Several years ago, I worked for a couple of bakers at farmers markets, selling bread and fielding questions, which were most often about storage. What folks wanted to know was how to keep bread fresh for as long as possible – how to stave off a loaf’s inevitable loss of moisture and aroma.
I always responded with our standard advice: Freeze part of it as soon as you walk in your door. But when I had the time, I would slip in a few tips of my own – not about preventing staleness, but about taking advantage of it.
Thrifty, resourceful cooks have known this for centuries: A loaf of old bread is an asset, worthy of a small fuss and as valuable a staple as pasta, potatoes and rice.
France has its savory bread puddings called panades; Spain has its migas, those ingenious hashes of fried bread; Lebanese and other Middle Eastern cooks toss stale and sometimes toasted bits of flatbread into fattoush or layer them in fetteh, as in one popular version featuring tahini, yogurt, chickpeas and pine nuts.
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America has had its resourceful channels for staling loaves: Consider the brown betty, a fruit dessert layered and topped with bread crumbs and baked until the top turns crisp and the center makes a juicy custard; or holiday stuffing or dressing, historical recipes that are practically a mirror on once-regional bread preferences.
If you regard bread as a living thing, as many bakers do, then consider a loaf as having different life stages, each with its own pleasures and rewards. As bread loses moisture and aroma, it gains structural strength. Those changes make old bread tough and bland. But they also make it a perfect vehicle for absorbing other flavors while maintaining texture and heft.
When we put preservatives in bread to “extend” its life, we’re interrupting that continuum. The pre-sliced, prepackaged loaf offers no such evolution or possible reinterpretation. Commercially produced bread, because of additives that prevent it from drying out, tends to mold before it stales, and there is no way to redeem that.
Now that good-quality bakery bread is gaining ground, there’s reason to better our game. Rather than give up when faced with the inevitable life cycle of a loaf, embrace it. Instead of seeking out ways to halt its changing attributes, welcome their development. Staling, after all, is what bread is supposed to do.
Leave the loaf on the counter, wrapped in the paper bag it was sold in or cut side down on a board, and let it run its course. What you will gain is a repertoire of dishes you might well wonder how you went so long without. Make French toast with old challah, turn day-old bagels into chips, or make a strata out of leftovers. Deeply toasted bread crumbs can garnish a heap of bitter greens or get sprinkled on pasta. Torn croutons – crisp, craggy and unevenly golden – do wonders for salads and soups.
Even a single stale slice can make a meal when it’s brushed with oil, toasted under the broiler and then set on a brothy soup. It’s gushing, tender and crisp all at once.
If you plan meals in advance, treat days-old bread as a basic building block, as you do pasta, grains, soups, stews. Or just be spontaneous in using what you have.
Apple Brown Betty
This is the late Southern chef Edna Lewis on epicurious.com. Leftover French bread works great, but any firm white bread will do. If it’s not very stale yet, leave it out on the country for a few hours before cutting into cubes.
1 1/2 teaspoons freshly grated nutmeg
1/2 cup sugar
3 cups bread cubes (about 1/4-inch squares)
2 tablespoons melted butter
Grated rind of 1 lemon
2 pounds large apples
2 to 4 tablespoons cold water (optional)
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Combine the nutmeg and cinnamon and set aside 2 tablespoons. Put the bread cubes in a bowl and toss with the rest of the sugar mixture, melted butter and lemon rind.
Peel, core and slice the apples into thick wedges. Line the bottom of a heavy 1 1/2-quart casserole with 1 cup of the bread cubes. Layer half of the apples over the bread and top with 1/2 cup of the bread cubes. Layer the rest of the apples on top and sprinkle with water. Top with the rest of the bread cubes and sprinkle evenly with the reserved 2 tablespoons of nutmeg and sugar.
Put the lid on the casserole or cover tightly with foil. Bake about 40 minutes. Uncover and bake 10 to 15 minutes longer, until the apples are tender and the topping is brown.
Yield: 4 servings.