Absolute Best Tests

The Absolute Best Way to Make Croutons, According to So Many Tests

February 25, 2021
Photo by Ella Quittner

In Absolute Best Tests, Ella Quittner destroys the sanctity of her home kitchen in the name of the truth. She's boiled dozens of eggs, mashed a concerning number of potatoes, and seared more porterhouse steaks than she cares to recall. Today, she tackles croutons.


On the wall of a café in the historic district of Moscow, not far from the Elektrozavodskaya metro station, hangs the portrait of a young woman. She stares into the eyes of whoever passes her canvas, lips parted merrily to reveal just her upper incisors. Strands of hair whip across her forehead and nose as if she’s caught in a gust of wind.

She is made from 40,000 croutons, and one day, she will crumble into nothing but dust.

“It was a pleasure to work with such a material as bread, because it has a very good energy. I felt bright vibes while working with croutons,” said Zoom, the Russian artist who spent more than a month baking the bread cubes that constitute this bread woman, no relation to the video conference call you’re currently shirking.

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Top Comment:
“Mom's croutons were (naturally) always the best. She used dried bread, cut into (more or less) cubes. Cut a garlic clove in two and rub the pan thoroughly, heat a bit of olive oil in the pan and fry the bread to golden brown. A sort of related recipe (got this one from a cookbook) was for garlic bread; toast a piece of bread (preferably a crusty rustic type), rub with a cut garlic clove and pour hot olive oil over it. First time I tried this, I actually went out and relit the (charcoal) barbecue to toast more bread, I just couldn't get the taste out of my mind.”
— Smaug
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“I wanted to re-create the mood of family Sunday morning when you feel the smell of a freshly baked bread made for you by people who love you [with] a young, innocent, sun-kissed girl who radiates the warmth of a beautiful Sunday morning,” he told me.

Indeed, Zoom’s portrait caught my eye because it’s stunning. But mostly it caught my eye because I was reckoning with an assignment to bake an inordinate amount of croutons myself, for Absolute Best Tests.

If Zoom could handle 40,000, I reasoned, then I could manage a couple hundred.

Crouton, a term a few times removed from the French croûte (crust), refers to a small piece of stale or twice-baked bread typically flavored with a fat and seasonings, used to garnish a salad or soup. The internet professes that croutons can be made with almost any type of bread, in neat cubes or roughly torn. Zoom used “simple supermarket bread” for his carby hexahedrons, which he baked in six batches of varying doneness to create a palette with tonal range. He reported “a constant smell of baked bread everywhere” for the duration. For my crouton trials, I chose loaves of sourdough from Sullivan Street Bakery, with a nice, loose crumb capable of drinking in lots of fat and expelling moisture with haste.

As for what makes a perfect crouton, Zoom is a bit more figurative than most recipes I googled: “We all know that bread has sacred meaning for people. That’s what makes it delicious.”

With that in my back pocket (which is what I call the waistband of the leggings I’ve been wearing for five days), I set out to test the crouton fundamentals...

grab a spatula & cook with us

Controls & Fine Print

For each test, I used the Community Loaf from Sullivan Street Bakery, a sturdy bread with a large, airy crumb. Conventional crouton wisdom would have you avoid loaves with an especially tight or moist crumb, since they take longer to crisp.

Each trial called for:

  • 1 1/2 cups cubed, crustless bread (except in the Torn trial, in which shapes were erratic)
  • 3 tablespoons cooking fat (olive oil or melted butter, or 1 1/2 tablespoons each, depending on the trial)
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

I would have to resign as a crouton commentator if I didn’t mention that you can and should add bonus seasonings to your bread before you bake it. For the sake of my experiment, I stuck to salt. But cheese powder, dried herbs, gochugaru, grated garlic, black pepper, or really anything delicious that won’t burn in the oven is fair play.


Round 1: Shape

I ran two trials, using the 425°F Oven method (below) and Oil as controls.

Torn

Inspired by The New York Times.

