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Panko is the Japanese word for “bread crumbs.” They are the Japanese version of bread crumbs, and they tend to be lighter, crispier, and crunchier than Western bread crumbs. They are excellent for breadings, and make an excellent filler in things like crab cakes. Many Asian specialty stores carry panko, and it is also available in some conventional grocery stores, especially those in urban areas.
Several things set panko aside from regular bread crumbs. The first thing is the coarse grind, which creates bread crumbs which are more like flakes than crumbs. The flakes have a large surface area, which absorbs seasoning well. They tend to stay crispy longer than regular bread crumbs, and they also absorb less grease.
In Asian cuisine, panko are often used to create a lacy outer layer of breading. The flaky structure ensures that the crumbs do not compress, but instead form a layer of airy breading on the exterior of fried foods. Grease drains readily from foods dredged in panko, making the resulting food taste less heavy and oily than it might otherwise. Seafood, in particular, fares very well with this coating.
The flake like structure also makes these crumbs a great choice for a crispy topping on casseroles, lasagnas, and similar foods. The panko can be lightly sprinkled on top, along with melted butter. As it roasts in the oven, the crumbs will become crispy and richly flavorful from the butter and the seasonings in the food. Baked foods can also be tossed in panko for a crunchy outer layer which helps them retain moisture.
There are two forms: white panko is made from crustless bread, while tan panko is made with the entire loaf. Both types are usually sold plain, and they can in fact be rather bland. However, the crumbs absorb flavor readily, making them an extremely versatile ingredient. Some companies also make seasoned versions with popular Asian spices.
When a recipe calls for bread crumbs, panko crumbs can be substituted for a more light, airy feel. Just like regular bread crumbs, they can be mixed into things like quiche and seafood cakes as a filler, but the crumbs do not make these foods dense and heavy, as regular bread crumbs often do. Breadcrumbs can be used to replace panko in recipes which call for the ingredient, but be prepared for a heavier end result. Cracker meal can sometimes be used as a substitute as well.