After a day or two, fresh bread starts to dry as it transitions into stale bread. Bread in this condition is pretty hard and unpleasant. So what can we do with bread to make it fresh and crusty again, and how can we prevent bread from staling? Included in this post are tips to get the best life out of your homemade bread, how to make bread crusty again, plus 12 recipes to use up bread that’s turned stale. But before we try and fix the problem, let’s understand why bread goes stale in the first place.
The most widespread reason for bread turning stale is a loss of moisture that occurs over time. This process starts during the baking process. As bread is baked, water in the dough passes through the crust and evaporates into the air. This is visibility seen as steam and this moisture continues to escape as the bread cools. As the bread is left over time, more and more moisture escapes into the atmosphere. The loss of moisture dries the bread, making it stale and unpalatable.
Another cause of stalling is due to the starch in the flour. When untampered, starch has a defined structure, but after hydrating with water and baking the structure becomes less rigid and more unorganised. This allows the area of the bread which hasn’t gelatinised (the crust) to have a soft texture.
As the bread cools and is left on the counter, the starch slowly regroups into its previously aligned geometric structure. This action is essentially the recrystallization of the starch and is what causes bread to harden and stale.
The majority of products or ingredients that we use in the kitchen are placed in the fridge to keep fresh. The cool and sealed environment of the fridge slows down fermentation and delays mould from setting on the products within. Many of us put bread in the fridge, especially when it’s warm, but it’s not the best decision.
One of my earliest memories was a hot summers day when I looked at my Mum’s puzzled face as she removed a loaf from the fridge to discover that the edges of it were rock hard! If you’ve tried putting bread in the fridge, you’ll notice the bread goes off faster, not slower!! The reason bread goes hard in the fridge is the cool temperature increases the rate that the starch returns to it’s original crystalised structure. This makes the bread hard and stale.
Whether you’ve visited your local bakery or made one yourself, the best way to keep bread from turning stale is to wrap it in a semi-permeable cloth. Use something that reduces the airflow – whilst still allowing the loaf to breathe, a tea towel or cotton table cloth are my preferred choices. I then place the wrapped bread in a cupboard or bread bin to reduce the airflow around it.
Thin paper bags that bread is often sold in do little to protect the bread from drying out. It is best to wrap the bread in a cloth as soon as possible when you get home. Wrapping bread in a sealed plastic bag can seem tempting, especially when you want to soften it. A sealed bag forces the moisture which tries to escape to be retained in the bread.
Wrapping and leaving the bread at room temperature softens the whole bread, including the crust. This storage method is quite handy for bread rolls, but only keep it in the bag for 24 hours. After this, the moisture tends to start developing mould.
Tip: If you are looking for ways to improve your bread, sometimes adding too much yeast can be your problem.
If you plan to keep bread for more than a day or two, wrap it in a bag or plastic wrap and place it in the freezer as soon as possible. Double wrapping the bags is often advantageous as it creates better insulation from freezer burn. Once the bread is removed for defrosting, remove the bags and wrap it in a tea towel to prevent it from turning soggy.
Sliced bread will last for a week or two without drying out. With the majority of brands, it’s more likely for the bread to grow mould before staling. This is due to the enzymes and dough improvers added to the dough. They increase the amount of fermentation boasting acids that aid the bread’s shelf-life, whilst slowing down the rate that the starch recrystallizes.
As the loaves are packaged and stored in plastic, the bread must also contain anti-staling additives to prevent mould from appearing. What’s also interesting is the amount of time the baked loaves are given to cool in these factories. Before packing, a duration of 8 hours of conveyors going through air-cooled rooms is not uncommon. Proper cooling prevents moisture from remaining in the bread which will help to delay mould appearing. Bread not allowed to cool properly will “sweat” moisture and turn mouldy quickly.
