The more crispy, craggly edges, the better the crouton
I'm a staunch believer that the best croutons are homemade and torn by hand. Tearing bread by hand before coating them in fat and seasoning (think olive oil, flavorful garlic, aromatic herbs, and plenty of salt) and baking it yields croutons with uneven edges that get extra crispy in the oven, creating even more of the crispy, crunchy textures that are the key to making better salads at home. Because they have a lot of craggy surface area, torn croutons have plenty of crevices to catch bits of chopped anchovy, cheese, and tiny pools of dressing from the rest of the salad.
What are torn croutons?
Torn croutons are croutons that are made by tearing the bread by hand, rather than slicing the bread with a knife. While you can certainly use a knife to cut uniform cubes of bread for croutons, tearing it creates irregular pieces with more complex texture.
“Hand-torn croutons are especially delicious because they expose all those nooks and crannies that you want,” says Quang Nguyen, executive chef at Brooklyn’s Cool World restaurant. “The final product is something that yields a beautifully organic shape, super crunchy and crispy on the outside, and still nice and chewy in the middle.”
How to make torn croutons
While hand-tearing croutons might take a bit more time than slicing up a loaf with a large knife, it’s totally worth the extra effort. Bread with a hearty crust and an open, irregular crumb is best for torn croutons — think a gorgeous sourdough boule, baguette, or French-style country bread. While all bread will toast up to some degree, soft bread with an even, tight crumb (like white sandwich bread) won’t give you the same complexity of texture or flavor.
Tear your bread into irregular, one- or two-inch pieces and toss them in a bowl with plenty of fat to thoroughly coat the torn bread (you can use olive oil or even bacon fat here) and salt. Then bake your croutons on a sheet pan for 15 to 20 minutes at 400°F, making sure to leave enough room between each to promote good airflow for ultra-crispy edges. Be sure to keep a close eye on the croutons when they are in the oven — bread burns easily, and a blackened crouton is not very delicious in salad. (Though you can use burnt croutons to make burnt-bread salsa verde.)
How to use torn croutons in a salad
Croutons star in all kinds of salads, from a classic Caesar salad to a wild rice and crouton salad. No matter what kind of salad you are making, it's important to think about how the dressing will interact with those crunchy bites of bread. Adding plenty of dressing to a crouton-filled salad can be delicious — the croutons will absorb some of the dressing and have an addictive crispy-gone-soggy texture — but be mindful not to add too much moisture, which can weigh everything down.
Understanding the viscosity of your dressing is key: “For [thinner] vinaigrettes like oil and vinegar, I like croutons that are crunchy all the way through so they can be tossed with everything in the salad,” says Nyugen. For a thicker creamy salad dressing, Nyugen says, “I like layering the textural components of the salad so you can experience the nuance of each item individually.”
Other exciting ways to use croutons
Though I have been known to eat an entire bowl of warm croutons from the oven — this is a judgment-free zone, OK? — there are plenty of ways to incorporate croutons into dishes beyond salads. Place crispy torn croutons under saucy roast chicken to absorb up all the flavorful chicken jus, sprinkle croutons over soups like creamy vichyssoise, or even add them to a simple roasted fish like Melissa Clark’s Roasted Halibut with Fennel and Croutons. No matter what you’re serving them with, tear your croutons by hand for delicious craggy edges — and don’t forget to season them well.