How Do I Keep My Bread Fresh?
There are few things as wonderful as a slice of fresh bread. Dan Leader in his book "Bread Alone" mentions that fresh bread was a weapon of war - in the Second World War a number of generals had their bakeries make fresh bread for their soldiers several times a day. It helped the troops morale, and that might have helped them win that war to end all wars. So, how do we win our own war against the forces that keep our bread from staying fresh?
The easy answers to that question are, "Don't bake so much bread", "Eat it faster!", and "Give it to friends". But those might not be the answers you are looking for.
Maybe you remember the old song about "Big John" who sang that "one fist is made of iron, the other one's steel, if one don't get you, the other one will". Bread has two enemies, staling and mold. If one doesn't get the bread, the other will.
Sadly, it's hard to avoid both problems. And the matter is made somewhat more difficult if you, like me don't want to use artificial preservatives.
The first thing to help preserve your bread is to use sourdough, and to let it ferment a long time. Sourdough cultures produce many chemicals that protect the bread from mold and staling. Like I mention elsewhere, haste is the enemy of good bread. Build your starter slowly, and then let your bread rise slowly.
Still, there are times when a long fermentation isn't ideal - longer fermentation increases the characteristic sourdough taste, and that may not be acceptable for the style of bread you are working on. So, other steps are required. The nasty thing about Big John's fists is that stepping out of the way of one puts you in the path of the other. Many people try to refrigerate their bread to make it last longer. Sadly, that dries the bread and speeds staleness. Trying to keep it moist speeds mold.
Breads that have oil in them tend to keep longer, whether that is from milk, butter, eggs, or whatever. Of course, not all breads can use these ingredients - once you put any of these things into a French bread, it's no longer a French bread.
Where you live will change what will affect your bread first. When I lived on the Gulf Coast, the humidity was rarely below 70%, and mold was THE problem. Since I have moved to the mountains of Colorado a day with 30% humidity is a wet day, and bread dries out and stales. Between the two, I prefer stale bread. While you can make great bread pudding with stale bread, you shouldn't even feed moldy bread to animals.
Anoher interesting factor is the size and shape of your loaf. When there is a lot of surface area for the amount of volume, the bread will stale very quickly. A baguette stales in a matter of hours. Rolls and buns stale very quickly. Batards, sometimes called torpedos, stale somewhat more slowly, while round loaves and pan loaves stale much more slowly. It's the ratio of crust to crumb that'll get you.
And now to some suggestions.
If you make more bread than you can use, freeze the surplus. If the bread is a type that tends to be eaten in a single meal, like a baguette, freeze it whole. It helps to tightly wrap baguettes and freeze them while they are still warm. A baker friend tells me this helps prevent the crust from separating from the crumb.
If it's a bread that tends to be eaten a few slices at a time, slice the bread, then put it into a freezer grade ziplock, freeze it, and pull out the slices you need. Because slices can freeze together, you may want to use some waxed paper to separate the slices into reasonable sets so you can pull the bread apart without tearing it up. The only bad part about freezing bread is that it seems to cause the bread to deteriorate. I'll pull out a loaf and let it thaw, and the crust will have separated from the crumb, or cracks will have developed in the loaf - conditions that the unfrozen loaves from the same batch never showed. Again, freezing the bread while it is still warm is supposed to help prevent this.
A friend of mine swears that when she stores bread on top of the refrigerator in her kitchen, it lasts forever. I don't know why, but bread does seem to last longer there.
Alan Scott and Dan Wing mention in their book "The Bread Builders" that stale bread can be reheated and returned to freshness - once. The chemicals in bread that tell us bread is fresh can be reheated and revitalized once. After that, they just bake off and you have a warm loaf of stale bread.
A number of bread sites suggests putting the cut edge of the bread onto a cutting board, and then covering the bread with a lightly dampened cloth. This works well, and helps the bread to continue to develop its flavor. This is more useful in dry areas where staling is the common issue. In more humid areas it just makes mold more likely. However, there is a limit to how many loaves of bread you can keep on your cutting boards.
If you have favorite bread storage tricks, please drop me a note and share them with me.