Last week, I was halfway through an impromptu romesco—toasted almonds were in the food processor with chopped tomatoes sautéed with olive oil, minced garlic, crushed dried red chile, tomato paste, and sliced red bell pepper—when I remembered something: Suzanne Goin's romesco calls for a 1-inch-thick slice of fried country bread, which gets pulverized into breadcrumbs in the food processor.
As I looked around my tiny kitchen, where every single pan was already dirty, the thought of frying a single piece of bread to make breadcrumbs was not appealing.
Grasping for something salty, crunchy, carby, already-cooked, and within arm's reach, I opened the pantry and reached for the bag of pretzels. I threw a handful in the processor and gave it a whirl. It thickened (and seasoned) the mixture. We had romesco, albeit untraditional, for topping roasted vegetables. And the next day, I closed the circle, using the hacked romesco as a dip for even more pretzels.
Breadcrumbs, who needs them! When a recipe calls for crumbs made from stale or fried bread (that is, where you're not looking for bread to provide moisture, but rather crunch and texture), turn to your pantry for possibilities.
A few things to consider as you experiment:
- Don't try using really dry alternatives (like pretzels or tortilla chips) where soft breadcrumbs made from a fresh loaf are called for.
- Consider salt and flavor levels. If you're using Fritos and Saltines, for example, you'll want to dial down the amount of salt in the recipe.
- If you're using the breadcrumb substitutes as a filler or binder (rather than as a inessential topping), you might have to play with the quantities. You'll need more whole oats than breadcrumbs, for example; but, if you grind the oats before adding them, you can use a 1:1 substitution.
Standard breadcrumb alternatives:
- Wheat germ, like in the crust of Mollie Katzen's Mushroom and Yogurt Pie
- Oats, whole or pulverized (use them raw or try toasting them first for added flavor)
- Bran and bran cereals, like All-Bran and oat bran; try it in place of panko on homemade fish sticks
- Almonds make a great gluten-free breading; grind them in a food processor (or buy almond meal from the store), then use them to coat chicken fingers
Wild and crazy breadcrumb alternatives (and places to use them):
- Pretzels: add them to a veggie burger as a binder (or roll finished patties in crumbs for a crust)
- Saltines: as a topping for Laurie Colwin's Creamed Spinach (in place of the buttered breadcrumbs) or to add crunch to any creamy baked casserole; Saltines are also the filler of choice in Cook's Illustrated meatloaf and the crust of Bill Smith's Atlantic Beach Pie
- Tortilla chips: pulverize them, then mix with lemon zest, garlic, and herbs for a crunchy "gremolata"; sprinkle them on a finished shakshuka or baked ricotta with roasted tomatoes
- Corn Flakes, Special K, Wheaties, or other cereal: toast them with a bit of sugar and butter, crush them a bit, then use them on top of kugel or rice pudding
- Rice Krispies: these are so small, you don't really have to crush them at all; use them whole as a topping for a gratin or as an accompaniment to fried eggs; or, add a handful to a bowl and pour some soup over top (ten years ago, Ferran Adrià at El Bulli restaurant poured a reduced seafood broth over Krispies for "Kellogg’s paella")
- Fritos or corn chips: ideal on top of macaroni and cheese (especially if that macaroni and cheese includes chopped jalapeños) or baked beans (add them once you've uncovered the pot—otherwise, they'll get soggy on you)
Ready to try it out?
What's the most creative recipe substitution you've ever made? Brag a little in the comments below!