Few things are more disheartening than tending to bread dough for hours, or even days, babying it through the baking process, producing a beautiful, swoon-worthy loaf – and then having it go stale after only a day or two.
What’s a home baker to do?
The sad news is that under almost any circumstances, bread will eventually stale. But the good news is that there are several things we as bread bakers can do to slow down that staling process.
Keeping bread from going stale is more than just storing it properly. There are specific steps you can take all throughout the bread-baking process to produce a loaf of bread that stays fresher longer, which can then be stored in such a way that ensures the longest possible shelf life. These steps are:
- Implementing a process such as using sourdough starter or using a tangzhong, that naturally discourage staling
- Using ingredients, such as fats, sweeteners, and other additives, that produce a more shelf-stable bread
- Storing the final loaf in a way that discourages, or even prevents staling
Let’s look at each of these steps – the processes, the ingredients, and the storage methods – to see how and why each can contribute to a longer-lasting loaf of bread. At the very end will be some ideas of how to either rescue or use bread that has already gone stale. But before we dive into all that, let’s take a quick look at what causes bread to go stale in the first place. Because the better we understand the staling process itself, the better equipped we are to combat it.
What causes bread to go stale
Most of us probably think that when bread goes stale, it’s just drying out. However, it turns out that staling is a different process than drying. If you live in a dry climate, like we do, your bread can indeed dry out (more on that later). But staling isn’t so much loss of moisture as migration of moisture. As moisture migrates from the starches within the bread’s crumb, this causes the starches to de-gelatinize. As the starches revert back to their previous, crystaline structures, the bread becomes tough and leathery. In a word – stale.
This re-crystalization of starches is called “retrogradation”, and if you’re interested in more of the scientific details, Wikipedia has a short article here. Or, if you really want to geek out,check out this PhD theses on the topic. But what makes it most interesting to us is that because staling is more than simply loss of moisture, it means we have more opportunities to alter the chemical nature of the dough, and therefore the final loaf of bread, in ways that will counteract this process.
Now that we understand a bit more about what makes bread go stale, let’s look at what we can do about it, starting with specific processes that produce a more shelf-stable bread.
There are a few options to choose from when considering what process to implement in your quest for fresher bread:
- Sourdough: Bread and rolls made with sourdough starter, as opposed to commercial yeast, tend to have a longer shelf life because the lactic acid present in the dough (a by-product of the natural yeast that gives sourdough its lifting power) discourages the aforementioned chemical processes responsible for staling.
- Tangzhong: if your recipe doesn’t call for sourdough, another method that will delay staling is to include a technique common in Asian baking known as “tangzhong”. It calls for cooking a small percentage of the recipe’s flour and liquid (either water or milk) into a thick slurry, which is then incorporated into the rest of the ingredients, before proceeding with the recipe as usual. Tangzhong extends breads’ shelf life for several days because the pre-cooking of some of the starches in the flour allows them to absorb more moisture, thus delaying that de-galatinization process. If you want to know more about tangzhong and how to incorporate it in your non-sourdough recipes, the ever-helpful folks at King Arthur Flour have an excellent guide here.
- Longer fermentation: While most sourdough recipes already call for a long fermentation period (also commonly called the “first rise”), not all other breads do. You can increase the fermentation period by cutting down the amount of yeast you add and/or putting the dough in the fridge to slow down the rising process.
Why not both?
If sourdough bread has a long shelf life, and bread made with the tangzhong method also has a long shelf life, doesn’t it stand to reason that employing both together would produce an even longer-lasting loaf? Turns out the answer is, no. Once again, King Arthur Flour already looked into it (read the article here) and found that there’s no noticeable difference in sourdough made with tangzhong and sourdough made without. So if increasing your bread’s shelf life is your main goal, you may as well save yourself a step and just do one or the other.
Once you’ve chosen a method, whether it’s sourdough, tangzhong, and/or a longer fermentation period, the next aspect of your bread making to consider is ingredients. There are several types of ingredients you can add to bread dough that will help delay the staling process. Let’s look at some of the most common types of such ingredients, and how you can incorporate each of them into your bread recipe.
- Fats & Sweeteners: (Oil, butter, shortening; brown sugar, white sugar, honey, maple syrup) These are the easiest ingredients to incorporate into your bread baking because so many recipes already call for them. So if you’d like to incorporate these into your bake, simply use a recipe that already calls for one or both of them. Here are a few to get you started: Traditional White Bread on Allrecipes.com, Soft Whole Wheat Bread from Baking a Moment, Milk Bread Rolls from King Arthur Flour (bonus: the milk bread rolls also call for the tangzhong method described above).
- Acids: (Lemon juice, vinegar, buttermilk) For more concentrated acids, such as lemon juice or vinegar, add 1 Tablespoon for every 4 – 5 cups of water. Since buttermilk is a less concentrated acidic ingredient, try replacing all of the liquid called for in the recipe with the same amount of buttermilk.
- Other Additives: (lecithin, ascorbic acid) Since these ingredients are a bit more unfamiliar to most of us home bakers, let’s look at each one separately.
