Several years ago, I worked for a couple of different 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 best 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.
Over the years, I’ve come to realize what thrifty, resourceful cooks have known for centuries: that a loaf of old bread is an asset, worthy of a small fuss and as valuable a staple as pasta, farro, potatoes and rice.
One of the more compelling dishes I’ve tasted in support of that argument is a humble Portuguese soup whose very architecture is yesterday’s bread. Acorda is made in various ways throughout Portugal: Some “dry” versions are cooked until the bread nears the texture of porridge; other, brothier versions host bobbing chunks of crust and crumb. But it is easy to identify for its brazen amounts of cilantro and garlic, and for its finish: either a poached egg or a raw one, stirred in vigorously upon serving.
What makes acorda captivating, beyond its arresting fragrance and pungency, is the juxtaposition of those bold aromatics against the bread’s soft, almost creamy texture.
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.
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 like a juicy custard; or holiday stuffing, historical recipes that are practically a mirror on once-regional bread preferences.
But we’re arguably less fluent with day-old bread cookery in the United States today, perhaps because we’ve become so accustomed to bread that doesn’t require (or permit, for the most part) rethinking or reinvention.
If you regard bread as a living thing, as many bakers do, then you might 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 those same characteristics 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 essentially interrupting that continuum. The pre-sliced, prepackaged loaf in the typical American pantry 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 redemption in that end.
Now that good-quality bakery bread is gaining ground, it would seem 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 left 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.
At Bread Furst in Northwest Washington, French toast is made with old challah; day-old bagels and baguettes are repurposed into chips; a daily strata relies on what’s left over from the previous day’s inventory.
Look to those and traditional preparations for guidance; history offers a wealth of instruction here. And keep in mind that some of the simplest repurposing can mean everything when creatively applied. Deeply toasted bread crumbs generously garnishing a heap of bitter greens can lend legitimacy to salad as a main course; over pasta, they give gratings of hard cheese a run for their money.
Torn croutons — crisp, craggy and unevenly golden — will do the expected favors for salads and soups. But for eggs, scattered over an omelet minutes before folding or stirred into the makings of a frittata, they will do everything a potato can do and more. And even a single stale slice can make a meal when it’s brushed with oil, toasted under the broiler and then set upon 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: Chris Girardot, owner of Girardot’s Crumbs Bakery in the District, puts together a simple bread salad with old-bread sourdough and rye trimmings, furnished with summer vegetables and herbs, olives, feta cheese and vinaigrette.
“I am always bringing home chunks of bread from the market that are too small to make sandwiches out of or not the kind we need for a special meal, so we just cut up different kinds and throw it all together,” he says. “Every bite is a new experience.”
At Old World Breads in Lewes, Del., owner Keith Irwin redirects day-old rye bread into crostini, and cinnamon-raisin and cranberry-walnut loaves into bread-pudding muffins, which he sells along with fresh-baked loaves at the Penn Quarter and Dupont FreshFarm markets.
“With bread, once you lose your initial window, all these things come into play,” he says.
Here’s to losing that initial window more often.
Horton is a freelance writer living in Seattle.