Hot Mess: Salad's Beautiful Sin
It’s finally salad season! ‘Tis the season when salads are served for dinner and ordered at restaurants not because they’re healthy, but because our stomachs just can’t handle beef stew when it’s 95 degrees. With the warm weather comes a bounty of fresh fruits and vegetables that when combined properly, can turn any meat and potatoes connoisseur into a salad lover. But I’m not going to bore you with more recipes on how to create healthy salads while convincing you that they’re also delicious. There’s enough of those out there to satisfy your every nutritional need and dietary restriction. No, instead I am going to going to address a grievance that has plagued salads for who knows how long. The crouton.
These little squares of bread can be one of the best or one of the worst parts of any salad. The biggest offenders? The pre-made salad crouton. Those pre-toasted, pre-seasoned little gremlins are always topping cheap salads and taking up space at salad bars. Any flavor they do have, which can be minimal at best, is stale and salty, and if not soaked with enough dressing so as to make them soggy on the palate, these brick-like bread pieces have the capacity to chip a tooth. In case you hadn’t guessed it, I really hate premade croutons.
So how do we rectify the problem? Just make your own fresh croutons. Yes, it’s a bit more work but it’s completely worth it and if you serve anyone a salad, any salad, with homemade croutons, you’ll make a new friend for life.
Are homemade croutons healthy? No they are not. But do I really care? Nope. The basic recipe is to take day-old bread, cut it into cubes and fry it up in a pan with butter and garlic. So buttery, so garlicky, so not on Weight Watchers.
But although the concept is rather straightforward, like anything in cooking, the technique can take a little practice.
The recipe I’ve always used is actually the one my mom invented for croutons for her Caesar salad, hence the garlic. To make them, you’ll need day-old French or Italian bread, cut into bite-size pieces, several cloves of fresh garlic (for about two cups of bread, I usually use 2-3 cloves), and butter.
In a large skillet on medium heat, melt 2-3 tablespoons of butter and add the cloves, finely chopped. Once the garlic starts to turn golden brown, add the cubed bread, and mostly likely, more butter. The idea here is to toast the bread in the butter that you have flavored with the garlic. Keep stirring the bread around to make sure that each piece is evenly coated in butter. Eventually the bread will start to turn brown and crisp up. At the same time, the garlic may turn very dark brown, which is okay as long as it doesn’t turn black and start to give off a burnt smell. Preventing this while still toasting the bread long enough takes a little practice. You’ll want to make sure the heat is not up too high as to burn the garlic/butter but not too low as to simply soak the bread with butter and not crisp it. You’ll want to judge the amount of butter necessary for the same reasons- too much butter will make the bread soggy, not enough will dry it out, making the bread hard and flavorless.
So once you’ve mastered the basic technique, there are no restrictions to what other kinds of croutons you can make. Any kind of fat-butter, olive oil, even bacon grease- will create the perfect croutons. You can season them with sea salt, butter, oregano, parmesan cheese, or anything else you think would make the perfect flavor addition to your salad.
In any case, the best thing about them is that instead of being crunchy all the way through, the bread is only toasted on the outside, leaving the inside warm and chewy. These croutons are so good I don’t always need the salad. I make them for a snack sometimes or as a side dish to eggs or chicken sausage. No restrictions. That’s why I love them.
Final thoughts…if you try out this recipe and still think it’s acceptable to eat premade croutons again, you obviously didn’t make them right. Mediocrity should no longer be an option.