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. -- DEBRA SAMUELS
(Bill Greene/Globe Staff)