Crumbs

Piles of different bread crumbs. (Bill Hogan, Chicago Tribune / February 25, 2014)

Crumbs deserve respect.

Those morsels of breads, cookies or crackers can be a cook's best friend — if you master their power to add texture and flavor to foods.

Cooks around the world have. They use crumbs to crisp-coat meats in Austria (wiener schnitzel), Italy (alla milanese or alla parmigiana) and Japan (tonkatsu). To add body to Spain's gazpacho as well as Greece's taramasalata and skordalia. And to bring personality to a dish that might otherwise be downright dull.

So think of crumbs as more than annoying leftover bits scattered across a table. Know their secrets, then let them work for you in savory and sweet dishes.

Coating

Imagine a plain pork chop, fish or chicken cutlet, cooked sans coating. Could be lovely. Could look and smell delicious. Now imagine it breaded and cooked with a perfectly crisp exterior. The coating seals in juices, and those browned crumbs create another level of flavor, thanks to the Maillard reaction, a complicated process involving heat playing with amino acids and sugars.

There are three key components to breading success. "The Science of Good Cooking" — by the editors at America's Test Kitchen — explains: "flour (or some flourlike substance); an egg wash (or something like it); and breadcrumbs (sometimes toasted, ground cereal, or crushed crackers)." Pat the food dry first, then apply each element with a light hand in the order listed, starting with the flour or cornstarch. Let the coated food rest to set the breading before deep frying or pan frying. If coated correctly, the starches and proteins will, well, glue everything together.

Crunch

Crumbs can change up the textural interest of casseroles, say, adding a crisp finish to mac 'n' cheese. Sprinkle plain or toasted crumbs atop vegetables, from roasted cauliflower to halved tomatoes. Or get creative, mixing crumbs with melted butter or herbs, spices, garlic, grated lemon rind or umami-rich grated Parmesan.

Don't limit the crunch power of crumbs to appetizers and entrees, though. Crisp cookie bits transform potentially dull desserts. A simple pudding or custard or mousse takes on star quality, layered in parfait glasses with crumbs and whipped cream. Baked fruits (apples, rhubarb) become crumbles when topped with a crumbs-sugar-butter-spice mix. And when crushed cookies are pressed into crumb-crust service, their crisp texture and buttery flavor play well with tangy Key lime or cheesecake fillings.

Flavor-maker

The variety of crumbs, whether made from bread, cornflakes, matzo, crackers or corn chips, will influence the flavor of a dish, of course. But even plain white breadcrumbs have flavor power. Plain crumbs are often used to stretch the flavor of ground meats or fish (think meatballs and fish cakes). When breadcrumbs are toasted, their flavor deepens — it's that Maillard reaction again! Consider the role of breadcrumbs in a classic Italian preparation that begins by toasting crumbs in olive oil before tossing them with cooked pasta. They add crunch and, by absorbing the dish's elements — garlic, olives, tomatoes, etc. — help extend those flavors.

Body builder

Julia Child suggested using crumbs to bulk up fillings and absorb moisture, a job they do well in soups and stews. The late, great chef didn't invent the concept, of course, she just supported the body-building power of breadcrumbs that has been popular since medieval cooks began thickening sauces that way.

Why Spain's traditional gazpacho would just be a thin, watery tomato-cucumber soup if a bit of white bread wasn't allowed to soak up and dissolve in that mix. In Greece's taramasalata, breadcrumbs bulk up the fish roe dip, in much the way they work in the garlicky spread called skordalia. In Provence, breadcrumbs thicken the garlicky-spicy sauce called rouille that's served with fish soups. And in Britain, the classic bread sauce that's often served with roasted poultry begins by infusing milk with onion and spices (cloves, bay leaves, peppercorns, etc.), then relies on breadcrumbs to soak in the milk, letting the starches swell and thicken the sauce.

It's in meatballs and meatloaf that crumbs exert crucial influence. When those crumbs are mixed with milk (a starch-liquid mix called a panade), then worked into ground meat, the mix will "keep ground meat moist and tender and help meatballs and meatloaf hold their shape," note the America's Test Kitchen editors.

Better that than a brick-hard meatloaf or dense meatballs, right? Credit the milk (moisture) and the crumbs (starch) for keeping the meat proteins from clumping together.

Credit crumbs for making eating more interesting.

Panko: Use these flaky Japanese-style breadcrumbs for coating meat or seafood.

Dried breadcrumbs: Use these very dry or toasted crumbs for coatings or lightly buttered as a topping.

Fresh breadcrumbs: Use these soft crumbs for meatballs, fish cakes, stuffings.

jhevrdejs@tribune.com