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Everything You Need to Know About Bread Crumbs
When using bread crumbs, a one-size-fits-all approach won’t work.
What You Need To Know
Bread crumbs are an important ingredient we use in several very different ways: as a breading, such as on chicken cutlets or fish fillets; as a crunchy topping, such as on casseroles, roasted vegetables, and pasta dishes; and as a binder in meatloaf and meatballs. There are three main styles of bread crumbs. Fresh bread crumbs are made by whizzing slices of bread in a food processor. Plain dried bread crumbs are made by finely grinding loaves of bread. Panko, which hails from Japan, is made by shredding a specific type of crustless white bread. The sizes, textures, and moisture contents of these three styles vary, so we always specify which type to use in our recipes for the best results.
To explore and explain the differences between the styles, we made our own fresh bread crumbs; purchased the leading brands of plain dried bread crumbs and panko; and used them as a breading ingredient (on pan-fried chicken cutlets), as a toasted topping (on baked macaroni and cheese), and in a panade (in meatballs). We compared the results, found our favorite products, and gathered our best tips for when and how to use each style for maximum deliciousness. Here’s what to know.
Fresh Bread Crumbs
What to Know: Fresh bread crumbs are light, tender, and coarser than the other bread crumb styles.
How They’re Made: The method is simple: Tear bread into pieces and pulse the pieces in a food processor to the desired size. Sometimes we cut off the crust first and sometimes we don’t, depending on the recipe. For coarsely ground bread crumbs, pulse about 10 times. For smaller crumbs, pulse an additional five times.
How We Use Them: Fresh bread crumbs are ideal in meatballs and meatloaves. When the crumbs are mixed with milk or another liquid, the starch in the bread crumbs absorbs the liquid and forms a paste (also known as a panade) that keeps the meat moist and tender and binds the ingredients together.
Their higher moisture content combined with their larger size also means that fresh bread crumbs made an excellent topping. On the crispness scale, they were crispier than plain dried bread crumbs but not quite as crunchy as panko. They’re ideal for sprinkling over casseroles and other baked dishes, adding nice textural contrast.
When we used fresh crumbs as a breading for fried chicken cutlets, they created a lightly crunchy breading, but because this style of bread crumb is larger and varies more in size than other styles, the breading was patchier and didn’t brown as evenly.
What to Buy: In our recipes we typically call for a hearty white sandwich bread, such as our winner, Arnold Country White Bread ($3.19 for a 24-ounce loa...
Everything We Tested
Recommended - Plain Dried Bread Crumbs
“The attractive golden-brown crust” these crumbs created was “really appealing.” Tasters noted the schnitzel’s fine coating that “stuck to the chicken” even after we sliced it. These finely ground, uniform crumbs had a neutral, pleasantly “bready” flavor. On top of macaroni and cheese, they were “sandy and dry” instead of crunchy.
The “small, tight crumbs” adhered nicely to the chicken, creating a “crispy” crust that tasted “neutral and pleasant.” The breading was “very classic” and created an “appealing fried chicken breast.” The baked macaroni and cheese topping was “dry,” “sandy,” and unappealing
Recommended - Panko
The medium-size pieces of our favorite panko make it especially successful in a range of recipes. When used as a breading for a fried cutlet, the panko formed a crisp crust that didn’t absorb too much oil. Tasters noted that it “browned beautifully” and “stayed crisp.” This panko also created a “light, tender, and crispy” topping for baked macaroni and cheese. Tasters liked its bready sweetness.
These panko pieces were the largest in our lineup, and they were also more irregularly shaped than the others we tried. The crust on the fried cutlet was “tall and crisp” and “offered real crunch.” The macaroni and cheese topping added “the appropriate amount of texture” and contrasted nicely with the creamy pasta. Due to their size and airiness, the panko pieces absorbed a bit more oil than some of the other panko samples during frying.
These panko pieces were comparatively small and uniform in size, creating crusts and toppings that were a bit more crunchy and “a little less crispy” than those made with the other pankos. The crust browned beautifully when pan-fried. As a topping for baked macaroni and cheese, the panko contributed a “great amount of crunch” and “flaky texture."
These panko pieces were less uniform in size than other pankos, but they still adhered well to chicken. They were also a little denser and harder than other pankos, causing one taster to say the “substantial coating” they made on the chicken was “almost too crunchy.” The baked macaroni and cheese topping had a “good crunch.”
Tasters were divided on this sample. Some thought it was “uniformly crunchy in a good way” with a “satisfying texture,” while others found it “almost too crunchy” with “sharp edges.” The bigger pieces of panko adhered well and created a crust on the chicken that was “quite thick.” As a baked macaroni and cheese topping, it became hard and a little difficult to chew through. The topping was “really, really crunchy.” These are the only gluten-free bread crumbs in our lineup.
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The mission of America’s Test Kitchen Reviews is to find the best equipment and ingredients for the home cook through rigorous, hands-on testing.
Carolyn is a senior editor for ATK Reviews. She's a French-trained professional baker.