I know crumbs don’t sound very exciting, but they do play an important role in living with and enjoying a low sodium diet. Eating is a sensual experience. Food must taste good, appeal to the eyes, and have a pleasing texture. When salt is removed or lessened, taste is compromised. Judicious use of herbs, spices, and other flavorings can mitigate the loss of flavor to a certain degree, but there are still limitations. So, in order to compensate, it’s important to emphasize visual appeal and especially textural appeal. Thus, crumbs! They truly are a formidable weapon in the low sodium battle.
I make homemade low sodium bread frequently and save the ends for running through my food processor. I do the same with low sodium store bought breads too. I like to grind or grate them when the bread is fresh (I think it’s easier) and then let them dry before storing. I just put the freshly made crumbs in a baking pan and stick them in the oven. I either just let them stay in the cold oven, stirring daily, until they’re dry, or I’ll set the oven for about 250 degrees and bake until dry but not browned. I don’t include flavored breads when making basic crumbs. I want just plain, unflavored breads – no caraway rye, etc. I prefer to process my own bread crumbs; they come out crunchier with different sized crumbs. They’re not ground to a finely uniformed powder. Thus more textural interest.
Dried bread crumbs add a wonderful crunch to baked fish, chicken, & pork. When dealing with baked fish fillets or boneless, skinless chicken breasts, I usually put crumbs on the top. Saves calories & mess. I’ll season both sides of the fish or chicken with whatever salt-free blend strikes my fancy at the time. Then I’ll place them in a baking pan that’s been drizzled with a flavored olive oil. I brush on a thin layer of mayonnaise, homemade or store bought.
In a small sauté pan, I combine dry bread crumbs with some butter and/or flavored olive oil. I usually add one or two crushed cloves of garlic and whatever herb and spice combination I think would work. I sauté this mixture just until the butter is melted and stir well to combine everything. Then I spoon a thick layer of the crumbs onto the fish or chicken and bake. The results are pretty impressive considering how little work was needed. The crumbs are nicely browned and make the rather plain, light colored fish or chicken look lovely. And the crunch adds a wonderful dimension to what could have been a rather bland & uninspired meal. This works well for boneless pork chops too. Just be sure you don’t overcook the fish, chicken, or pork.
Flavored crumbs are also great as a coating (after dredging in flour and dipping in an egg wash) for fried or sautéed fish, chicken, and pork chops. They are wonderful when baking or frying vegetables like eggplant, squash, potatoes, and even sweet potatoes. And, of course, they make a great topping for casseroles and cooked vegetables.
One of my favorite ways to use dried bread crumbs is as a topping for pasta. My husband & I love to eat giant bowls full of pasta – pasta with homemade marinara sauce, pasta with homemade meatballs, pasta with homemade Italian sausage, etc. But we also like what I call “plain” pasta – without any tomatoes, meats, vegetables, or any other stuff. Sauced with just a combination of olive oil, butter, crushed garlic, a bit of NSA chicken broth, and possibly some red pepper flakes. But this is the kind of pasta dish that begs for some sort of topping. Straight shredded Parmesan is out because of the high sodium content. No fear! Flavored & toasted bread crumbs to the rescue.
I combine about 1 cup of dry bread crumbs with about one tablespoon of unsalted butter and one tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil in a small sauté pan. I add one or two crushed cloves of garlic (or more) and at least a teaspoon of dried basil and oregano. If I have fresh herbs on hand, I’ll chop some up and add them too. I sauté this mixture until the butter is melted and the combined mixture is a bit toasty. Then I’ll take the pan off heat and add about a tablespoon of grated Parmesan cheese.
I sprinkle the bread crumb mixture on our “plain” pasta just like I used to sprinkle on shredded cheese. It adds a nice textural component and the addition of some Parmesan in the crumb mixture makes us feel less deprived. I keep any leftover flavored crumbs in the fridge. Good with vegetables too.
Many people love Japanese Panko crumbs because they tend to be lighter, crispier, and crunchier than ordinary bread crumbs. Panko is an extruded crustless bread product that produces flake-like crumbs. They have a large surface area and tend to stay crispy longer than regular bread crumbs. You can find them in the Asian foods sections of most grocery stores now; you can also find them online at Amazon. Panko crumbs are a wonderful product, but you need to look at the labels carefully. Some brands may contain MSG, and the sodium content varies.
If you cannot find a good source for Panko crumbs, you can always make your own. Follow this technique published in the July, 2005, issue of Cook's Illustrated:
“Fit a food processor with a medium or coarse shredding disk. Trim the crusts off the bread slices (five slices will make about one cup of crumbs) and cut the slices in half. Drop a stack of three or four pieces (or as many as will fit comfortably) into the feed tube. Put the feed tube plunger in place and turn on the machine, allowing the weight of the plunger to push the bread through the shredding disk (do not apply additional pressure by pushing down on the plunger). Spread the crumbs in a thin, even layer on one or two rimmed baking sheets and let them dry at room temperature overnight.
If you can't wait that long, you can bake the crumbs in a 300-degree oven until dry to the touch, about eight minutes; stir intermittently, but do not allow them to brown. The crumbs tend to clump in the oven; when the crumbs are cool, break up the clumps by rubbing them gently between your fingers. Once dried, the homemade Panko can be stored in an airtight container or zipper-lock bag for two to three weeks at room temperature or for several months in the freezer.”
By the way... when crusting baked fish, chicken, vegetables, etc., I always mix in some oil or butter with the crumbs. Many recipes call for drizzling melted butter or oil over crumbed foods, but I’m not a good drizzler. So I end up with parts of the foods with lots of butter and other parts without. I’ve tried spraying with Pam, and don’t like that option either. The force of the spray sends the crumbs flying all over my counters. By mixing the crumbs with butter or oil before baking, the fat content is evenly distributed.
I make my own croutons. Just cube up some plain white or whole wheat bread, drizzle with olive oil, and sprinkle with herbs and garlic powder. Bake in a 300 degree oven until dry and toasty. Pretty simple. Then, after cooling, I bag them up & stick them in my freezer. They make perfect additions to salads, of course. But they can also be sprinkled on soups or crushed over vegetables. I’ve even used them as a basis for my own homemade Stove-Top style stuffing.
Mashed Potato Flakes
There are all kinds of other choices for adding textural interest to foods. One of my favorites is instant mashed potato flakes. Look for a brand like Betty Crocker’s Potato Buds that doesn’t have any salt added. The dry potato flakes make a fabulous coating for baked or sautéed chicken, fish and vegetables. Use the potato flakes in the same way you’d use bread crumbs. They give a wonderful potato-flavored crunch. I especially like baked eggplant slices crusted with potato flakes.
Cracker & Pretzel Crumbs
You can run unsalted or low sodium crackers through the food processor to make cracker crumbs. They too are good for breadings & crunchy toppings. You can find different brands at most grocery stores. Crushed, unsalted pretzel crumbs also make good breadings. Snyder’s of Hanover makes Unsalted Mini Pretzels. You can find them at most grocery stores. Unsalted matzo crackers are another good source. You can find them in the ethnic food sections of most grocer stores or order them online from Healthy Heart Market.
Unsalted rice cakes can also be crushed for crumbs.