All hail the best of the crunch
If you make croutons at home, you probably begin with leftover bread that you cut up into what approximates small squares, toss them in olive oil, salt, and pepper, and toast them until lightly brown. You can sprinkle them on soups, toss them with salad greens, or simply munch them out of a bowl.
With ready-made croutons in a head-spinning number of flavor combinations, most people are not cutting up stale loaves. Flavors include garlic and butter, Italian, ranch, onion and garlic, and more. Then there is size, which you wouldn’t think matters – but it does. Crouton sizes vary from “traditional cut” to “restaurant style” to “generous cut” to “premium.” The only way to figure out what’s going on is to open the packages and have a look.
Eight people tasted six brands of Caesar croutons. Cheese, garlic, and anchovy spring to mind when you think about a Caesar salad. So logic would suggest that the crouton ingredients would be similar. In fact, some brands are made with Romano or Parmesan, others with blue or no cheese at all. There was anchovy extract in one brand, and high fructose corn syrup on half the ingredient lists. “What is corn syrup doing in a crouton?” we wondered. Manufacturers must think we like anything that’s sweet.
The winner was Cardini’s All Natural Gourmet Cut Caesar Croutons. The package has a picture of Caesar Cardini, the inventor of the famous salad. It also has the shortest ingredient list, no added sugars, and is among the most expensive of the lot. The runner-up – a very close second – was Chatham Village Traditional Cut, one of the cheapest in the group.
It turns out that Cardini’s and Chatham Village are the exact same crouton, though it was only after the tasting that we realized it. Both are manufactured in Wareham for the Marzetti Company of Ohio. According to a company representative, the difference is in the size and where packages are placed in supermarkets. Cardini’s “gourmet cut” is supposed to be in the produce section; Chatham’s “traditional cut” is shelved with other croutons.
Put away your tape measures and use the extra dollar to buy good romaine.
Mrs. Cubbison’s Caesar Salad Restaurant Style Croutons
99 cents for 6-ounce package
Mrs. C has been at this for 50 years, says the company website. But the tasters didn’t seem convinced: “Too buttery.” “A bit strong for the palate.” “White bread – perhaps too light for my taste. Almost sweet aftertaste.” Another: “Lots of garlic, slightly greasy feeling on tongue and roof of mouth. Almost sweet finish.” (High fructose corn syrup is the fifth ingredient on a long list.) Other comments: “Cheesy aftertaste, not bad.” “Mmm, nice Parmesan start.”
Pepperidge Farm Classic Caesar Croutons Generous Cut
$1.79 for 5.5-ounce package
This is probably the most recognizable brand. “Good consistency. Highly seasoned, but delicate.” “Rosemary flavor. Didn’t like the black spots on the croutons, looks like they fell on the floor.” Another noticed this, too: “Bland. No taste despite deceptive brown flecks that could be spice.” “Tasty but not Caesar-like.” “All white bread – boring!! Dissolves immediately upon crunching.” “Too uniform.” “Yellowish, looks suspiciously artificial.” (It’s turmeric.)
All Natural Chatham Village Caesar Traditional Cut Croutons
99 cents for 5-ounce package
This was the close second to Cardini, and as we now know, the identical twin of Cardini’s, save a few millimeters in size. A few people did pick up on the difference in cut: “Different shape. They are harder because the croutons are thinner.” “Flaky and very dry.” “Sawdust.” “Prefer bigger size; this type looks like crumbs or remnants.” Another said: “No worries about getting soggy, seems like a happy crouton.”
Shaw’s Restaurant Style Caesar Croutons
$1.50 for 6-ounce package
These didn’t fare too well. Texture: “Yuck. Heavy messy coating.” “Looks toasty but dissolves into a sandy mush. Ick. Sticks to my teeth.” “Doesn’t seem like it’s able to stand up to a real salad. Likely to crumble.” Flavor: “Too strong, too cheesy, too salty.” “Tastes fatty.” “Cheesy, strong taste.” “Garlic taste, with a hint of banana chips in the aftertaste.” (There are a lot of ingredients on this list, but not banana.)
Reese Caesar Salad Premium Croutons
$1.99 for 6-ounce package
Premium doesn’t refer to size; these fall into the mini category. “Teeny tiny perfectly matched,” said one, who wondered if they were cut by “obsessive elves.” “Pleasantly seasoned.” “Ooh minis. Neater to eat. I’d buy them.” “Ah, the mini croutons of my youth. Cubes look artificially constructed. Very small, wouldn’t be able to stand up to a high quality Caesar salad. Taste like Goldfish crackers.” “Cute little shapes.” “Very ordinary.” “Petite size, dill flavor, can imagine putting them into soups.”
Cardini’s All Natural Gourmet Cut Caesar Croutons Winner
$1.99 for 5-ounce package
The winner got lots of praise for its “good texture” and “big crunch.” This has at least two kinds of bread, French and rye. Tasters mistook the rye for pumpernickel but appreciated the variety. As for appearance: “Looks great – but it’s big. Not sure it would work in a home salad, but great for a restaurant salad.” “Like the colorful palette; the dark crouton has a nice caraway touch.” The flavor was described as “highly seasoned.” Then: “Aftertaste is impossible to get rid of.” “Very Caesar-like.” Finally: “This is what [diners] would expect from a Caesar crouton.”