We don’t have the use of a laboratory to select ingredients to enhance the life of our bread at home, and most of us would probably choose not to use anything extra anyway. Adding an improver or acid to help extend the life of the bread will create an issue somewhere else that will need to be balanced out elsewhere. Unless you know what you’re doing it’s best to stick to natural ingredients and look at the following tips to get the best from them. Here are a few of the best ways to will help your homemade bread stay fresh for longer:
To help bread stay fresh, increase the amount of fermentation that builds in the dough. This is the stage before the dough is shaped and final proofed that involves resting, stretching or kneading the dough. To increase the amount of fermentation we can either increase:
It is a challenge to increase the amount the dough ferments without overproducing gas, or over oxygenating the flour. The minimum amount of bulk fermentation should be 2 hours at 25C (78F). But for more dough maturity, longer or warmer conditions are used. Here’s a guide on how long bulk fermentation should last:
Conventional, or hand mixing – 3.5 hour bulk fermentation with 1.5 hour final proof
Conventional, or hand mixing with prefermented dough – 2 hour bulk fermentation with a 2 hour final proof
Conventional, or hand mixing with sourdough – 2 hour bulk fermentation with a 4 hour final proof
Improved machined mixing – 1.5 hour bulk fermentation with 2 hour final proof
Intensive mixing with dough improvers – 30 minute bulk fermentation with a 2 hour final proof
Fats add acidity to the bread which lowers the rate that mould can develop. They also soften the crumb whilst increasing the rate of crust caramelisation during baking. Using fats such as oil or butter in the recipe will create bread with a shorter bake time and a softer crumb.
The oven temperature can have a big role to play in the keeping quality of your bread. This is because lower bread baking temperatures create less colour on the crust. Baking too long will draw too much moisture from the bread which leads to bread which that’s overly dry and doesn’t keep well. Baking bread in a hotter oven will darken the crust faster and lower the bake time. Shorter bake times increase the shelf life of bread.
After a loaf has been left for several days after baking, it’s inevitable that it will eventually be stale – even if you use techniques to prevent it from happening. Softening stale bread using one of the techniques below will allow you to enjoy the bread once more, and is an excellent way to reduce waste.
Please note that although these methods work well, the bread becomes hard a few hours later, so refresh, and eat straight away!
This is the best way to soften stale bread. It softens the crumb, whilst a crisp crust also remains. To use this method, preheat the oven to 180 (350F).
Pour water into a bowl and dip the bread into it, particularly around the base of the loaf. A light “dip” is all that is required if the bread is only a touch stale, for dryer bread a more thorough soak works best.
Wrap the bread in tin foil and bake for 3-7 minutes (depending on thickness). Remove the tin foil and return the bread into the oven at a higher heat (if possible) and bake for another 3-5 minutes until the crust has crispened. Take the bread from the oven and allow it to cool for a moment before serving.
This works when you only have a short amount of time. It works great to freshen up a baguette or ciabatta to make a nice and warm lunchtime sandwich. It’ll soften the crust including the crumb and alters the smell a little. it’s not amazing, but much nicer than eating stale bread.
Take a paper towel (kitchen roll) and run it under the tap to get it wet. Squeeze out the excess water. Wrap the paper towel around the bread and place on a microwavable plate.
Nuke it for 10 seconds at a time, until the bread feels warm. Remove the paper from the bread, wait 30 seconds and you’re ready to go.
Placing slices of stale bread in a sealed bag with a piece of celery will re-hydrate and soften the bread. One stick (stem) of celery will do around 3-5 slices of bread. Place the celery and bread in a sealed bag in the evening. By the morning you’ll find it will be nice and soft again.
The quickest way to refresh old bread is to preheat your oven to 180C (350F), rub some water around the edges of the bread, enough to make the bread damp – without soaking it. Place the bread directly on the oven shelf for 3-5 minutes.
This method works well for day-old bread, yet for really old bread it’s best to soften the crumb, as well as crispen the crust:
Preheat the oven to 180C (350F) and soak the bread in water. Wrap in tin foil and bake for 3-7 minutes, depending on the size of the bread. Remove the foil and bake for another 3-5 minutes, until crusty.
Stale bread has many uses in the kitchen, ranging from slightly stale to full-on bricks there are many ways we can use up stale bread! Take a look at these ways to use up stale bread for inspiration:
Empty the milk into a saucepan on medium heat. Add the flour and butter and whisk consistently as it thickens into a smooth sauce. Lower the heat and cook for 3–5 minutes, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon, add a bit more milk if it gets too thick. Season with salt and pepper and take the pan off the heat. Set aside.
Warm the oven to 220C (440F) and place a frying pan on the stove to heat. Lightly toast the bread in the toaster. Once out of the toaster, spread each slice thinly with mustard, followed by a layer of white sauce. Take one of the slices and sprinkle cheese, followed by the ham. Stack the other slice on top to make a sandwich.
