A good loaf of fresh bread is a staple in most kitchens. It's frustrating when bread is suddenly stale sooner than it should be, turning that satisfying comfort food into a mouthful of cardboard.
Not all bread is created equal, or has the same shelf life. Loaves you get from a bakery and homemade bread have a shorter shelf life because they're free of the preservatives found in commercially produced sliced bread and rolls.
Breads with added fat, however, like brioche or challah, will stand up to staleness a bit longer. For a searchable guide to the shelf (and freezer) life of bread varieties, start with the USDA FoodKeeper database.
Here's how to keep bread fresh so you can enjoy it as long as possible and prep it for long-term storage.
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What makes bread stale?
Stale bread feels like it's lost too much moisture, and that's partly true. When bread goes stale, it's the result of chemical reactions within the loaf. The flour used in most breads contains starch molecules that form a crystalline structure, but when water is added in the baking process, that structure is undone and the water is absorbed. Those rigid starch molecules become more gel-like and give your fresh, warm bread a fluffy texture.
When the bread cools, water leaves the starch and absorbs into other parts of the bread. What you're left with is hard, recrystallized starch molecules that make bread taste dry and crunchy. That's why even a refrigerator can't keep bread from going stale. In fact, the cool temperatures of your fridge will likely speed up the process.
Where to store it
Storing bread is a matter of managing temperature and humidity. It's best to keep bread at room temperature in a dark and airtight box. Traditional bread boxes were created for this specific purpose.
If you don't have a bread box, you can store your loaf in a microwave, plastic food storage container or pantry. Keeping bread airtight is important, but remember that any warm temperatures or increase in humidity will make bread more susceptible to mold.
If you can't eat it, freeze it
While keeping bread at room temperature and eating it within five days is optimal, your next best option is to freeze it. To prep for frozen storage, it's a good idea to preslice your bread. It's much easier to thaw out individual slices than an entire loaf.
Make sure the bread is tightly wrapped to contain as much moisture as possible. Most wheat breads can last up to three months in a freezer.
If you do decide to freeze your bread as a whole loaf, plan to thaw it for four to five hours at room temperature or 30-40 minutes in an oven set to 350 degrees before using it. If your frozen bread is sliced, a toaster can quickly bring it back to life. Your toaster might even be equipped with a defrost button. Once you've thawed your bread, eat or use it within a few hours.