Croutons are small, crisped pieces of bread that were sautéed or baked to remove moisture. They are used as a garnish and sometimes to add seasoning to dishes as well. The name is a culinary term that comes from the French word that is a diminutive for crust.
There are several dishes that are typically served with croutons, including soup and salad. They may also form an ingredient of a bread stuffing. Less usual are using them to garnish a dish of sautéed mushrooms and roast chicken served on a bed of croutons.
Croutons can be bought already prepared in assorted flavors including garlic, herb, cheddar, plain, ranch, Parmesan, Caesar, and tomato/basil. They can also be prepared at home using French bread, baguette, sourdough bread, brioche, or plain old stale white bread. Usually some kind of fat is used, whether olive oil, butter, or mayonnaise, and seasonings, herbs, and or cheese may be applied. The bread pieces are then briefly baked until they are golden brown.
Polenta croutons require a different approach. In this case, the polenta is prepared, molded into a rectangle, and refrigerated until firm. It is cut into cubes and carefully fried in vegetable oil at high heat until golden. They can be made ahead and rewarmed before serving.
Some chefs distinguish between croutons, which are cubes, and crostini, which means little toast, and refers specifically to slices of toasted bread or even to croutons when they’re used to garnish soup or salad. Other chefs call both of these shapes of toasted bread by same name.
Another possible confusion is between croutons and the similar word croustade which comes from through French from a Latin word meaning “to encrust.” Croustades are bowl-shaped crusts of bread, pastry, rice, or potatoes, used as a container for another food and then eaten. They are fried or baked to a golden brown, and they may be used to hold soup, chili, vegetables, etc. The similarity in the names and preparation could potentially lead to confusion.