Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it

One of my recently purchased baking books is The Italian Baker, Revised: The Classic Tastes of the Italian Countryside–Its Breads, Pizza, Focaccia, Cakes, Pastries, and Cookies. I shall be reviewing it soon. One of the things that I have taken from it so far is that the Italians will not waste bread. Bread is Life and not to be squandered.

It has made me feel a little guilty.

I was born and raised in frugal times and learned well the lessons of use and avoidance of waste. I have made many a Bread Pudding in my lifetime! It is however many years since I routinely dried all my bread ends and made and stored breadcrumbs. I admit to being quite casual about chucking out crusts and allowing loaves to go mouldy. These days I have the chooks and I can feel relaxed about feeding my leftover bread to them – after all, they are producing the eggs to go into my next enriched dough, how could I begrudge them a crust or two?

All the same… that book really has me reviewing my habits. If I elect to include uses for leftover bread in this blog, perhaps I shall pay more attention to what I am doing in the kitchen.

The Festive season is a great user of bread – breadcrumbs are fundamental to the Xmas Pud, for a start. Crumbs are also de rigeur for stuffing mixes. My favourite use, bar none, is that culinary delight… bread sauce.

Oh, all well and good, you may look askance, as I believe that the French do, but you may take it from me that Bread Sauce is the next best thing to Ambrosia (and I do not mean rice pudding.)

To my mind, bread sauce is the only possibly good reason for eating that roast Christmas fowl. Just heap it onto my plate, please. In fact – keep the plate and just give me a bowl of bread sauce and a spoon. Yes. That delicious. I do not need the Chicken, and I would far rather not eat Turkey at any time of year. Bread sauce is all that makes Turkey edible. Smother it, please.

Really, do not knock it until you have tried it… with roast Chicken, Turkey or Pheasant. Possibly even with duck… well, maybe no.

Get yourself some soft white breadcrumbs, preferably day-old or older and then progress as follows.

Plumbum’s Bread Sauce Guidelines (Pirate Territory, revisited)

  1. Peel an onion. A generously-sized one. A big juicy Spanish one would be a good plan.
  2. Cut the onion in half about its equator.
  3. Discard one half (set aside for the stuffing or the gravy or whatever you wish) if you don’t have an onion fetish –  feel free to use the pair if you are more like me and cannot get enough of the humble allium.
  4. Take some whole cloves – 4 is a usual number, but if you like the flavour feel free to crank the number up (I like to use half a dozen or more) – and stud the onion with the cloves. (DECODE: Put  the long stalk end into the onion, and push it home until only the head remains proud of the onion, like a wee stud – it’s easy.)
  5. Put the onion, cut side down, in a heavy bottomed saucepan
  6. Add some whole black peppercorns to the pan – 6 is normal, feel free to add more if you like them.
  7. Chuck in a bay leaf (or two.. I like two). Fresh or dried (I won’t tell)
  8. Pour in some milk. You do not need to cover the onion – just add half a pint or so for the base quantity. Crank up  the flavourings if you need to make more sauce from a greater quantity of milk.
  9. Bring to a gentle simmer, cover and leave to infuse, with the milk barely shivering, until the onion is soft and has yielded its essence to the milk.
  10. You can set it aside, covered, until needed or carry straight on.
  11. Strain the milk.
  12. I normally give the pan a swish before returning the strained milk, it helps to avoid burning the final sauce. Just get rid of any milk deposits on the base of the pan.
  13. Most recipes would have you chuck the onion at this stage. Onion junkies don’t do that. We roughly chop the onion and add it to the pan, dispensing only with the whole spices at this stage. What you do is entirely up to you.
    (You can apparently judge future life compatibility with a  member of the opposite sex by establishing that they too favour chopping the onion into the sauce. I know this for a fact. You could ask me, but I’d have to kill you.)
  14. Add the breadcrumbs to the flavoured milk, together with a goodly knob of butter. How many breadcrumbs, I am not sure. I cook by instinct and doubt that I have ever measured at this stage. I grab a couple of handfuls and strew them in.  I’d guess around 50 grams per 250 mls of milk, or thereabouts but don’t try to hold me to that… go ask Delia or Nigella or somebody. (Actually I am not sure that bread sauce is very Nigella, best stick to Delia.) The sauce will look thin and unappetising at the stage but don’t be tempted to keep adding crumbs to make it thicker.
  15. On a low heat, leave the sauce to cook. Stir it occasionally. The breadcrumbs will swell and thicken the sauce. This will take around 15 to 20 minutes.
  16. The finished sauce should be thick and coating, but pourable. If you plan to make it ahead of time, be aware that it will continue to thicken as it stands, so don’t cook it down too far now.
  17. Reheat to serve, if necessary. If the sauce is now too thick, you can add extra milk to thin it down – with practice and familiarity, you should be able to avoid this step.
  18. Taste before serving and adjust seasoning with salt, pepper, and freshly grated nutmeg if desired. Personally, I have been known to say Yes to nutmeg on occasion, but the sauce should not need salt if it has been well-buttered, and the peppercorns should have been sufficient. If you would like your sauce a little richer, beat in more butter (I would) or add a little cream (I wouldn’t).

