For years we all ground our own breadcrumbs and I often still do for some dishes, but when I discover Panko I switched in most cases, as it is lighter and more crunchy.
In the late ’90s, chefs started talking about the glories of a Japanese breadcrumb called Panko. This light and airy bread version of breadcrumbs was only available in Asian markets and some higher-end luxury gourmet grocery stores. They were pale and large compared to traditional American crumbs, and they fried and toasted up in a more crunchy manner. People took notice and home cooks begin experimenting with this new-to-them style of crumb. By the early 2000’s Panko was readily available in the US.
If they are just breadcrumbs, why are they so different looking and why do they cook up so uniquely? And can I make my own the way I do with regular breadcrumbs?
Breadcrumbs while simple to make just are not the same and sadly you cannot make panko at home because the bread isn’t baked, but cooked on a metal plate with electrical currents.
It is believed that it was the Portuguese who introduced frying to the Japanese as there is no record of oil, or “abura,” prior to the Portuguese landing in Japan. So when you eat a shrimp tempura, thank a Portuguese for this wonderful entrée.
What is fascinating to me is the story of the creation of the breading for tonkatsu, panko, which became a household word, however, was undocumented.
The invention of panko happened during World War II. While the Japanese were at war with the Russians, they wanted to eat bread out in the battlefields. Unable to bake the bread, the Japanese used their tanks’ batteries to quickly “bake” their bread. They discovered that the bread was extremely light and airy, with very small air pockets.
This method of using electric current to bake bread with no brown crusts is how panko is made today at Upper Crust Enterprises.
Masashi Kawaguchi started Mrs. Friday panko-crusted shrimp fish sold to restaurants and in the frozen section, food service, cash and carry outlets. He brought the panko from Japan, but the best flour comes from the United States, Canada, and Australia. Mr. Kawaguchi thought this did not make good business sense to ship the flour from America to Japan, then back to the United States as panko, so sent his son Gary to Japan to learn how to make panko.
Mr. Kawaguchi opened two plants 35 years ago and the present location in Little Tokyo is now run by Gary Kawaguchi. One of the cleanest, most monitored factories we have seen, it is an impressive operation. We had to remove all jewelry, wear a hairnet, (Jim had a beard net) clean and wash our hands twice before we began our tour around the panko factory.
The bread dough is carefully mixed, kneaded, and risen twice, just as you would if baking bread at home. The bread goes through a specially made “oven” for 1 1/2 hours where each huge loaf of bread is electrocuted. When the bread comes out, the loaves are whitish slabs of “bread” that looks and jiggles like tofu. Tom tore off a piece of bread for us to taste.
The bread was soft and billowy and tastes like bread should.
These loaves are air-dried on large racks overnight. The next day, a special food processor cuts these loaves into long crumbs. Unlike their competitors, Upper Crust has healthy looking panko flakes, not tiny crumbs.
By weight, their panko gives 26 percent better yield per pound because of the larger, slivery crumbs with an airy texture.
Asked whether gluten-free panko would be a future product and he said the gluten in wheat flour was necessary to get the texture and airy panko crumbs. Tom suggested using crushed rice crispies, corn flakes or dehydrated potato flakes for coating when cooking for someone with gluten intolerance.
Today, producers make the crustless loaves, let them rest for a day or so, then put them through a sort of mill or grinder with screens to make the bread shards. They then bake the shards at high heat to remove any remaining moisture, giving them that signature texture.