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Quintessential Crumbs


I've been expecting the neighborhood birds to show up any time with picket signs.

I regularly turn bread remnants into croutons and bread crumbs, but until recently, the crusts went to the birds.

Some experimenting in the kitchen, however, proved to me that crusts don't need to be removed--even when making soft bread crumbs. The only exception: the few times you might want a pure white appearance. Otherwise, crusts add a golden brown color to the finished product.

There are two basic types of bread crumbs: soft and dried. Both may be used for breading or coating (when typically foods are cooked until browned anyway) or as thickeners or binders. They also can be mixed with melted butter or margarine and sprinkled over casseroles for golden brown toppings.

Soft bread crumbs are made from fresh or slightly stale bread. A food processor or blender is the easiest way to prepare the crumbs, but if neither is available, you can also make them by hand. A standard slice of bread makes about 1/2 cup fresh crumbs.

For buttered soft bread crumbs, toss a cup of fresh crumbs with 1/4 to 1/3 cup melted butter or margarine.

Dry bread crumbs are available commercially in plain and seasoned forms, but with a little time and effort, you can make your own and create myriad flavor variations. A standard slice of bread makes about 1/4 cup fine dry crumbs.

Use day-old or older bread. Spread the bread on a baking sheet and place it in a 325-degree oven until thoroughly dried, at least 15 to 20 minutes. Process it into fine crumbs with a food processor, blender, grinder or rolling pin. If crushing the bread in a plastic bag, leave the end open slightly so air can escape as the pin is rolled.

Buttered dried crumbs are made by melting 3 to 4 tablespoons butter or margarine in a skillet. Add 1 to 1 1/2 cups dry crumbs and heat, stirring often, until golden brown.

Use these guidelines to make seasoned crumbs:

* Cheese: Combine 1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese with each cup soft or dry bread crumbs.

* Garlic: Combine 1/4 crushed garlic clove with 1/4 to 1/3 cup melted butter or margarine, then toss with 1 cup soft or dry bread crumbs.

* Herb: Combine 1/4 teaspoon crushed dried herbs with each cup of soft or dry bread crumbs.

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