When I eat salads at a restaurant, the croutons make the dish. The perfect balance of airy bread, seasonings and olive oil (or if you want to be really decadent, butter).
Homemade croutons take less than 20 minutes to bake. And? You can get the kids involved.
Here's a little homemade crouton 101 in photos in case you want to have your own little test-kitchen project. Trust me, you'll never buy a bag or box of prepackaged crouts again.
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Slice one long sourdough baguette* into rounds and then tear up the rounds into rough 1/2" cubes (a good spot to let the kids help). Toss the pieces into a nice, big bowl. We use our salad bowl because the leftover seasonings can coat the dinner salad. You can use any baguette flavor you'd like, but I favor sourdough bread for croutons, especially sourdough covered in sunflower, poppy and anise seeds.
2. Drizzle the bread cubes with 1/4 cup of extra virgin olive oil. Wait! Don't toss the bread yet! You need to add your seasonings; I use one tablespoon of dried thyme and a teaspoon of sea salt. If you want to play with flavors, try dried basil or dried cilantro. You can also add finely minced garlic for extra kick. Just adjust the seasonings for your taste and health requirements.
3. Okay, now toss the bread and spices as you would a salad, making sure all the cubes are lightly coated -- not drenched -- with oil and seasonings. Some cubes may have a dab, others fully covered, in oil. Don't worry; it'll all work out.
4. Spread bread cubes onto a large, ungreased cookie sheet (and beware of sneaky kids stealing unbaked crouts). Bake for 15-20 minutes. For darker and crunchier croutons, bake for 25 minutes. If you like chewy, restaurant-like croutons, try baking the bread at 300 degrees for about 25 minutes. You'll get that nice crunch on the outside but the tender, er, innards.
5. Remove from oven and let cool. Again, beware of little food thieves. The croutons may never make it to dinner.
6. Drop 1/2 cup of croutons (or more) into your salad. I usually put croutons and salad dressing in the bottom of the bowl and then put the lettuce and add-ons (in this case, parmigiano-reggiano and pecans) over the croutons, and then toss the salad. I find that it ensures that every bit of that salad gets evenly coated with the dressing (I used a mix of 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil, 2 tablespoons balsamic vineagar, a tablespoon of Dijon mustard and about 3 ounces of freshly-grated parmigiano-reggiano).
You can store the croutons in an airtight container for up to two weeks without losing the crispness.