cubes onto baking rack on jelly roll pan.
Bake 10-12 minutes until brown and crunchy.