Bread crumbs seem to sneakily make their way into many an unsuspecting recipe. But what if you’re not eating bread? Or serving friends that prefer their meals gluten-free? Or perhaps you're halfway through a romesco recipe, surrounded by dirty pans, and not keen on dirtying up yet another for a “1-inch-thick slice of fried country bread, pulverized." For each one of those instances, we have happy alternatives—here are nine bread crumb-free bread crumbs for you to experiment with:
But first, what are breadcrumbs?
Bread crumbs—whether fresh or dried, toasted or seasoned, coarse or fine—are ground, dried-out (or fried) slices of bread. They provide bulking and binding, crispy crunchies, and moisture-control to a recipe. But this is all to say, bread crumbs need not be made of bread.
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 other possibilities.
But first, a few things to consider:
- Don't try using really dry alternatives (like pretzels or tortilla chips) where a recipe calls for soft bread crumbs made from a fresh loaf.
- 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 bread crumb substitutes as a filler or binder (rather than as an unessential topping), you might have to play around with the quantities, and change up your sub in some way. You'll need more whole oats than bread crumbs, for example; but, if you grind the oats before adding them, you can use a 1:1 substitution. Cooked whole grains (like quinoa, rice, and barley) can be used to add bulk and structure in a recipe, but do make sure any excess moisture is steamed or drained off for best results (no one likes a soggy patty).
Bread crumb alternatives:
- Wheat germ—the most nutritious part of the wheat kernel that is usually stripped during the process of refining flour—adds heartiness to the crust of Mollie Katzen's Mushroom and Yogurt Pie.
- Rolled oats, whole or pulverized (use them raw, or try toasting them, first for added flavor), can add oily-salty crunch, like on this braised broccoli rabe, or necessary binding, as in this meatloaf.
- Cereals, especially cornflake and bran, mimic the light and airy but distinct shards of panko, while puffed rice will give you a pebblier, fine-textured crust. Test our hypothesis with this cereal-crusted french toast, or these crispy rice chicken wings.
- Nuts and seeds excel as both filler and breading. Grind almonds, for example, in a food processor (or buy almond meal from the store) to coat chicken fingers, or trout with walnuts. Be wary of your breading browning too quickly though, as nuts and seeds contain higher amounts of fat than grains. Use moisture-loving seeds—such as chia, hemp, and flax—strategically, to absorb extra moisture and provide binding where needed.
- Crushed pretzels, crackers, and Saltines: Add them to a veggie burger as a binder (or roll finished patties in crumbs for a crust); crumble as a topping for Laurie Colwin's Creamed Spinach (in place of the buttered bread crumbs) 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.
Chips: Pulverize potato chips to top baked ricotta with roasted tomatoes, or mix the blitzed chips with lemon zest, garlic, and herbs for a crunchy "gremolata". Top a finished shakshuka with crumbled tortilla chips, and macaroni and cheese (especially if that macaroni and cheese includes chopped jalapeños) or baked beans with crushed Fritos (add them once you've uncovered the pot, or they'll go soggy on you).
Shredded coconut is nature's bread crumb. Toast and combine with spices, as in Sri Lankan pol sambol, for an aromatic garnish. You can also use shredded coconut to bread shrimp or tofu before baking or frying. (Just make sure to grab unsweetened, raw, dried coconut, for better control of seasoning and color.)
Riced cauliflower, beloved in grain-free bowls and pizza crusts, works beautifully as breading, too. Dry out riced florets in a low oven (350°F for about an hour) to help the cauliflower both adhere and crisp up better.
- Cooked grains provide structure and moisture in this meatloaf, and a popping-crunch on these quinoa and cheese fritters.