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A crouton is a piece of sautéed or rebaked bread, often cubed and seasoned, that is used to add texture and flavor to salads, notably the Caesar salad, as an accompaniment to soups, or eaten as a snack food. The word crouton is derived from the French croûton, itself derived from croûte, meaning "crust". Most people consider croutons to come invariably in the shape of small cubes, but they can actually be of any size and shape, up to a very large slice. A croûton (crouton) is a diminutive form of a croûte (croute), much like a cigarette is a diminutive form of a cigar. Many people now use crouton for croute, so the usage has changed. Historically, however, a croute was a slice of a baguette lightly brushed with oil or clarified butter and baked. In French cooking 'croûte' is not only a noun but also has a verb form which describes the cooking process that transforms the bread into the crust.
Making croutons is relatively simple. Typically the cubes of bread are coated in oil or butter (which may be seasoned or flavored for variety) and then baked. Alternatively, they may be fried lightly in butter or vegetable oil, until crisp and brown to give them a buttery flavor and crunchy texture.
Nearly any type of unsweetened bread, in a loaf or pre-sliced, with or without crust, may be used to make croutons. Dry or stale leftover bread is usually used instead of fresh bread. Once prepared, the croutons will remain fresh far longer than unprepared bread.
French onion soup is usually topped with croutons and melted cheese.
Dried and cubed bread is commonly sold in large bags in North America to make Thanksgiving holiday stuffing or dressing, though these are generally different from salad croutons, being only dry bread instead of buttered or oiled and with different seasonings, if any.
Thrifty cooks have been finding creative ways for using up stale bread since bread was invented. The connection between stale bread and soup dates to the Medieval times, when soup was served in sops (pieces of stale bread). French onion soup is classically topped with a crust of stale bread
Croutons, purposely spiced and gently toasted, are more refined twist on this culinary theme. One might reasonably argue croutons were inspired by biscotti and other ancient twice baked goods.
"Crouton. Derived from the French crouton, has been an English word since early in the 19th century, whereas two other connected French culinary terms, croute and croustade, have remained French...All these terms derive from the Latin word crusta, meaning 'shell'. Thus the outside of a loaf of bread is the crust or croute. Crouton, the diminutive form, usually refers to the familiar little cubes of toasted or fried bread which might originally have been cut from a crust...It first appears in French in the 17th century when it is described as 'a little piece of bread crust served with drinks'. In recent times, croutons are often added to fish soups, and occasionally to certain salads."
In the US, croutons often contain trans fats in the form of partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, which give the product a long shelf life, but also have a negative impact on human health. Current US labeling requirements allow the manufacturers to claim they contain 0 grams of trans fats, by using a small enough serving size so the amount is less than half a gram, where they are then allowed to round down to zero: .
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