In terms of delivering pure palate satisfaction, nothing beats eating a hunk of freshly sliced bread—except its two major enemies: mold and staleness. So how can you keep your bread as fresh as possible?
First, a quick science lesson. Mold spores are everywhere, though they're mostly harmless. In order to grow, mold needs enough nutrients—from, say, a delicious piece of bread—and the right environment: warmth and moisture. If you store your bread in plastic (which traps moisture) and keep it in a warm place (like on top of the refrigerator or over the dishwasher), you're giving mold everything it needs to grow unchecked.
The staling process is a little more complex. Though it seems that stale bread is simply bread that's dried out, it's actually the "manifestation of starch retrogradation," according to Harold McGee in On Food and Cooking. In layman's terms, that means that when bread bakes, the starch granules absorb moisture from the surrounding gluten. As bread begins to stale, that water migrates back to the gluten and recrystallizes. The amount of moisture in a stale loaf of bread and a freshly baked one is the same; it just rests in a less desirable place from the bread eater's perspective.
Loaves of bread (Photo: Tasting Table) | The Larousse Book of Bread by Eric Kayser
All bread will eventually go stale, but there are things you can do to delay the inevitable. First, don't store your bread in plastic, advises Éric Kayser, fourth-generation baker, owner of the renowned Paris-based boulangerie Maison Kayser and author of the forthcoming The Larousse Book of Bread: Recipes to Make at Home (Phaidon, $40). Not only does it encourage mold growth, it also makes bread chewy, he says.
Second, Kayser says, never store your bread in the refrigerator, which speeds up the staling process faster than anything else. The best way to store bread—particularly the artisanal variety—is to wrap it in a dish towel or paper bag and keep it in a dry place. All breads, from boules to sandwich loaves, should be stored the same way. However, Kayser says, the bigger the bread, the longer the shelf life: "A baguette, for example, will be good if you eat it quickly, within about eight hours from the time it was baked. But some of our customers say they can keep our Tourte de Meule [a large sourdough boule] for 10 days."
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Keep in mind, though, that freshness is ethereal. "Bread is best when just baked," Kayser says. "It can have a shelf life of two or three days, but it will taste best within hours of coming out of the oven." If, however, you keep your bread longer than that and it's slightly stale, there's an easy fix: Simply heat (but not toast) it in a 350-degree oven for 10 to 15 minutes, and the bread will become supple and crusty again.
One more way to keep your bread fresh? Freeze it. "It's a good way to avoid waste," Kayser says. "You put it in a toaster or in the oven, and you'll get fresh bread ready to eat." Simply wrap the bread in plastic to protect it from freezer burn and keep frozen for up to one month.
That's the straight dough.