Cooking with Gluten-Free Bread Crumbs
Bread crumbs are an easily overlooked ingredient. They’re rarely the star of a dish. Instead they’re usually cast in supporting but crucial roles—either in a dish (as in meatloaf or meatballs) or on a dish (as with breaded chicken fingers or fish sticks). Bread crumbs add flavor and texture, and sometimes help to retain moisture. But what to do when you’re gluten-free and traditional bread crumbs are off limits?
One option is to simply omit the bread crumbs from a recipe altogether, which can work when the bread crumbs are used for a coating. For example, when I was dining out at a restaurant in the heavily-Italian Morris Park neighborhood of the Bronx in New York City, I ordered a “naked” chicken parmigiana with no breading and no flour dredge, just the marinara sauce and mozzarella cheese over the chicken breast. This unorthodox way of ordering the classic dish perplexed my server but nonetheless got the job done of yielding a gluten-free version of chicken parm. But of course, this approach risks a dish no longer tasting like “the real thing.” After all, without bread crumbs the popular pub appetizer of mozzarella sticks just becomes sticks of cheese.
I’m a firm believer that gluten-free versions of recipes should taste nearly identical to their gluten-filled counterparts. Thus, lowly bread crumbs matter. Simply leaving them out is seldom the best course of action.
Another option is to substitute a naturally gluten-free ingredient in place of the bread crumbs, such as cornmeal as a coating for fried chicken or fish and chips, or quinoa used in place of bread crumbs to help retain moisture in a meatloaf. These solutions can and do work. Yet there remain times when the best version of a dish comes only through using “proper” bread crumbs. Which brings me to option three.
Frequently the best option is to simply use gluten-free bread crumbs, whether store-bought or homemade. Since at the end of the day we’re talking about tiny crumbs — rather than great yeasted breads or leavened cakes — gluten isn’t particularly critical to make a good version. It’s easy to make great gluten-free bread crumbs.
The most straightforward solution is to buy ready-to-use gluten-free bread crumbs. The best brands are excellent but expensive. And beware brands that essentially take cornmeal and merely rename it to market as gluten-free bread crumbs. I’ve carelessly bought such versions in haste while traveling away from home and my pantry, and have consistently been disappointed. In my experience, cornmeal’s flavor and behavior in a recipe does not always translate as a substitution for bread crumbs.
Another option is to make quick and easy bread crumbs by pulsing gluten-free crackers (such as Nut Thins) or gluten-free cereal (such as Rice Chex) in the food processor. This approach works well to make bread crumbs on demand, though you may find yourself reluctant to sacrifice a perfectly good batch of crackers for the bread crumb cause.
By far my favorite approach is to make bread crumbs starting with slices of real bread. Whether you bake your own or buy it at the store, gluten-free bread can be expensive, so this is a great way to use stale slices or the less-popular heels from the ends of loaves. By transforming them into bread crumbs, nothing goes to waste, stretching your budget further. Lightly toast the slices to dry them out, tear them up, and pulse them in a food processor until you have fine crumbs. Most often, I’ll also season the bread crumbs with a little salt, pepper, garlic powder, dried basil, and dried oregano to make Italian-seasoned bread crumbs. They store well in the freezer in an airtight container.
With gluten-free bread crumbs on hand, a world of possibilities opens to you, with gluten-free versions that taste indistinguishable from their gluten-based siblings.
First published April 2015