If you have never had home-made bread sauce, I urge you to try this. The sauce is oh-so-much-more than you can possibly imagine from its description.

Try it.

You will thank me.

Do not be tempted to substitute a packet mix. It is not the same product. Oh, no. Not at all.

What do you do with fresh breadcrumbs,  to avoid wasting bread? Leave a comment and tell me.


  1. LizH
    November 29, 2012

    That is almost the same as my method for bread sauce. I just have a few tips that I find helpful:
    1) I don’t strain the milk, just fish out the bits. Count the cloves and peppercorns and make a note of how many there should be so that if the onion completely disintegrates, you know how long to keep fishing for bits. I will go to pretty much any lengths to avoid extra washing up.
    2) If you are keeping it for any length of time (more than about 10 minutes) cover the surface of the sauce with a disc of greaseproof paper to avoid developing a skin.
    3) I do add cream at the end, but only right at the last minute before it goes on the table. Any sauce that is being kept for the next day should not have cream added since it often goes a bit sour.
    4) If you have invited me for Christmas (or indeed a Sunday dinner – why make this merely an annual event?), please make double the amount of bread sauce you thought you needed.
    5) The best boxing day sandwiches: thick slices of homemade white bread, generously covered with bread sauce, with slices of lemon and herb stuffing, cranberry sauce and turkey.
    6) Sometimes I put a clove of garlic in with the onion and cloves to make a stronger flavour.
    7) If someone else is washing up I usually bung the sauce in the blender or food processor.

    The first Christmas I spent with my in-laws they made ‘bread sauce’ without any onion in at all. I don’t think I hid my disgust very well. They now make ‘onion sauce’ when I am there.

    I’m so glad to find someone else with strong feelings about bread sauce.

    • November 30, 2012

      I’m so glad to find someone else with strong feelings about bread sauce.

      It’s an important issue, Liz! Thanks for the input. I forgot about (2) – well added, though we must agree to disagree about the cream and, much as I love garlic, I would never actually include garlic in my bread sauce. It doesn’t feel right. Not that I wouldn’t eat it if I came to yours… best triple the quantity, eh?

  2. November 30, 2012

    I used to turn stale bread into breadcrumbs in the little coffee grinder that we used to have. I then dried them out in the oven and put them in jars for making stuffing with.
    Another favourite is Apple Charlotte! 🙂

    • November 30, 2012

      Ooooh, Apple Charlotte!! You may be required to share that here, and also reprise your variation of bread pudding. I plan a kind of bread pudding fiesta at some point.

      As for breadcrumbs… isn’t life easier with technology? I can recall taking the skin from my knuckles often when grating bread for crumbs, back in the day. It’s a literal whizz with my MagiMix

      • November 30, 2012

        I can’t wait to get my food processor out of our storage shed and be able to blast things easily. Although I’m with Liz on the dislike of washing the thing up afterwards. 🙂

I enjoy reading your comments, please pass the time of day