  1. Heat the oven to 425°F.
  2. Remove the crust of your bread and cut into inch-thick strips. Tear into bite-size pieces.
  3. In a large bowl, mix 1 1/2 cups of bread pieces with 3 tablespoons of olive oil and 1/2 teaspoon of kosher salt until the oil is fully absorbed. Taste one and season with additional salt as needed.
  4. Place on a sheet pan, careful not to crowd (which would inhibit crisping).
  5. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes, until fragrant, golden, and crunchy on the outside. Give the pan a shake once or twice midway through for more even browning.
  6. Remove from the oven and let cool before using.

The obvious benefit to free-form croutons is the efficiency in the preparation. Neatly slicing a loaf of bread into consistent cubes takes time (roughly one half of a Survivor episode per batch). Slicing into strips, then tearing produces similar results, but takes half as long.

Unfortunately, the torn pieces didn’t pick up as much salt as their hexadronal counterparts, which made the resultant croutons a bit bland. But what they lacked in seasoning, they made up for in delightful mouthfeel. Each roughly hewn crout (I am running out of ways to say crouton) produced the oral sensation of crushing a multifaceted orb with my teeth. I was shocked when not a single one released one of Professor Trelawney’s premonitions. The extra crags and edges made for more fun crunch than the plain-Jane cubes, which I realize confirms that I’ve never really experienced true fun, but let’s not dwell!

The Torn batch was less browned, because the irregularity of the surfaces meant less pan contact. The internal texture was less even as well, with some fully crisp and others with a hint of soft belly, which very well may break the rules of a crouton but dammit I say we color outside the lines on this one.

Cubed

  1. Heat the oven to 425°F.
  2. In a large bowl, mix 1 1/2 cups of bread cubes with 3 tablespoons of olive oil and 1/2 teaspoon of kosher salt until the oil is fully absorbed. Taste one and season with additional salt as needed.
  3. Place on a sheet pan, careful not to crowd (which would inhibit crisping).
  4. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes, until fragrant, golden, and crunchy on the outside. Give the pan a shake once or twice midway through for more even browning.
  5. Remove from the oven and let cool before using.

The crouton cube absorbs oil more evenly than an irregularly shaped specimen. The result: even browning, and more flavor since the salt had lots of surface area to cling to.

Unsurprisingly, these croutons were far less exciting to eat than the Torn ones, though there’s something to be said for evenly sized, toasty bread pieces. (However, that something is: “Wow, we are overthinking this.”)


Round 2: Fat

I ran three trials, each using the 425°F Oven method and Cube shape as controls.

Butter

  1. Heat the oven to 425°F.
  2. In a large bowl, mix 1 1/2 cups of bread cubes with 3 tablespoons of melted butter and 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt until the butter is absorbed. Taste one and season with additional salt as needed.
  3. Place on a sheet pan, careful not to crowd (which would inhibit crisping).
  4. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes, until fragrant, golden, and crunchy on the outside. Give the pan a shake once or twice midway through for more even browning.
  5. Remove from the oven and let cool before using.

The melted butter was absorbed much more quickly into the bread pieces than Oil—in about half the time. Its efficiency advantage ended there though. Butter croutons took a few minutes longer to crisp in the oven than their oil-only competition, perhaps because American butter can be composed of 15 percent water or more (merely a guess, scientists please take the mic).

On the flavor front, these croutons were wonderfully reminiscent of diner-griddled bread, like what swaddles a tuna melt or grilled cheese: all sour bread notes and a hint of browned butter.

Oil

  1. Heat the oven to 425°F.
  2. In a large bowl, mix 1 1/2 cups of bread cubes with 3 tablespoons of olive oil and 1/2 teaspoon of kosher salt until the oil is fully absorbed. Taste one and season with additional salt as needed.
  3. Place on a sheet pan, careful not to crowd (which would inhibit crisping).
  4. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes, until fragrant, golden, and crunchy on the outside. Give the pan a shake once or twice midway through for more even browning.
  5. Remove from the oven and let cool before using.

Despite causing a bit of a backup in wait time while it absorbed into the bread pieces, Oil proved a worthy competitor in the oven, producing more evenly browned croutons that tasted like movie theater popcorn. Given their different advantages and disadvantages with prep and cook time, I would rank Oil croutons and Butter croutons exactly evenly, and suggest you use the fat whose flavor you prefer, unless you’re the type of crouton obsessive who loses sleep over irregular browning (in which case, use oil, but also please never host me for a sleepover).

