How we tested
Once upon a time, if you went to the grocery store for bread crumbs, there wasn’t much choice—often just that ubiquitous cardboard can full of crumbs the texture of fine sand. So for years, when we called for bread crumbs in the test kitchen, we told you how to make them yourself. But in 2006, we tried panko, Japanese-style bread crumbs. They were just becoming more widely available in the United States, and we discovered that we really liked them. Since then, we’ve often relied on them in our recipes. Fast-forward seven years and panko is everywhere in the States; many companies now make these crumbs. We decided to examine the new products and, while we were at it, revisit traditional bread crumbs. Since the competition is fiercer, maybe the traditional crumbs had upped their game.
Good bread crumbs should be mildly wheaty but otherwise neutral in flavor. What really matters is that they be ultracrunchy and have excellent coating abilities. We gathered seven best-selling national bread-crumb products—five panko and two traditional—and put them in the ring in an East-meets-West bread-crumb battle royal. Before we tell you the outcome, you may be wondering how the two differ: Traditional bread crumbs are made from loaves of bread that are baked in an oven, dried, and crumbled; for panko, the loaves are typically cooked by electric current. Raw dough is placed on metal plates that conduct the current through the dough, zapping it into pale white loaves (the crust never colors). These loaves, too, are dried, and then they’re broken into big, jagged crumbs, which are quickly toasted in a high-heat oven.
Generally speaking, panko is made from flour, sweetener, yeast, salt, and sometimes fat. Traditional bread crumbs have a similar set of ingredients but contain more preservatives and may use potato, oat, corn, or rice flours.
We tasted our lineup deep-fried as a coating for chicken nuggets, shallow-fried as a coating for pork cutlets, and baked as a coating for chicken breasts. We had a blowout: The panko delivered craggy texture and excellent crunch, crushing the traditional crumbs. By contrast, the traditional crumbs failed to adhere tightly to the food and made floppy, wan, soggy coatings. One panko product in particular aced each test. Wondering what made it so exceptional, we went back into the kitchen to examine the size of the crumbs.
If traditional bread crumbs were too fine, some of the panko crumbs, we discovered, were too large. While our leading contender had excellent coverage, some of the other panko brands had such big crumbs that they left gaps and clung shaggily, like coconut flakes. We sifted each panko product. The leading product contained 75 percent medium crumbs and 25 percent small crumbs, a texture about halfway between typical panko and traditional crumbs. The other pankos had a much higher percentage of larger crumbs, roughly 89 to 92 percent.
Next, we coated raw chicken cutlets with each product and weighed them, first naked and then coated. The cutlet coated with our leading contender took on 3 to 6 percent more bread crumbs by weight than any other brand. The more bread crumbs that adhere the better the coverage, thus, ultimately, the crunchier the item you’re cooking. Our winner’s combination of small and medium-size particles hit the sweet spot: small enough for great coverage and big enough for crunch, yet not so big that the crumbs sloughed off.
The largest crumbs turned out to have a second drawback: fat and steam absorption. Hot fried food will absorb any oil left on its surface and can become greasy, while any steam trapped inside the fried casing will be absorbed by the crust, turning it soggy. Three of the panko brands—as it happens, the biggest and flakiest—yielded greasy or soggy chicken nuggets. Was there a correlation? We weighed 1 cup of each brand and found that the largest crumbs were also the lightest. We discovered that the large, light crumbs are dotted with tiny air pockets, which pull in more oil and steam than denser crusts. Our winning brand, densest of all the pankos but still less dense than traditional bread crumbs, struck the optimal balance for crispy, not greasy, chicken nuggets.
Our front-runner faced one more hurdle: the meatball test. Yes, this product was a champ when it came to coating, but bread crumbs serve a different function in meatball recipes; they are mixed with milk to make a panade, which is what keeps meatballs moist and tender. We made batches of meatballs with our leading brand and with the better of the two traditional bread crumbs. Because panko is so much fluffier, we measured by weight. (Be careful substituting panko for regular crumbs, and vice versa; volumes and weight vary greatly from product to product.) The panko eked out a win.
So which is best—East or West? Strictly speaking, the Western-style crumbs failed. But though our top pick is in the panko style, it nonetheless struck an East-West balance between the large, crispy flakes of panko and the small, dense ones of traditional Western-style crumbs. It provided maximum coating, tender binding, and ultimate crunch. Our winning brand of bread crumbs came in first the last time we tested panko, and it took the prize this time, as well.