Breadcrumbs are an amazingly versatile ingredient. They can thicken, add bulk, and bind or they can serve as a crunchy coating or topping (as in Fried Meatloaf). Breadcrumb varieties aren’t necessarily interchangeable, though. Here’s the lowdown on the major categories and typical uses for each.
Fresh breadcrumbs make an excellent binder, which is why they so often show up in meatloaf and stuffing recipes. They’re also our second choice, after panko, for breading and frying. Making your own fresh breadcrumbs is easy, and you can make a big batch so they’re always on hand. French or Italian loaves are best, but just about any type of bread will work. One- or two-day-old bread works best, as really fresh bread is often too moist to break down into crumbs. Cut off the crust if you like—we usually leave it on for its flavor. Cut or tear the bread into large pieces, and pulse in a food processor until the crumbs reach the desired consistency.
Dry breadcrumbs are typically used as a topping to add a crunchy textural dimension to gratins, casseroles, and other similar dishes. You can find commercially made dry breadcrumbs in most supermarkets, but we recommend making your own so you have more control over the flavor and texture of the crumbs. To make them, cut the bread (with or without the crust) into small cubes and spread the cubes in a single layer on a rimmed baking sheet. Bake in a 350ºF oven, turning the cubes a few times, until dry. Cool and then pulse the cubes in a food processor until they reach the desired consistency.
Panko (Japanese breadcrumbs)
In Japanese, the word “panko” simply means breadcrumbs. In the U.S., though, panko refers to a particular type of Japanese breadcrumb. Panko breadcrumbs are dry. They have a shard-like shape and a uniformly light color (most panko is made from crust-free bread). Their unique texture is particularly well suited for breading and frying. Panko used to be hard to find anywhere other than an Asian market, but recently we’ve noticed it cropping up in large supermarkets—look for it in the Asian section, the dry breadcrumb section, or near the fish counter.
Seal breadcrumbs in a zip-top plastic bag and freeze for up to six months. There’s no need to thaw frozen breadcrumbs before using.