Butter & Oil

Inspired by Two Peas & Their Pod.

  1. Heat the oven to 425°F.
  2. In a large bowl, mix 1 1/2 cups of bread cubes with 1 1/2 tablespoons of olive oil, 1 1/2 tablespoons of melted butter, and 1/2 teaspoon of kosher salt until the oil is absorbed. Taste one and season with additional salt as needed.
  3. Place on a sheet pan, careful not to crowd (which would inhibit crisping).
  4. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes, until fragrant, golden, and crunchy on the outside. Give the pan a shake once or twice midway through for more even browning.
  5. Remove from the oven and let cool before using.

“My word, what a treat,” read my completely unhinged field notes about these croutons, so apparently they turned me into a well-behaved ’40s starlet taking her first sip of a Manhattan? Beyond completely transforming my lexicon and vibe, they also made me squeal with delight, as they tasted like Ritz Crackers, and had a surface texture like edible fiberglass. Somehow, the combination of Butter & Oil produced croutons with crispier exteriors than either Butter or Oil on their own.


Round 3: Method

I ran four trials, each using Oil and a Cube shape as controls.

425°F Oven

Inspired by Bon Appétit.

  1. Heat the oven to 425°F.
  2. In a large bowl, mix 1 1/2 cups of bread cubes with 3 tablespoons of olive oil and 1/2 teaspoon of kosher salt until the oil is absorbed. Taste one and season with additional salt as needed.
  3. Place on a sheet pan, careful not to crowd (which would inhibit crisping).
  4. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes, until fragrant, golden, and crunchy on the outside. Give the pan a shake once or twice midway through for more even browning.
  5. Remove from the oven and let cool before using.

After the Broiler method, the 425°F Oven method was quickest, and produced evenly crunchy croutons. If standardized croutons get you going, consider starting with this method and trying out different fats, seasonings, and shapes from here.

350°F Oven

  1. Heat the oven to 350°F.
  2. In a large bowl, mix 1 1/2 cups of bread cubes with 3 tablespoons olive oil and 1/2 teaspoon of kosher salt until oil is absorbed. Taste one and season with additional salt as needed.
  3. Place on a sheet pan, careful not to crowd (which would inhibit crisping).
  4. Bake for 22 to 28 minutes, until fragrant, golden, and crunchy on the outside. Give the pan a shake once or twice midway for more even browning.
  5. Remove from the oven and let cool before using.

These barely took on any color, despite a long holiday in the oven. They did get extremely crispy, though, crispier even (specifically in their middles!) than any other batch. From an efficiency perspective, this method is not ideal, but we’re talking an extra 10 minutes, so let’s pick our battles.

Skillet

Inspired by FoodieCrush.

  1. In a large bowl, mix 1 1/2 cups of bread cubes with 3 tablespoons of olive oil and 1/2 teaspoon of kosher salt until oil is absorbed. Taste one and season with additional salt as needed.
  2. Heat a cast-iron skillet over medium heat for about 2 minutes.
  3. Add the bread cubes and cook for about 5 minutes, until the bottom sides are golden. Flip and keep toasting. Continue this until they’re as golden and crisp as you like, about 15 to 20 minutes total.
  4. Let cool before using.

Even in texture these croutons are not, since unlike in an oven, the heat is coming from only one side. A lot of flipping must take place if you want to avoid soft centers (but please sign my petition for soft-centered croutons as the new norm, thanks) or erratically over-toasted sides. Another limitation here is batch size, unless you’ve got a big griddle or multiple skillets. The Skillet method did add more flavor than the oven, with a bit of char here and there that the Oven croutons never got.

Broiler

  1. Heat the broiler.
  2. In a large bowl, mix 1 1/2 cups of bread cubes with 3 tablespoons of olive oil and 1/2 teaspoon of kosher salt until oil is absorbed. Taste one and season with additional salt as needed.
  3. Place on a sheet pan, careful not to crowd (which would inhibit crisping).
  4. Place the pan on the rack closest to the broiler. Watch closely to avoid burning. Carefully shake the pan every now and again for even exposure to the broiler.
  5. When the croutons are fragrant, golden, and crunchy, remove from the oven and let cool.

