When I mentioned on our Facebook page that the best way to store fresh crusty bread was in a cloth bag, I had no idea that so many of my readers would ask the logical question: “why?” When I started to type the short answer, I realized something. There is no short answer.
Instead, there are several reasons why fabric provides the most hospitable environment for freshly baked loaves of crusty bread. Those reasons are altogether simple and complex.
I enjoy making bread, especially during the winter months. During the long, cold winter here in New England I don’t need much encouragement to turn the oven on and commit to baking something for an hour or more. Bread provides me with the perfect excuse to do just that. Add in that it also provides fresh bread for my family to enjoy and you can see why I look forward to my cold weather bread baking.
I have been baking bread for my family for over a decade. During that time, I’ve learned a few tricks, had a few failures, and developed several family favorite recipes. I’ve also learned a thing or two about how to store fresh bread in order to preserve its texture and extend its shelf life.
There are several ways to store fresh bread. There are also several decisions to make before doing so. The first decision involves the use of refrigeration. While it seems logical that fresh food will remain fresh longer if kept in the refrigerator, bread should always be kept at room temperature.
Obviously, the spoiling process occurs much more quickly in a loaf of fresh bread. Whether it is of the homemade variety or purchased from a local bakery, these loaves typically do not contain preservatives. Without preservatives to slow down the process, it doesn’t take long for the fresh bread to spoil.
In spite of this, bread should not be stored in the refrigerator. The cold environment in the refrigerator will dry out the bread and ruin its texture inside and out. In fact, a process called retrogradation takes place when bread is stored in the refrigerator. Retrogradation is the term used to describe the crystallization of the starch molecules in bread or other baked goods. This transformation is six times more likely to happen at refrigerated temperatures versus room temperature.
While the risk of molding is greater in a loaf of bread held at room temperature over a few days, refrigeration for a few hours can completely destroy the crust and crumb of a loaf. When this information is taken into consideration, it seems obvious that fresh bread that will be eaten quickly should be stored at room temperature.
If you find yourself with fresh bread that will not be consumed in a day or two, fresh bread can also be frozen. Frozen loaves should be allowed to thaw at room temperature and reheated briefly in a warm oven. The warmth of the oven will help to liquefy the starch crystals within the bread and help to return its crust and interior to its original texture.
Now that we understand where we should keep our bread for both short term and long term storage, it’s time to decide what to store the fresh bread in. Our best options include bags made from plastic, paper, or cloth. Each material serves a different purpose and results in a different outcome for the loaf of bread inside.
First, let’s start with plastic. I can’t help but think of sandwich bread when picturing a loaf stored inside a plastic bag. There’s a perfectly good reason that sandwich bread is so closely associated with its plastic bag storage. Soft sandwich bread and its plastic bag are a perfect match. The plastic bag serves two purposes with regard to the spongy textured sandwich bread.
Because the plastic does not breathe or allow for the passage of air in or out of the bag, the loaf inside tends to resist drying out. This helps to maintain the loaf’s soft texture. During the natural process of trace amounts of moisture dissipating from the loaf, that moisture is actually trapped inside the plastic bag. Therefore, at least some of that moisture is returned to the loaf, helping to keep it soft.
For sandwich bread, a soft crust and spongy interior are both admirable traits. When I have homemade loaves of bread that I want to use for sandwiches, I store them in airtight plastic containers or bags. For longer storage, I freeze portions or slices and then thaw them as needed. That way, we always have fresh bread at the ready.
For a fresh loaf of crusty bread like my Rustic Dutch Oven Bread, storing any leftovers in a plastic container is a disaster waiting to happen. The same trapped moisture that keeps the sandwich bread moist destroys the crispy texture of the bread’s crust. Ironically, as the crust softens it takes on an odd, overly chewy texture. Baguette or crusty loaves are better suited to storage in paper or cloth bags. Both of these offer an environment that allows the dissipating moisture to exit. While the bread will eventually become stale, the texture of both the exterior and interior will stand a much better chance of lasting a day or two. We rarely have any left to become stale. When there are leftovers at our dinner table, I freeze them for later use in french toast bread pudding or a batch of our favorite cast iron skillet dressing.
In the end, great bread isn’t meant to be kept long term. It’s meant to be enjoyed as soon as you bring it home or bake it in the oven. The Europeans are far ahead of us on this tradition. They view day old bread as a component for soups, bread puddings, croutons, and bread crumbs. Day old bread is the very reason that Panzanella was born. What better way to utilize slightly stale bread than by allowing it to absorb the delicious flavors of tomatoes, basil, olive oil, and vinegar?
Of course, I am speaking of Europeans who live in urban cities and can walk to any of a number of bakeries that produce delicious breads that can be purchased and enjoyed daily. I don’t have that luxury, so I try to keep a loaf or two in the freezer and store today’s fresh bread in a cloth bag for dinner. If I store it well, I have the option to warm it slightly in the oven and serve bread that is delicious, warm, and maintains that crunchy outer crust. Of course, if it’s heirloom tomato season, I just might make Panzanella.
Now that you know how to store your fresh bread, I hope that you will try one of our favorite bread recipes.