What's a casserole without a light, crispy topping? Hardly worth its oven space, I'd say. Whether I'm making Crispy Baked Pasta With Mushrooms, Sausage, and Parmesan Cream Sauce or Classic Baked Macaroni and Cheese, I know I'm going to want to have some panko on hand.
What is panko, exactly? As Mari Uyehara wrote in her guide to Japanese pantry staples, these bread crumbs get their snowflake-like, airy texture from cooking in a special oven that moves an electric current through the raw dough, generating internal heat rather than cooking it from the outside. The crumbs, Mari explained, are prized because "their huge surface area makes for longer-lasting, crunchier coatings on breaded and fried foods." If you love tonkatsu, you have panko to thank.
But breaded pork and the best part of any casserole aren't the only uses for the bag of panko in your cupboard. Here are a few ways to make the most of those crumbs.
Makin' Bacon Crumbs (And Better Mashed Potatoes)
Crispy bread crumbs are obviously great on their own, but they also absorb the deep flavor of bacon quite nicely. This is the key to the best look for pre-prepped mashed potatoes, which can often turn dry and crumbly as they sit. If you're making a big feast, you don't need that last-minute mashed potato stress: just make the mash up to five days ahead, loading it up with sour cream for ideal moisture. Then finish up your Crispy Mashed Potato Casserole by topping it with a fantastically rich loaded-baked-potato-inspired topping of panko that's soaked up flavorful bacon fat, plus scallions and cheddar.
Got a little bit more bacon on hand? Clams Casino also never had it better: toasting panko in bacon fat makes a full-flavored topping for white-wine-steamed clams that are loaded up with compound butter.
No Parm? No Problem
Crediting Mario Batali, Daniel says that he loves toss a little toasted panko on pretty much any pasta—especially seafood-based dishes that you might not want to shower with parmesan, such as these rich shrimp, crab, and scallop-stuffed shells.
Panko also comes in handy as a pizza topping, especially if you're avoiding cheese. Sfincione is a traditional Sicilian pizza made with onions, bread crumbs, caciocavallo cheese, and a ton of olive oil. For his vegan variation, Kenji calls on chopped olives and sun-dried tomatoes to give the pie deep, briny flavors that would traditionally come from anchovies and cheese. Panko gives the topping a wonderful crunch. (If you're going strictly vegan, make sure you use a brand made without honey.)
Giving Proteins (and Veggies) a Crunch
Sometimes you can't just pile your crispy topping on top of a dish; you need a way to make it stick. Dredging your protein of choice in flour, then dipping it in beaten egg before a run through a bowl of panko gives you a crust that's light and lacy, never dense or heavy. The panko is mixed with Parmesan to make a shatteringly crisp outer layer on Daniel's Chicken Piccata (and his clarified-butter fried chicken cutlets.) He adds sage to the mix when he's crisping up juicy pork chops.
Panko will also help you make the best possible Crispy Pan-Seared Fish, insulating the surface of the fish so it doesn't dry out as the fillet cooks.
Even crab cakes get the panko treatment. And, of course, you can use panko in your oven-baked renditions of junk food classics like jalapeno poppers and mozzarella-stuffed onion rings (wait—those aren't considered a classic? Well, they should be.)
While fresh bread makes the ultimate tender meatballs, sometimes you don't want to go to the fuss of cutting it all into cubes or turning it crumbly; for these easy, sweet-and-savory Hoisin-Glazed Cocktail Meatballs, you'll find panko in the mix instead. For a vibrant Thai-inspired variation, you'll mix panko and ground chicken with lemongrass, shallot, garlic, jalapeño, ginger, and fish sauce.
Or go all out and make these schnitzel-inspired meatballs, which have a crisp panko crust as well as Japanese breadcrumbs in the ball itself, soaked in milk and gently mixed with seasoned ground pork.
The Best Veggie Burgers
Perhaps the highest use of panko flakes is in homemade veggie burgers. While frozen brands can be bland and sad, these homemade black bean burgers boast a robust flavor and meaty texture, thanks to roasted black beans mixed with panko, onion, airy poblano, and salty feta or cojita cheese. Panko also helps bind these savory vegan burgers made with chickpeas, mushrooms, eggplant, and barley. And while these panko-coated falafel-inspired crispy chickpea cakes aren't exactly veggie burgers, you'll be glad we're reminding you about them as soon as you get a mouthful.