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Variations on a crunch

Wednesday, January 27, 2010; E06

Crouton is the term used for toasted or fried cubes of bread. Most of the time croutons are quite simply (and boringly) made out of white bread fried in a little butter -- or even more boring, toasted until crunchy. But it is also possible to make more interesting croutons, using different types of bread and adding a host of flavors.

Croutons are best when they are made just before serving. If you need them to keep for a day or so, that requires more precision: You must make sure all the moisture in the bread has evaporated. (It might be a good idea to toast the bread first.)

The amount of fat used when making croutons can be adjusted according to your dietary requirements. Using a generous two tablespoons of butter, or more, for each batch will help produce super-crunchy and flavorful croutons that need to be placed on a paper towel to drain immediately after frying. Should you wish to use less fat, even a teaspoon or two will give the croutons a nice buttery crust. Make sure to melt the butter all over the pan before you add the cubed bread, so that every little piece of bread will sop it up.

When I use oil instead of butter, I use only fine extra-virgin olive oil. And always over relatively low heat, turning the croutons frequently so they brown evenly.

Here are five of my favorite ways to make them:

Croutons with dill. Cut white bread into 1/4 - to 1/3 -inch cubes. Fry in butter with a little finely chopped fresh dill for 5 to 7 minutes until golden brown and crunchy, depending on how dry the bread was.

Garlic croutons. Cut white bread into 1/4 - to 1/3 -inch cubes. Crush 2 cloves of garlic with the flat side of a knife and fry in butter for 2 minutes. Add the bread and fry for 5 to 7 minutes until golden brown and crunchy. For a stronger garlic flavor, add a little minced garlic and toss to incorporate just before removing the croutons from the pan.

Sourdough croutons with thyme. Tear sourdough bread (crustless or thin-crusted) into small pieces. Fry in olive oil with finely chopped thyme and a little garlic for 5 to 7 minutes, until light golden and crunchy.

Parmesan croutons. Make croutons with white bread and oil or butter (following the basic directions for croutons with dill). Combine the hot croutons with a little finely grated Parmesan cheese and toss well. Spread on a well-greased baking sheet; toast in a 400-degree oven for 4 to 6 minutes, turning them as needed for even browning, until the cheese has melted and browned.

Pumpernickel croutons. Here, it may be smart to be restrictive with the amount of fat. Instead of frying the cubed bread ( 1/4- to 1/3 -inch), place the cubes on a well-greased baking sheet; toast in a 375-degree oven for about 10 minutes until crunchy. (No need to turn these as they bake.)

Recipes using croutons

Pumpkin Soup With Croutons

Cream of Tomato Soup With Croutons

-- Andreas Viestad

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