We sampled 10 crouton brands to find the good, the bad and the buttery

Scatter them on salad, float them in a bowl of soup or munch them straight from the bag as a savory snack. No matter which way you eat them, croutons deserve a spot in the pantry.

But which ones? There are dozens of brands and so many flavors. Popular choices include cheese and garlic, butter and garlic, “seasoned” and Caesar. For this taste-off, we reached for garlic and cheese, defaulting to seasoned when garlic-cheese wasn’t available.

Before getting into details about these store-bought cubes, it’s important to note that making gourmet, crave-worthy croutons at home requires little more than bread, oil, cheese, seasonings and time. The trick is to use just the right amount of each ingredient — and to toast them to perfection. That said, packaged croutons are a fun, fast way to add flavor and crunch to any dish —for a mere 30 calories per serving.

Good salad croutons are made with sturdy bread that results in a crisp-crunch texture that doesn’t dissolve into mush when it hits moisture. The best cubes deliver a bouquet of flavors that enhance, rather than overpower the food.

Sad croutons are wicked salty or so over-seasoned that the flavor of powdered garlic and onion pollutes the palate for hours afterward. One detail to know about packaged croutons is that while the sodium numbers listed on the packages are surprisingly similar, there is actually huge variation in how salty the cubes taste.

Here’s the scoop on the most flavorful croutons that will turn a warm bowl of soup into a meal —  and the over-powdered, breath-altering cubes to avoid. Nutrition info refers to 7 grams or about five croutons.

Mrs. Cubbison’s Cheese & Garlic Croutons

Lots of cheese flavor and just a pinch of garlic make these a great stand-in for homemade. The squares are extra-crunchy and stand up well to moisture. 30 calories, 1 g fat, 60 mg sodium. $2.49 for 5 ounces at Smart & Final. (4 stars)

New York Texas Toast Cheese & Garlic Croutons

Close your eyes and pop one of these in your mouth — it’s cheesy and packed with flavor throughout the entire cube. The only issue with these is that they look pasty and pale. 35 calories, 2 g fat, 65 mg sodium. $2.29 for 5 ounces at Raley’s. (3½ stars)

Signature Select Cheese and Garlic Flavored Croutons

These cheese-forward bites taste buttery and delicious. They are well toasted and have a great balance of flavors. 30 calories, 1 g fat, 80 mg sodium. $2.49 for 5 ounces at Safeway. (3½ stars)

First Street Restaurant Style Seasoned Croutons

A uniform toast and light seasoning make these large cubes a good choice, but they taste surprisingly salty.  30 calories, 1 g fat, 85 mg sodium. $5.99 for 24 ounces at Smart & Final. (3 stars)

Market Pantry Cheese & Garlic Croutons

Remove “cheese” from the label, and these would score higher. They are a bit bland, but they won’t wreck your food. 30 calories, 1.5 g fat, 75 mg sodium. $1.39 for 5 ounces at Target. (2½ stars)

Olive Garden Italian Kitchen Signature Recipe Garlic & Romano Croutons

While these cubes are carefully seasoned, the cheese is missing, the flavorings don’t adhere well to the bread, and they are quick to go soggy. 30 calories, 1 g fat, 75 mg sodium. $2.19 for 5 ounces at Target. (2 stars)

O Organics Garlic & Cheese Croutons

Ridiculously uneven cuts — ranging from 1 to ¼ inches — and the flavor of stale bread make these salty, sloppy bites entirely forgettable. 30 calories, 1 g fat, 70 mg sodium. $2.99 for 4.5 ounces at Safeway. (1 star)

365 Whole Foods Organic Garlic Butter Croutons

As tasty as these buttery cubes are, the cheese has crystallized into gritty, unpleasant bits. Note that the seasoned variety is texturally better, but bland. 30 calories, 1.5 g fat, 65 mg sodium. $2.99 for 4.5 ounces. (1 star)

Fresh Gourmet Cheese & Garlic Croutons

Fake cheese flavor, too much salt and instant sogginess make these a sad crouton pick. 30 calories,1 g fat, 75 mg sodium. $1.99 for 5 ounces at Raley’s. (½ a star)

Full Circle Market Organic Seasoned Croutons

A punishing wallop of garlic and far too much salt make these little toasts lethal to the palate. Reserve these for the local vampire. 30 calories, 1 g fat, 70 mg sodium. $2.48 for 5 ounces at Raley’s. (No stars)

Reviews are based on product samples purchased by this newspaper or provided by manufacturers. Contact Jolene Thym at [email protected]. Read more Taste-off columns at www.mercurynews.com/tag/taste-off.

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