Hello fine readers. I'm happy to report that as I type this two plumbers are hard at work in the shop, bringing me one step closer. Once I put the floor back I'll be set to bring in the remainder of my equipment, less the oven. PGE is working on their solution to my power supply problems. The factory in Italy where my oven is manufactured is returning from their month long vacation, so I expect to hear good news on that front soon.
I've been doing lots of home baking lately. Trying out different flours, fine tuning recipes, making sure I don't lose my touch. One result of these baking endeavors is a pile of bread gets stale faster than I can eat it. It's with stale bread on my mind (and in my stomach), that I sit down to write to you today.
Turns out, stale bread is a surprisingly interesting subject. For one, staleness is subjectively defined. There are no scientific criteria, it's simply bread that the eater thinks isn't fresh. For another, stale bread results in some very big economic consequences (well, big if you're a baker), and some very wasteful practices.
A number of things influence how fast bread stales, some of which are in the hands of the baker, and others in the hands of the consumer. These are the subjects I'd like to take a look at with you all.
What is stale bread?
There are some universal attributes associated with stale bread. The crust loses it's crunch and becomes tough. The crumb (a baker's term for the stuff inside the crust) becomes hard and dry. Flavors mellow and are lost. These tragedies occur over a spectrum, and the process starts happening as a soon as the loaf of bread cools. We think of bread as stale when these qualities build up to undesirable levels. The immediate onset of staling is why it's paramount to buy your bread fresh, not in Costco-esque quantities, stashed in the cupboard.
Why does bread stale?
That's a hard question to answer without a chemistry degree. Moisture loss, or perhaps more accurately moisture migration, is an important part of that process, but even bread kept in a sealed plastic bag becomes dry and tough. Staleness occurs at the molecular level of the starches within the bread in a process known as "starch retrogradation." Rather than betray my ignorance on the subject I think I'll let it go at that. For those interested in learning more: Bread Science by Emily Buehler is a terrific reference.
What do baker's do about it?
Some breads resist staling better than others. It has long been observed that sourdoughs hold up better than breads made with commercial yeast. This is often attributed to the natural acidity of sourdoughs. Shape is also an important factor, for a baguette will lose moisture very quickly because of it's larger surface area. Ingredient choice also matters quite a bit. Sugar and the fats from butter, milk, or oil act to keep the crumb moist and tender far longer than in a lean dough (a dough comprised of flour and water only). Other obscure enzymes and chemicals additives are also commonly used. As you might imagine, there is a huge economic incentive to delay the staling of bread, and that accounts for some of those strange ingredients you might find on any given label.
An interesting side note: Breads made with high proportion of rye flour have tremendous resistance to staling. There are many who attest to enjoying pure rye breads long after they are baked. This property helps account for the old peasant practice of baking extremely large loaves once every few weeks, due to the relatively high cost of firing the oven (when you could be storing all that precious wood for winter!). In fact, one gentleman from Germany fondly told me about his grandmothers rye. It would sit in the cellar for weeks, only reaching it's peak in flavor after it was covered in a white mold.
What can you do about it?
There are several ways to prolong the freshness of bread after it's been baked. The best solution is of course to eat it quickly. Bread that survives your first day of purchase can be handled a few different ways. I prefer to keep my bread in paper bags or wrapped in a linen cloth or towel on the counter. I usually eat a loaf within a couple of days so I don't worry too much about the bread drying out. If I think I'll want to keep the bread for more than a few of days I'll store it in a plastic grocery bag, also on the counter. It stays moist longer, but the crust quickly softens and loses that nice crispy crunch. If you eat very little bread each day you might choose to slice and freeze it. Then you can pull out one or two slices as needed. What you should not do is store it in the refrigerator. Starch retrogradation progresses most quickly under refrigerator temperatures.
I always reheat bread that is more than a day old. Reheating it freshens up the starches and temporarily reverses some of the effects of staling. My preferred method is to quickly fry the bread in a hot pan with butter. A toaster or broiler will also do the trick.
Don't lose hope should your bread grow stale beyond palatability. Use it to thicken soups, make croutons, transform it into delicious bread pudding, or any of the countless other uses for stale bread. There is even an old world tradition of using old bread in the next day's dough, the result of an era when not one ounce of nutrition was allowed to go to waste.
Have a wonderful week you guys.