We here at Plated love inventive dishes, food hacks, and workarounds in the kitchen. In “The Replacements,” we’re focused on swapping out traditional ingredients for inventive choices to rethink classic dishes. These creative, healthy substitutions can enhance recipes and help you experience your meals in a new way.
Perfect texture ranks as one of the qualities that can make a dish go from good to great. That’s why a crunchy coating vastly improves any soft or rich dish—or, as some might argue, really anything you’re cooking. Most of the time, classic breaded dishes like chicken tenders or crunchy-topped casseroles and gratins like mac and cheese look to breadcrumbs for that crisp element. But thanks to a growing number of paleo and gluten-free cooks looking to eliminate wheat-based ingredients, those crumbs have a crunchy contender in an up-and-coming ingredient: almonds.
Almonds have a higher protein content than bread, which means their presence as an outer shell contributes a real substance to your meal. In addition to having 6 grams of fat in a quarter cup—less than a third of dry breadcrumbs’ 20 grams—they also contain more fat, which helps them crisp up when they meet your heat source. Unlike fresh breadcrumbs, almonds keep for a long time if you store them in the fridge, a fact that means you’ll have access to crunch at any time, even if you’re not following a low-carb, grain-free, or gluten-free diet.
Here’s how to start using almonds in place of your breadcrumbs.
From Whole Almonds to Coating
Obviously, whole almonds are half-inch long, three-dimensional teardrop-shaped objects that aren’t easily going to coat anything at all! So, when replacing your breadcrumbs with almonds, you’ve first got to make the whole almonds resemble those crumbs.
At stores, you can find ready-made ground almonds, which are normally labeled either “almond meal” or “almond flour.” If you have a choice, pick almond meal for breading purposes. It’s usually made from unblanched, skin-on almonds, so the texture is coarser and the resulting almond “crumbs” will be darker—just like regular bread crumbs. In a pinch, though, almond flour, which is finer in consistency and lighter in color, will work as breading too.
At home, you can add almonds in almost any form (blanched or unblanched, whole, sliced, slivered, even toasted) to the food processor. Pulse until the almonds are coarsely ground. Just be sure not to pulse too much, lest the nuts turn into nut butter. Grind in small batches to avoid this fate, and add some coarse salt to expedite the pulverization.
Last, just because breadcrumbs are finely ground doesn’t mean that your almond replacements always have to be. This doesn’t work great for frying, but when you’re baking a piece of fish, vegetables, or chicken, you can scatter thinly sliced almonds across the top without bothering to grind them at all. Watch carefully as your food bakes, though, to be sure the almonds don’t burn. This is a good technique when your food doesn’t need to cook longer than about 20 minutes.
On the Outside
Now that you’ve got your ground almonds, almond flour, or almond meal, you’ll notice that nothing here is crunchy yet! For pan-frying, first you’ve got to make that crust stick to your chicken, vegetables, or fish. A quick bath in beaten egg is just the glue that almonds need. To make about one pound of boneless chicken pieces, crack one beaten egg into a shallow bowl and whisk it. Pour about ½ cup of almond meal into another. Season the almond meal with salt, then simply dip your meat, fish, or veggie into the egg, shake off the excess moisture, and then roll it gently through the crumbs.
Add to a hot pan to fry in oil—or to a hot oven to bake, as in Plated’s Pecorino-Crusted Chicken Fingers with Kale Quinoa Pilaf (pictured during the almond-coating process above and as a finished dish below).
If you’re using crumbs as a topping, as in a gratin, you’ll want to toss them in a little bit of olive oil, melted butter, or coconut oil, so that they’re guaranteed to get crispy as they bake.
On the Inside
Another important culinary use of breading is as a binder. In addition to coating the outsides of your chicken tenders, crumbs have long found their way into dishes that need something to help hold them together and bulk them out, most often meatloaf and meatballs. Here, almonds also come in handy to add a similar substance as breadcrumbs, but they can’t claim the same exact binding effect. So, if you’re substituting almonds in a meatball recipe, make sure you use an egg or some chia or flax seeds to mimic bread’s job of keeping the balls in the right shape.