This post originally appeared in the April 4, 2022 edition of The Move, a place for Eater’s editors and writers to reveal their recommendations and pro dining tips — sometimes thoughtful, sometimes weird, but always someone’s go-to move. Subscribe now.
Croutons are, objectively, a perfect food. What’s not to love about little chunks of bread that have been crisped in butter and showered in spices? They are extremely versatile, as satisfying on top of a bountiful salad of vinaigrette-dressed greens as they are eaten by hand, over the sink at 3 a.m. like a drunk raccoon. Even the admittedly inferior store-bought kind are still pretty great, fake butter and all.
But if you don’t have any day-old bread to make your own or a bag from the store, it’s all too easy to forgo the crunch in your salad. But you don’t have to. Throughout the pandemic, I’ve made a slew of interesting cooking substitutions with varying levels of success, but have definitely learned that with a little creativity, anything can be a crouton.
Inspiration struck as I assembled a salad with spring mix and other random vegetables from my fridge, plus a little day-old rotisserie chicken; I realized that the tiny bag of Texas Toast croutons I normally keep in my pantry was empty. I had no good bread to cut into chunks and lovingly toss with olive oil before putting it into my broiler, and I was distraught. Any good salad needs something crunchy, and little strips of bell pepper just didn’t offer the texture I was looking for. And then I saw the mostly empty bag of crunchy Cheetos sitting on the bottom shelf, and it felt like an epiphany.
It sounds absurd. There’s no reason why radioactive-orange Cheetos and a pile of spring mix coated in buttermilk-dill dressing should work together, but they do. Crushed into bite-size pieces, Cheetos bring a punch of salty cheesiness which plays well with the bitterness of the greens and the acidity of a vinaigrette. Bonus: Whatever chemical magic keeps them from going stale after months on the shelf also helps them stay crunchy despite the excess moisture from the dressing.
After the Cheetos proved so successful, I started intentionally testing crouton swaps. Taking a page from Southwestern-style salads, I tossed crumbled blue corn tortilla chips into a salad with black beans and corn. I cut a stale bagel into slices that I coated with olive oil and showered in Spicewalla za’atar before toasting for a few minutes in my air fryer to top a Mediterranean(ish) chickpea salad. Perhaps the weirdest of these experiments was the time I threw frozen tater tots into the air fryer, then cut them in half and used ‘em crouton-style in a homemade Cobb. Every single experiment was a success, adding both heft and textural contrast to the array of vegetables.
The biggest takeaway from my crouton investigation is that salads are truly all about texture, and croutons are an essential part of that equation. An otherwise lackluster pile of greens becomes seriously appealing when paired with a crunchy element, and that crunch doesn’t have to come from just cubed-up bread or a boring pile of slivered almonds — it can literally be anything crunchy that you think is delicious.
What if instead of toasting bread for croutons you tried using little cubes of day-old sushi rice or leftover mashed potatoes? What about making lacy cheese crisps with Parmesan or cheddar, plus a sprinkle of cayenne pepper, for a punch of crunch and heat? Those little sphere-shaped Japanese rice crackers, French’s fried onions, popcorn, bite-sized pork rinds, dried fruit chips, Cheez-Its: The crouton possibilities are endless. So go on, experiment — and never let a lack of bread or bag hold you back from enjoying a crouton again.