Fresh bread is one of life's simple joys, yet bringing home a baguette from a bakery can feel like taking care of a bouquet of flowers. It's beautiful, but it requires fussy care and never lasts long. Compare that to bread you can buy pre-sliced and wrapped in plastic, which can lasts for days (if not weeks) at the store, and it seems like there's no good choice: bread that lasts forever but isn't as delicious, or bread that lasts for a few days before suddenly becoming a mold factory over night.
But buying and storing fresh bread is actually pretty simple, if you follow a few easy rules. We asked Jake Novick-Finder, the chef at Gristmill in Brooklyn for his best tips.
He explains that the biggest difference between fresh and shelf-stable (a.k.a. pre-sliced to last forever) is the presence of vitamins. "Shelf-stable bread often contains added vitamin D and vitamin E, which helps stabilize it and keep the interior crumb of the bread moist and the crust from getting too hard," he says. While the presence of stabilizers helps the bread last longer, it also alters the texture and flavor substantially — as does the plastic it comes wrapped in.
"Plastic literally suffocates bread and destroys any crust by trapping all the moisture the bread wants to give off," he notes. If you do want the fresh stuff, Novick-Finder just has a few suggestions.
First off, don't be afraid to get to know the bread a little before buying it. "This is probably rude, but I squeeze the bread. I want to make sure there’s really a crust there, that the crust actually exists and has a slight crunch to it rather than just being mushy bread," he admits. He also looks for a date the bread was baked and tries to find one not wrapped in plastic. Ideally, you can take the bread home in a paper bag or sack, which still allows the bread to breath.
Once home, the best place for the bread is a bread box. A plastic bag is, once again, not ideal, nor is the fridge, which dries it out. If you don't have a bread box, a dry, mostly airtight, and relatively cool place is your best bet (like a drawer). If you're eating the bread in a few days, Novick-Finder also counsels against getting it pre-sliced. You're essentially speeding up the speed at which it gets stale by increasing air exposure, and limiting yourself to the width of the slices. "The only real benefit of pre-sliced bread is the ability to be lazy and not have to slice it yourself," he says.
However, if you can't imagine going through a loaf of bakery-fresh bread in a few days, there's an easy trick: your freezer. While it's not going to keep the bread forever, it's a lot better than the fridge at helping the bread stay moist and delicious. This is where you'd want to pre-slice it, either at the bakery or yourself, since slicing a frozen loaf will turn you into an accidental ice sculptor.
Growing up in Upstate New York, Novick-Finder first started getting into bakery-fresh bread when his father would bring it from the city. To store bread for longer, he and his parents would freeze it. To thaw, just toast on a very low temperature to bring it up to room temperature. Once it's soft again, you can then toast it to your desired crispiness, or just eat it as-is. Novick-Finder's two-step method, while it takes a little longer, also ensures that moisture escapes from the center — bread that was brought up to room temperature too quickly can become hard as a rock in the center from moisture that linger around.
While all this may make bread sound like a temperamental pet and less like a delicious (and easy to deal with) kitchen staple, the main things to remember are still relatively simple: buy fresh when possible, look for a crust, store in paper in a cool, dry place, and freeze (not refrigerate) when necessary. Your PB&Js will thank you.