It’s one of the great culinary mysteries, and it can finally be revealed: How the heck do they make panko?
Regular breadcrumbs are easy. You bake some bread, you crumble it up. Voilà — breadcrumbs. But panko, that’s something different. It’s breadcrumbs, but it’s, you know, weird. Bigger than ordinary breadcrumbs (which is to say non-Japanese breadcrumbs), and extra crispy.
How they are made is one of those eternal questions that I had never once given a single thought to until a couple of weeks ago when I happened to meet a food scientist. We were visiting my wife’s relatives in Chicago, and in the spirit of full disclosure I feel I should mention that the guy turns out to be a relative.
He is, to be precise, my wife’s father’s brother’s son’s daughter’s daughter’s husband. If I have this right, that makes him my first cousin, twice removed in-law, in-law.
Couldn’t be closer.
Anyway, this fine man, whose name is John, works for a company that makes an assortment of food products for restaurants. He is in the Batter and Breading Division, and he mentioned in passing that, among other things, his division makes panko breadcrumbs. Instantly intrigued (I’m told my eyes widened, my head cocked, and my tail wagged), I asked him how they do it.
So he told me. But he was not entirely certain he was supposed to tell me, because the information may be proprietary. So for me to pass the information on to you, I had to find it independently. It took a couple of seconds’ worth of Googling to find a YouTube video discussing the process — in general terms — from a different company that also makes panko bread crumbs for restaurants.
That company is Upper Crust Enterprises, in Los Angeles, and they begin with a dough made from high-protein flour, water, yeast, salt, and sugar. The sugar, I imagine, is just to make the bread crumbs sweeter and therefore may not be necessary to the process; but as we shall see, the salt is of particular importance.
They let this dough rise three times which, according to the video, creates a long molecular structure. I’m not sure what that’s about, or even what it means. So we’ll just push on to the most important point, the part of making panko that truly makes it panko.
They put the dough between two metal plates. Then they pass an electric current through it.
It isn’t baked with heat, it’s baked with electricity (that’s where the salt comes in; a precise level of salinity helps the electric current move through the bread with optimal efficiency). Along with being what food scientists call “supercool,” this method of cooking creates bread without a crust. That makes sense — the crust forms as a reaction to the heat, and if there is no heat there can be no crust.
The Web site, incidentally, has a picture of the loaves at this point. They are white with a soft texture, and they look like enormous, squashed marshmallows.
The loaves are then dried for 18 hours, which is another way of saying they are allowed to get a bit stale. The loaves are then ground through special screens, and the resulting shard-like crumbs are quickly toasted in a high-heat oven.
If, like me, you assumed panko breadcrumbs had been a Japanese tradition since the Muromachi period (that would be 1333-1573), you were probably surprised to learn about the use of electricity. It turns out that panko has only been around since World War II, when Japanese soldiers wanted to bake bread but did not have access to ovens.
And if, like me, you are surprised to see that the Japanese eat bread at all, well, you learn something new every day.
Incidentally, one of the best parts of the Upper Crust Enterprises Web site is its listing of recipes that use panko. Some of these are obvious, such as broiled crispy shrimp or crispy chicken Parmesan. But they also include recipes for crispy pizza dough and panko-covered mac & cheese. And don’t forget onion rings and fried ice cream.
I can’t wait to try them. Does anyone know where I can get a couple of metal plates and a big battery?
Contact Daniel Neman at firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6155.