Keeping Bread Fresh

by Elizabeth Skipper | April 16th, 2014 | Ask the Chef

bread-228939_640When I bake my own bread, it initially has a crusty exterior and chewy interior.  However, after storing it, it loses the crusty exterior. Is there a proper way to store bread to help keep the texture?

Bread is never better than when it’s freshly baked. The aroma, the crackly crust, the contrasting chewy or soft interior… if only there were a way to maintain those characteristics. Alas, they are fleeting.

Is there a proper way to store bread to keep the texture? Sort of, although no method will keep it “fresh” for long. The one thing you definitely don’t want to do is put it in the refrigerator, because that’s the temperature (about 41°F) at which it stales fastest.

What happens when bread cools down after baking is that the starch begins to “retrograde” or move from a gel to a crystalline state. The temperature and humidity at which the bread is stored determines how fast this happens. The bread becomes harder to chew, and we experience this as staling, although the bread is still technically fresh.

I said bread shouldn’t be stored in the refrigerator. At 23°F it stops staling, so it follows that keeping bread in the freezer is the way to keep it in suspended animation, as it were. It’s a good idea to slice bread before freezing, though, so you don’t have to keep taking the same loaf in and out of the freezer; that will speed up staling because the bread keeps going back and forth through the temperature zone at which it stales quickest.

Do you make sourdough bread? It keeps better than yeast-raised bread. It’s thought that this is because the organic acids generated in a sourdough fermentation tend to inhibit starch retrogradation. For whatever reason, I have found sourdough keeps better.

Keeping bread at room temperature in a plastic bag – after it’s completely cooled off – will keep it softer, but it will also soften the crust. My favorite bakery sells bread in perforated plastic bags, which keeps the crust crisp. However, it hardens quickly. I double bag, first in a paper and then in a plastic bag. This slows down the drying out of the bread, without causing a moisture condensation problem.

You can restore some crunchiness to the crust of a loaf which has toughened by reheating the surface of the bread. Do this in a 400°F oven for about five minutes. If you want to restore the softness of the inside, you’ll need to heat the bread longer at a lower temperature, say 12 to 15 minutes at 350°F, depending on the size of the loaf. You can also spritz or brush a loaf with water and wrap it in foil for reheating. It will need to bake a little longer then. Remember, though, that reheating bread will make it stale even faster, so don’t be surprised when that reconstituted loaf toughens up again quickly.

I’d say acceptance of the brief joys of a fresh loaf is to be encouraged. Enjoy your bread fresh during its first day or two, and then concentrate on making some wonderful things with it stale. Bruschetta, croutons, bread crumbs, stuffing, bread pudding… there are lots of options.

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