Bread has been a staple of the human diet since antiquity. In Mesopotamia and Egypt, where wheat was cultivated, grain was initially chewed. Humans soon learned they could add water to wheat and bake the paste into flatbreads that would keep for days. Leavened bread resulted from the accidental introduction of yeast into the dough.
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No other food source has impacted human history as much as bread. Bread has raised empires and started revolutions.
Even today, there’s nothing like the smell of freshly baked bread, unless it’s the taste of that same bread! But we all know that the minute that loaf of bread comes out of the oven, it starts to lose its freshness. Given the busy lives we lead, making home-baked bread or shopping for a fresh loaf daily is out of the question.
How long will bread keep?
How do we keep bread fresher for longer, whether home-baked or store-bought? Packaged bread can last up to a week, depending on how it’s prepared and stored. Fresh-baked bread can last up to a few days. Both can last up to six months in the freezer. The key factor in maintaining freshness is packaging and placement.
There are two things that are the enemies of freshness: mold and staleness.
Mold spores are everywhere. They’re outside, inside, on our clothing, even in our hair! They, like mushrooms, require moisture and warmth to grow. To keep bread from getting moldy fast, we need to deny those spores that same tasty, nutrient-dense food we also crave.
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The first thing many of us do is to place the loaf of bread in a plastic bag and put it on the counter. With the dishwasher running nearby and the sun blazing through the window, we’ve just given mold everything it needs: food, moisture, and warmth.
Staleness is another story. Stale bread is as moist as fresh bread, but the moisture has gone to a different use than making your bread taste and look good. Staling is caused by the water in the starch moving into the interstitial spaces, de-gelatinizing the starch. The recrystallization process occurring at a molecular level results in a dry, stiff texture. It’s usable, but not attractive or tasty.
One of the other worst things you can do to fresh bread is to put it in the refrigerator, where the dry atmosphere starts to stale the bread quickly.
Recovering stale bread
Is there anything you can do with stale bread, other than turn it into bird food?
You can try putting some apple slices in a plastic bag with the bread, which conveys moisture back into it.
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You can also try moistening a paper towel, placing the slices of stale bread on the towel, and microwaving it for a few seconds.
The secret to storing fresh bread
The best way to store fresh bread is to wrap the bread in a thin, dry kitchen towel, then put it in a paper bag. Put the bag in a box, a drawer, or another container.
Does this remind you of a breadbox? Turns out those old bread boxes were probably the ideal solution for keeping bread fresh. In lieu of a quality bread box, the paper bag-encased bread can be stored in your pantry.
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When you’re ready to serve the bread, put it in a 400 F oven for 3 to 5 minutes to revive that fresh bread taste, smell, and texture.
To have a better chance at fresh bread the next day or the day after, don’t buy pre-sliced bread. If you’ve baked it yourself, slice off just what you want at that moment. Store the rest of the bread.
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Every surface exposed to the air will allow more chances for mold and staleness to take hold.
Bread can last in the freezer for up to six months. If you buy more bread than you can use in a few days, it’s best to freeze what you won’t be eating right away.
To freeze bread, make sure the bread has completely cooled (if it just came out of the oven). Put the bread in a plastic bag and remove the excess moisture, then put the bag into another plastic bag to ensure a good seal.
When you’re ready to serve, remove the slices you want and let them come to room temperature, about three hours. Then put them in the 400 F oven for 3 to 5 minutes.
Tip: Fresh-baked bread has to rest, just like meat, to complete the bake. Do not slice fresh bread immediately on removing it from the oven.
Let them eat cake!
According to legend, Marie Antoinette responded with the line, “Let them eat cake” after learning the peasants were out of bread. Though the doomed queen never really said the line for which she’s remembered, there’s still no reason for us non-royals to suffer stale, old bread (or no bread at all)! The next time you bake or buy a loaf, keep these tips in mind to enjoy soft, delicious bread tomorrow and beyond!
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Image credit via Flickr Creative Commons: Emily C. and Jonas F.