- Lecithin: Unfortunately, there is a wide range of advice on how much lecithin to add to your bread recipes. That may be in part because there are different types – soy and sunflower seem to be the most common. If the package has instructions for use in baking, start there. If not, start by using .25% of your total flour weight, and see if it makes any difference. If you don’t see improvement in shelf life, try adding a bit more in subsequent bakes in .25% increments. Not sure how to find .25% of the weight of your flour? Multiply the weight of flour, in grams, by .0025. For example, 500 grams of flour x .0025 = 1.25 grams. According to this helpful thread on Fresh Loaf, that would equal about 1/2 a teaspoon of lecithin for a 500g loaf of bread. Here is another super helpful article by Fast Easy Bread on using lecithin in baking (and other applications).
- Ascorbic acid: Can be even a bit trickier to incorporate, because the amount needed for the home baker’s scale of baking is just so small. Raymond Calvel, in his book “The Taste of Bread”, recommends 20 – 60 mg (yes, milligrams, not grams) per kilogram of flour. If you’re like me and don’t happen to own a kitchen scale that measures down to the milligram, try just a very small pinch and, like the lecithin, see how it goes. Interested in learning a bit more about how and why to incorporate ascorbic acid in your bread baking? Check out this thread, and also this one, both from The Fresh Loaf.
Now that your bread has been baked, whether you tried any of the ideas listed above or not, there are still several storage options that will help lengthen the shelf life of that beautiful, fresh-baked loaf. Let’s consider the “where” and “how” of proper bread storage.
Where to Store Bread:
Ideally, it’s best to keep bread in a cool, dry place. So avoid right next to your dishwasher or on top of your fridge. Also, do not store your bread in the refrigerator. While it may seem like the perfect spot, it actually keeps bread at temperatures that most encourage the staling process. On a counter top, in a cupboard, or even in a microwave are all better options.
How to Store Bread:
- Slice loaf in half and leave on cutting board (cut-side down). This works great for a day or two. After that, you’ll probably need to put the bread in something to prevent staleness from setting in. Just be sure your bread is completely cool before cutting into it!
- Kitchen towel, paper bag, or reusable bread bag. Wrapping your loaf in a clean kitchen towel, or placing it in a paper bag or reusable bread bag, is a great way to keep it fresh for days. As an added bonus, keeping it in a paper bag also helps preserve a crusty crust. The downside of a kitchen towel and/or paper bag is that if you live in an extremely dry climate, like we do, it may not keep the bread from drying out as well as other methods do. But if you live in a more humid climate, this may be your best bet!
- Plastic baggies. This is our preferred method of storage, because, as mentioned, it also keeps the bread from drying out as well as staling. There are some downsides, though. If you live in a humid climate, plastic bags can encourage mold growth. Another downside to storing bread this way is that the trapped-in moisture causes the crust to soften. Finally, we all know using disposable plastic bags isn’t the best for the environment. To minimize the waste factor, we try to reuse each bag multiple times before tossing it.
- Bread box. The fancy method. A good-sized bread box can store multiple loaves of bread, and is designed to provide optimal air circulation to prevent staling, molding, and drying out. The downsides of breadboxes are that it takes up more counter space and costs more than the other options.
- Freezer. If you don’t plan on eating the bread for several days, freezing it is a great option. In terms of slowing down the staling process, this is actually the very best method there is! Because, while keeping bread in the refrigerator will speed the staling process, the lower temps of freezers practically stop those chemical processes responsible for bread going stale. You can store bread in the freezer either sliced or as a whole loaf. Just be sure to wrap it well in a plastic bag to keep freezer burn at bay.
What if the worst has happened, and now you have sad stale bread on your hands? Don’t toss it out! You can try to revive it back to its fresh glory, or use it as-is in a variety of recipes.
- Revive it. There are a couple of ways to refresh stale bread: by the slice or as a whole loaf (keep in mind that for both of these methods, the bread needs to be eaten pretty quickly after it’s been refreshed. After a few hours it will be right back to it’s former stale state).
- By the slice: Toasting individual slices, either in a toaster, a toaster oven, or even in a frying pan, will reverse the staling process and produce delicious, not-stale toast. If you’re curious about why this works, Cook’s Illustrated explains the science behind it.
- By the loaf: The same Cook’s Illustrated article also gives instructions for reviving a whole loaf. Wrap the bread in foil and place it in a cold oven. Set the temperature to 300 degrees, and leave the bread for 15 – 30 minutes (depending on the size of the loaf). Remove the foil and allow the bread to bake for 5 more minutes to get a crisp crust. If your bread is really dried out, Bon Appetite recommends an even more drastic approach – running the loaf under water before reheating it in the oven.
- Use the stale bread in a recipe. If re-heating the bread and eating it immediately isn’t a good option, it might cheer you to hear that there are many dishes and ingredients that specifically call for stale bread. Here are a few with links to recipes to get you started.
- Bread crumbs (not sure how to use them? Epicurious has you covered).
- Bread pudding
- French toast
- French onion soup
Hopefully some of the tips listed here help keep your next loaf of bread beautiful and fresh as long as you need it to be. If you have questions, or other tips for extending the shelf life of home-made bread, please share in the comments section!