When it comes to crunch and flavor, it’s time to go beyond toasted bread.
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Credit: Greg DuPree

Salad makes the meal, but croutons make the salad. These tasty little seasoned bread bites—their name comes from the French word for crust—may have started out as an afterthought, but they’re the coup de grace of any salad bowl. “Texture has a lot to do with it,” says Gena Hamshaw, author of the cookbook Power Plates and founder of the vegan food blog The Full Helping. “It’s something dry and crunchy to offset the dressed greens.”

Now, though, with the rise of grain and gluten allergies, not to mention diets that limit carbs, crouton alternatives that deliver similar crunch and flavor are on the rise. Even if you’re all about whole grains, switching up your salad toppers can be a great way to wow your taste buds and work different nutrients into your diet, says Hamshaw. And best of all, she adds, “They don’t necessarily have to be seen as stand-ins for bread. Just an exciting, nutritious add-on.” Here are six to try on your next toss-up.

1. Toasted nuts and seeds

These nutrient-dense morsels deliver more than just plenty of crunch—they help make a salad more filling. “Salads that are just vegetables or greens sometimes don’t satisfy on their own,” Hamshaw says. Most nuts and seeds have protein, healthy fats, and fiber—three things that increased satiety. Here’s how to toast nuts at home to intensify their natural flavor.

2. Cubed, roasted root veggies

Though they’re less crunchy, they give you that starchy hit that can help make leafy greens seem more substantial, says Hamsham. She likes to cube sweet potatoes, rutabaga, parsnips, or other roots and roast them in the oven with a little oil. If you want more of a crisp, slice them thinner, almost like small chips.

3. Polenta

Cornbread croutons, anyone? Barb Rich, lead culinary instructor at the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City, likes to make firm polenta (she uses four parts water to one part cornmeal), spread it on a baking sheet, and chill in the refrigerator, then cut it into small pieces (you can get creative with the shapes for a fancy presentation), brush them with olive oil and fry or bake. They’re gluten-free, and add a “very pretty little golden touch” to a salad bowl.

4. Crispy chickpeas

You can buy them pre-seasoned if you’re short on time, but they’re super easy to make yourself: Rinse, drain and dry canned chickpeas, and toss them in a spice blend (Rich likes salt, paprika, cumin, and black pepper, but adjust to suit whatever flavor profile you’re going for with the salad). Spread them on a baking sheet and bake at 400 degrees until crispy, about 15 minutes. You can also use wasabi peas or crunchy edamame.

5. Kale chips

Greens on greens may sound counterintuitive, but it works. Rich likes to break kale chips into bite-sized pieces and toss with salad right before serving. “They add a lot of nice crunch,” she says.

6. Coconut “bacon”

Coconut chips solo sound great, but Hamshaw gives them a savory turn by marinating large flake coconut in a mixture of tamari, olive oil, apple cider vinegar, maple syrup, and paprika, then baking it at 300 degrees for 8-12 minutes. The result is a smoky-sweet and crisp bacon sub. You can make a similar sub using shiitake mushrooms.