Whoa, Broiler croutons, what a trip. So fast, not at all furious. They were texturally irregular, though the ones with soft centers proved less chewy than the soft-centered Skillet croutons, perhaps because the heat source was so much more intense. The color these croutons assumed was also quite irregular, appearing more as char-stripes, but the charring was incredibly delicious. These reminded me more of tiny versions of the charred bread you might get with ricotta at a restaurant than something you’d use to garnish lettuce.


TL;DR

In conclusion, I love bread in pretty much all formats, but especially when tossed with salt and fat, then toasted! But this isn’t about me.

  • If you’re a stickler for even browning and textural consistency: Oil, a 425°F Oven and a Cube shape will serve you well.
  • Should you desire less browned—but no less crispy—companions to your Caesar or broccoli soup, use the 350°F Oven method.
  • You can’t go wrong with Butter or Oil, but combining them is even better (flavor benefits of each, plus the browning benefits of oil).
  • Avoid the Broiler method unless you’re in a real time crunch and/or looking to surprise someone with zebra-striped, softish croutons.

What should Ella test next? Let us know in the comments, or send her a message here.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • M
    M
  • NukolaiO
    NukolaiO
  • Susan Dodia
    Susan Dodia
  • Smaug
    Smaug
Ella Quittner

Written by: Ella Quittner

Ella Quittner is a contributing writer and the Absolute Best Tests columnist at Food52. She covers food, travel, wellness, lifestyle, home, novelty snacks, and internet-famous sandwiches. You can follow her on Instagram @equittner, or Twitter at @ellaquittner. She also develops recipes for Food52, and has a soft spot for all pasta, anything spicy, and salty chocolate things.

6 Comments

M March 25, 2021
Butter+oil+seasoning means tasty every time. If you're around to smell toasty flavours, any temp from 350-425 will work. Time just depends on temp and being around to smell when it's time to toss/turn/stop.
 
NukolaiO February 26, 2021
Hi Ella, I had Open Heart surgery right at the end of the last century. I was never hypertensive and I am not now. I'm a retired Operating Room Nurse. From what I learned from the Doctors I worked with, hypertension is more of a genetic issue than solely dependent on Sodium intake. To be sure, reducing Sodium intake in someone who is Hypertensive can help control your blood pressure, but if you're normotensive, you needn't restrict Sodium intake to a great degree. In this, as in all things, moderation is the key. Except for butter and bacon...you can never have too much of either
 
Susan D. February 26, 2021
Thanks, Ella, this a fantastic read. I happen to have cheese powder on hand. I had open heart surgery last year and am on a sodium restricted diet for the reat of my life. As it turns out, cheese powder usually has less sodium than its equivalent amount of cheese. I also have tomato powder, for the same reason, but I add it to lots of things for a more intense tomato flavor.
I'd love to see you compare and contrast reduced sodium and sodium free salt substitutes. Most of them just taste like sadness, in my experience.
 
NukolaiO February 25, 2021
I use French, Italian or a Baguette, sliced 3/4 inch thick. Brush both sides with Extra Virgin Olive Oil or clarified butter. Preheated 350° oven for 7-8 minutes. Turn and 4-5 minutes. Should be lightly toasted. Rub with raw garlic on both sides. Herbed de Provence or Italian, grated Parmesan. Back in the oven for 4-5 minutes. Cut into 3/4 inch croutons with a serrated knife. Next time I'll use duck fat instead.
 
Smaug February 25, 2021
Mom's croutons were (naturally) always the best. She used dried bread, cut into (more or less) cubes. Cut a garlic clove in two and rub the pan thoroughly, heat a bit of olive oil in the pan and fry the bread to golden brown. A sort of related recipe (got this one from a cookbook) was for garlic bread; toast a piece of bread (preferably a crusty rustic type), rub with a cut garlic clove and pour hot olive oil over it. First time I tried this, I actually went out and relit the (charcoal) barbecue to toast more bread, I just couldn't get the taste out of my mind.
 
Smaug February 25, 2021
ps mom used a cast iron skillet.