For years, when it came to topping a casserole, covering a piece of chicken or veal with a coating for frying, or binding your ground-meat mixtures, breadcrumbs were what you deployed. Whether they were made at home with stale bread leftovers that you'd toasted in your oven and blitzed in your food processor, artisanally sourced from your local bakery, or scooped from a cobalt blue canister proudly announcing the contents as either Plain or Italian, breadcrumbs were just a given.
But sometime in the late '90s, chefs started touting the glories of a Japanese breadcrumb called panko. These light and airy little shards of bread—available in Asian markets and some of the higher-end luxury gourmet grocery stores—were pale and large compared to traditional American crumbs, and they fried and toasted up super crunchy. People paid attention and home cooks started wanting to experiment with this new-to-them style of crumb. By the early '00s panko was available pretty widely around the US and now, even Progresso, the leading purveyor of canisters of breadcrumbs, has their own version of panko.
But if they are just breadcrumbs, why are they so different looking and why do they cook up so uniquely? And can I make my own the way I do with regular breadcrumbs?
Sadly, while we all love to feel the competence that making such a simple thing as breadcrumbs can instill in our hearts, you cannot make panko at home because the bread isn’t baked, but rather cooked on a metal plate with electrical currents.
The story goes that in Japan during WWII, while in heated battle against the Russians, the soldiers did not have ovens to bake bread, but they have metal and electricity and ingenuity, and so a strange breadstuff was cooked. Because it wasn’t baked, no Maillard reaction could happen, so the loaves were essentially crustless. When the bread was stale, it broke easily into sharp little shards, and so panko was born.
Today, producers make the crustless loaves, let them rest for a day or so, then put them through a sort of mill or grinder with screens to make the bread shards. They then bake the shards at high heat to remove any remaining moisture, giving them that signature texture.
If you’ve never used panko before, I highly recommend it. Your schnitzels will crisp and crackle, the crusts on your casseroles will crunch, and the stuff soaks up milk or cream like a dream to help keep your meatloaves and meatballs tender. For a great topper for pasta, toast some panko in a skillet with olive oil and seasonings, toss with some lemon zest or a fresh herb, and sprinkle over your linguine for a bit of texture. You can use panko wherever you would use regular breadcrumbs.