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Why Bread Goes Stale (and How to Slow It)

Baked Potato Bread

Bread is at its best fresh out of the oven — and there’s science to back that up. The staling process that begins as soon as you pull it out of the oven can turn a tender, delicious loaf of bread into a dry, crumbly loaf. In this article, we’ll give you a crash course in why bread goes stale and how to slow the process so you can keep bread fresh longer.

Why does bread go stale?

Staling is inevitable for any product that contains starch — bread, buns, cakes, etc. Molecular changes within starch after bread is baked can alter the texture of the loaf. The result is a tougher, less resilient bread that crumbles easily and lacks the “fresh from the oven” qualities so many of us love.

Why does this occur? There are three main culprits:

  1. After baking, the two main components in starch, amylose and amylopectin, gradually return to a more crystalline structure. This process is known as retrogradation.
  2. Water migrates between proteins and starch, altering the gluten network.
  3. Moisture is also lost to the environment.

A basic understanding of the starch retrogradation process provides insight on how to counteract the forces leading to a stale loaf so you can enjoy fresh bread longer.

How to slow staling in bread

To keep your bread fresh as long as possible, there are four major things you should do:

1. Check your ingredients.

Enzymes, emulsifiers and gums can all slow the rate of staling, making them popular ingredients in commercial food production. Enzymes can cut down starch. Emulsifiers can bind with starch. Gums can absorb water. All these ingredients can help prevent the amylose or amylopectin from recrystallizing to their native form. Gums also have the advantage of binding more water, which can improve hydration and prevent water loss, ultimately extending the shelf life of your bread. These ingredients aren’t typically found in homemade bread, which is why they tend to go stale faster than their store-bought counterparts.

The fat content and shape of bread can also impact your bread’s shelf life. Lean doughs like a baguette, for example, will quickly go stale because of its narrow shape and the lack of fat. On the other hand, breads with a higher fat content, such as challah or brioche, will stay fresh longer.

2. Avoid the refrigerator.

While refrigeration might extend the shelf life of fruits or vegetables, the cool temperatures have the opposite effect on breads. Refrigeration accelerates bread staling, speeding up the recrystallization of amylopectin and amylose. Unless you need stale bread for French toast, it’s better to store your bread at room temperature.  

Or better yet, try freezing your bread. Doing so slows the movement of molecules and moisture loss in the bread, dramatically slowing the staling process and eliminating the risk of mold. But you can’t store bread in your freezer indefinitely. Over time, the freeze-thaw cycle of your freezer will impact the water within your bread, degrading its structure and causing freezer burn. A good rule of thumb for baked goods is to cap freezer storage at three months.   

When you pull the loaf out of the freezer, either toasting or warming the bread in the oven or microwave can thaw the ice crystals back into water, reviving the soft, springy crumb.

3. Consider how the bread is stored.

How homemade bread is stored should be another major consideration, and one that can be a bit of a balancing act. Improper sealing, overly thin packaging or anything else that results in the loss of moisture to the environment can speed the rate of staling. On the other hand, a complete lack of ventilation can quickly turn a crisp crust soft and encourage mold growth.

A breadbox or sealed plastic bag are good options for prolonging your bread’s shelf life.

4. Do not store bread near sunlight or other heat sources.

Taking things a step further, you should also consider where you store your homemade bread. Keep your bread away from appliances kicking off moisture and heat. The kitchen counter is a good option. If you don’t have counterspace, consider a cabinet or a deep drawer.

Want more tips on how to slow bread staling?

If your bread does cross the line from fresh to stale before you finish eating it, take advantage of the many recipes calling for stale bread — French toast, stuffing, croutons, bread pudding, meat loaf, and the list goes on.

But for those of you committed to keeping your bread fresh all the way to the very last slice, you’ll want to check out these best practices for bread storage.

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