There’s nothing quite like the smell and taste of freshly baked bread. Whether it’s a loaf of crusty French bread or a soft sandwich roll, bread is a staple in many households worldwide.
However, if you’ve ever experienced the disappointment of biting into a piece of bread only to find it hard and stale the next day, you may wonder why this happens.
In this article, we’ll explore the reasons why bread tends to get hard and offer some tips to keep it fresher for longer.
Many factors combine to dry bread and make it unpleasantly hard, stretching from the dough recipe to how bread is stored. Here are the reasons bread turns hard and dry:
One of the main culprits behind bread getting hard is the loss of moisture. When bread is first baked, it contains a significant amount of water.
Moisture keeps the bread soft and fresh. However, over time, the bread begins to lose this moisture through a process called staling.
Staling occurs when the water molecules in the bread move from the starch granules to the surrounding areas of the bread and evaporate into the air.
When bread is left uncovered or stored in a poorly sealed container, it becomes susceptible to more rapid moisture loss through evaporation. This can occur when leaving bread out on the counter, yet it is even more noticeable when left in a drafty place.
Additionally, exposure to air can also promote mould growth on the bread’s surface, further compromising its quality.
If your recipe creates a stiff, low-hydration dough, the resulting bread will probably be dry and hard. A softer dough (with more water in the recipe) results in a lighter crumb and a crisp crust – provide the correct baking conditions are used.
High-hydration bread recipes require longer baking times to remove the excess water. This is usually achieved by dropping the heat midway through baking. The excess water will produce a softer crumb and delay staling, but too much “free water” results in rapid mould growth.
Retrogradation is another process that contributes to the staling of bread. It is a natural occurrence that happens when the starch molecules in the bread undergo a rearrangement.
When bread is baked, the starches in the flour gelatinize, locking in water to form a soft, moist texture. As the bread ages, the starches begin to retrograde, causing them to crystallize and the retained water to leach out. This process makes the bread firmer and leads to a loss of softness.
While refrigeration is often seen as extending the shelf life of various foods, it will accelerate the staling process in bread.
When bread is refrigerated, the cold temperature causes the starches to recrystallize more quickly, leading to a faster moisture loss.
The bread may also absorb other flavours and odours present in the refrigerator, compromising its taste. Therefore, it’s generally best to avoid refrigerating bread unless your kitchen is especially humid.
Vread should be allowed to cool before storing it to allow moisture to evaporate. Placing bread on a cooling rack allows airflow to remove evaporating water vapour from all sides of the bread.
The quality of ingredients used in bread making will also influence its shelf life.
Bread made with high-protein bread flour retains moisture more than bread made with all-purpose flour. This extends the freshness of the bread, however, bread made with high-protein flour can be chewy when straight out of the oven.
Fatty ingredients like butter, oil and eggs will extend the bread’s softness by trapping moisture and tenderising the crumb.
When baking in the oven, moisture escapes the bread. For soft bread varieties such as burger buns, baking times are reduced to produce a softer crumb, yet crusty bread is baked with steam using a longer baking duration.
If your bread is tough as soon as it’s cooled down, you could be baking at too low a temperature for too long.
When bread has a tough and thick crust with a soft interior, you might not be adding steam when the bread goes into the oven.
See my article on bread baking temperatures and durations to get the perfect bread.
Proper storage is essential to maintain the freshness of bread. To slow bread hardening, storing it in a cool, dry place away from direct sunlight is important.
A bread box can help protect the bread from excessive moisture loss while still allowing some airflow. Here is the bread box I recommend:
Wrapping bread in a semi-breathable cloth, such as a drying cloth or cotton sac, will slow down moisture loss and further extend the life of the bread.
Sealing crusty bread in a plastic bag will retain moisture and avoid a hard crust. However, the extra moisture creates the ideal breeding ground for mould, and your bread is unlikely to survive 2 or 3 days.
Slicing the bread and freezing individual portions will preserve its freshness, allowing you to thaw and enjoy it as needed.
First, ensure you use the correct oven settings for your recipe so the bread is not hard when it comes out of the oven. Cool the bread until it reaches blood temperature, then wrap it in a semi-breathable cloth and store it in a draught-free environment.
The primary cause of mould in homemade bread is too much water remaining after it was baked. Increase baking times by lowering the oven temperature to ensure the core of your bread exceeds 90C (195F) before removing it from the oven.
In conclusion, several factors contribute to bread getting hard and stale the next day. Moisture, starch retrogradation, exposure to air, refrigeration, improper storage, and the quality of ingredients all play a role.
By understanding these factors and following proper storage techniques, you can help prolong the freshness of your bread and enjoy it for longer.
So, the next time you bake or buy a loaf of bread, remember these tips to savour its softness and deliciousness daily.
Hi, I’m Gareth Busby, a baking coach, head baker and bread-baking fanatic! My aim is to use science, techniques and 15 years of baking experience to help you become a better baker.
Suite 2646 Unit 3A,
34-35 Hatton Garden,