Add the knob of butter to the frying pan. Once melted, place the sandwich in the pan and fry on high heat until one side is lightly browned. Flip the sandwich in the pan and spread a little more white sauce and more grated cheese over the top. Fry for 1-2 minutes before placing the sandwich on a baking sheet and placing in the oven. Bake for 5 minutes until the cheese has melted in the centre and the top is coloured nicely. Leave to cool for 3–5 minutes before serving.
If you have a Breville or a toasted sandwich maker you can simply fire it up whilst spreading the outside of two slices of bread with butter, chuck in some fillings and place in the machine. After 3-5 minutes, it’ll be done. Simple!
To make the tomato sauce, start by heating the oil in the pan and adding the onion. Stir regularly and fry for 5 minutes before adding the garlic and basil. Season, stir and fry for another 2-3 minutes before adding the tin of tomatoes and balsamic vinegar. Bring to a boil and simmer gently for 15 minutes. Use a stick blender to puree the sauce. Taste and adjust seasoning if required. Add the sugar if you want a sweet sauce and set aside.
Heat the grill/broiler while you prepare the pizzas. Lightly toast one side of the bread slices, afterwards spread some tomato sauce on top followed by the cheese and any other toppings you wish to add. Place under the grill for 5 minutes, or until the cheese is nice and golden.
Mix a small garlic clove with 100 grams of butter, a bunch of fresh parsley, a pinch of salt and a drizzle of olive oil. The butter should be at room temperature to make this easy to mix. Spread onto the slices of bread and cook under the grill for 5 minutes.
For some reason, people eat this. I think it’s horrible, but here goes. Take your dry bread, season and place it in the frying pan along with your bacon, sausage, eggs and black pudding. Fry it for 3 minutes on each side and it’ll absorb the flavours and grease from the pan.
Take slices of a large rustic loaf, preferably sourdough and place onto a baking sheet. Bake at 220C (430F) for 10 minutes, or until golden. Take a clove of garlic, peel and rub it into each slice before drizzling them with olive oil. Serve with a chunky selection of meats, cheeses and antipasto.
Add the dried bread to custard, a pinch of cinnamon and a couple of tablespoons of brown sugar and bake until golden. Delicious, especially with homemade, buttery custard.
Dice your stale bread and place it on a baking tray. Seasons with salt and pepper, drizzle with olive oil and optionally add some garlic powder and dried herbs. Bake in the oven at around 200C (390F) for 5 minutes.
Allow to cool, then serve with salad or soup.
Beat the egg with the milk and salt to make a custard-like batter. Add the cinnamon and sugar, mix and drop both slices of bread into the bowl. Mix the bread around the bowl to soak up all of the juices and leave for 10-20 minutes. Heat a frying pan and when hot, add the butter and fry the soaked bread for 2-3 minutes per side.
Chuck your dry bread into a food processor and give it a quick whizz. Once the bread is at breadcrumb size, remove and either use straight away or pour on a plate or baking sheet to dry overnight before storing.
Thinly slice a baguette or ciabatta and place it onto a baking sheet. Drizzle with olive oil and bake at 220C (430F) for 5 minutes or until golden. Take a clove of garlic, peel and rub it into each slice. Serve with a selection of oil, meat, cheese and antipasto. For some more interesting toppings, visit this recipe from Delish.
If doing this with really dry bread, soak in a little bit of stock for 5 minutes before toasting.
Press all the cloves into the onion. Add the bay leaf, peppercorns and milk to a saucepan. And the onion and bring to the boil. Remove from the heat and set aside for 15-20 minutes.
Remove the onion, bay leaf and peppercorns. Stir the bread into the milk and place over a low heat for 5-10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Once the bread has absorbed the liquid and the sauce has thickened to the desired consistency, stir in the butter and season with salt and pepper.
Serve with roast chicken, or in the Busby household – everything.
Don’t think you have to follow one of these recipes, why not combine a few and make an eggy, fried cheese sandwich? As you can see stale bread can have a use at the centrepiece or as an accompaniment to a meal. Let me know how you get on!
Hi, I’m Gareth Busby, a baker, bread baking coach and college lecturer. I’m here to help you make better bread and learn about the baking industry.
Suite 2646 Unit 3A,
34-35 Hatton Garden,