Fresh bread—made in my kitchen or picked up at the local bakery—is a staple in my life. (No, you won’t find me in the gluten-free aisle!) I love it toasted every morning and alongside just about every meal—from hearty soups and fresh salads to pasta dinners. No matter the meal, good bread adds the finishing touch (much like flowers do for a room, I think).
Now that there are only two of us in our household of bread lovers, though, I’ve been finding it harder to keep bread fresh, especially since we prefer our bread without preservatives. Since fresh bread tastes best, and I detest throwing away food, I set out to find out the best way to keep our bread fresh.
• When you buy bread from a bakery, don’t have it sliced. It might be convenient (especially for that morning bread that needs to be sliced for toast before we’ve had our coffee), but slicing exposes much more of the bread surface to air. And more air exposure means more drying. Besides, those beautiful hand-crafted loaves lose so much of their character when they’re machine sliced!
• When you do slice your bread, slice down the middle rather than off the end. Then put the two halves back together when you’re done. This, too, will keep minimum surface area exposed. (Yes, you’re slicing a larger area, but it’ll fit back together and protect the surfaces better than a little end and a larger end.) Then just work your way back and forth towards the two ends of the loaf each time you slice. Press the loaf back together when you put it away. (When you get to the ends of a round loaf, have a couple of slices — they’re small!)
• Don’t refrigerate your bread. Turns out, putting bread in the refrigerator is a bad idea. Oh, it’ll keep it from getting moldy as quickly as it would on the counter. But it’ll also cause it to dry and become stale more quickly. Room temp is best.
• Don’t let your bread get hot, though. Bread will deteriorate faster in heat. So don’t put your loaf in direct light or in a warm place (like on top of the refrigerator, where my mom always kept our Wonder Bread!). Especially don’t put your bread in a humid place, or you’ll encourage mold. (Ever notice mold on bread right after you’ve taken a big bite? Yuck.) Oh, and never wrap up warm bread (fresh out of the oven, for example). Let it cool completely before wrapping or it’ll get damp and, again, moldy.
How to wrap and store bread
Those brown bags that you sometimes bring fresh bread home in look all lovely and Parisian, but unless you’re headed directly to a picnic, they’re not enough to keep your bread fresh. They’re okay in the very short run for hard-crusted breads, but really, they’re only going to get harder-crusted sitting in paper bags!
Most people store their bread in plastic wrap or in a plastic bag, and that works. But there are a couple of other—more sustainable—options:
• A breadbox. A breadbox keeps the bread fresh and the crust crispy. Use a big box, and don’t crowd your breads in there—packing them tightly will promote molding. You can store bread in an airtight bread box without wrapping it or putting it in a bag. Don’t have a breadbox? Consider putting bread in an airtight tin (again, not packed tightly) or plastic container—then place the container in a kitchen drawer or cupboard. You could also convert an appliance garage to a bread garage. Or maybe you’re lucky enough to have a bread drawer, with a lid on it! (I’m just a little jealous if you do!)
• Cloth bread bags. You can purchase cloth bread bags or make your own. They’ll keep out the light, they’re washable (reusable), and breathable. Chris at Attainable Sustainable makes linen bread bags for storing bread, and I love this idea!
I’m not sure how long bread would stay fresh in a cloth bag on the counter (since it’s breathable, might it also get a bit drier a bit more quickly than in a plastic bag? On the other hand, the bag might wick away moisture that might cause mold.)
In any case, my new favorite way to store bread is (about to be) in a cloth bread bag in a breadbox. I need to go whip up some linen storage bags!
Can I freeze bread?
Yes! In fact, if you’re not going to polish off your loaf in a couple of days, freezing is a good idea.
Freeze bread when it’s still at its prime and—unless you’re sure you’ll eat the whole loaf when you take it out—slice it first. Yes, I know I just told you not to slice your bread ahead of time, but slicing before you put it in the freezer is an exception. That way you can take just what you need out of the freezer. (Of course, if you think you’ll eat half a loaf once it’s defrosted, then you can just cut it in half before you tuck it in the freezer.) Whatever you do, don’t unfreeze/freeze/unfreeze your bread, or you’ll wind up with something not worth eating.
To freeze, wrap the bread in freezer foil or freezer plastic bags. (Both are heavier duty than regular foil or plastic, and they’re a good idea because breads are prone to freezer burn.) For extra protection, some people like to vacuum seal or double bag their breads, especially rolls. At the very least, try to get as much air out of the bag as possible. Your bread should stay fresh for a few months in the freezer.
There’s lots of (conflicting) advice about the best way to defrost breads. Some experts advise unwrapping bread before defrosting, to keep it from getting soggy. Others recommend leaving it in the plastic bag to keep it from drying out. Some suggest defrosting in the refrigerator (for a few hours for slices or overnight for full loaves). Another option is to take it out of the freezer and let it thaw for a few hours at room temp or—if you’re going to eat it right away—toast it or heat it in the oven for 10-15 minutes @ 350 degrees. No matter what method you use, you’ll want to wrap it or put it in a breadbox to keep it from drying out once it’s defrosted.
BTW, have you noticed that some bread gets stale more quickly than other bread? Sourdough bread, for example, doesn’t go stale as fast as other breads because of the acidity of the starter in the bread. And brioche and challah go the distance because the fat in them helps them stay fresh longer—unlike baguettes, which get hard and stale after just a day.
If your bread does get stale before you’ve had a chance to eat it up, don’t toss it! It’s perfect for making croutons, breadcrumbs, and bread pudding.
What are your favorite recipes for old bread? Where do you like to store your bread to keep it fresh? And what’s your advice on defrosting bread?