Croutons add a nice crunch to many salads, but I just can't bring myself to buy a box of croutons at the store. I mean, it's just toasted bread!
When I first investigated making my own, the recipes told me to cut my bread into cubes and fry it in a skillet of oil. Too much trouble, and too much oil! Over the past few years I've come up with my own technique that works for me—and for anyone else who's enjoyed one of my salads.
I start with French bread, the soft American kind from a grocery store works. Cut what you need into slices about 3/4 inch thick.
Arrange on a foil lined baking sheet. I use my toaster oven.
Coat with extra virgin olive oil—I use a spritzer bottle—and sprinkle with your favorite herbs. The seasoning could be as simple as plain garlic powder. I use my own mix of Janz Seasoning Blend.
Oil and season both sides of the bread before putting them in the oven.
Cooking temperatures vary for toaster ovens because the food is so close to the heat source, but for my current toaster oven, I usually turn the heat to just above 300° for croutons. A lower heat will yield dryer toast, but it takes longer.
When I can smell the croutons I'll check on them. When the top is hard to touch and starting to turn gold I'll turn them over so both sides will toast evenly. Leave them as long as it takes for the bread to dry all the way through. Break a piece in half to determine dryness. If it snaps apart, it's dry, but if it's still soft and tears instead of breaks, then it's not a crouton yet.
If the bread browns faster than it dries through, turn the heat down and leave it in a very low oven, as low as 200° if you have time. Eventually turn the oven off and leave the toast there to cool off slowly.
When the toast is totally cool—probably the next day—store it in a plastic bag. If you bag it before it's cooled to room temperature, the heat will continue to dissipate and the inside of the bag will sweat which softens up the toast you just spent all that time drying out. So don't be impatient to bag this up.
When I'm making a salad I'll take a couple of pieces of this seasoned, dried French toast and break it into bite-size pieces over the top of my salad. If I break it into crouton-sized pieces when I bag it, I found the pieces get smaller and smaller and there are lots of crumbs. Which leads to another use for this seasoned bread. Bread crumbs.
This technique creates some very tasty bread crumbs when you need them. Depending on what you're using them for, you can break them into small chunky pieces, pound them into crumbs, or put them in a food processor to make some really fine bread crumbs. Store any leftovers in the freezer for future use. I used these bread crumbs, along with my traditional cornbread in my turkey dressing last year, and it was a big hit! My mom even wanted the recipe—and she's the one who taught me how to make dressing!
Once you turn the toast over, you can top it with a variety of ingredients for a snack or appetizer. It makes a really tasty cheese bread, just top with your favorite cheese and turn the oven to broil until the cheese melts.
This is also how I made the bruschetta I mentioned a few days ago. It's also tasty to break it into somewhat larger chunks and dip into a marinara sauce for a different kind of snack.
I haven't priced store-bought croutons recently, but I get a lot more bang for my buck buying a loaf of French bread and making my own crouton toast than I would ever get out of a box.