How to Store Bread
Because many people store bread in the refrigerator, we were intrigued by the number of products that claim to keep bread from staling at room temperature. To compare the options, we purchased a number of models: old-fashioned bread boxes made of wood and metal, a stainless steel “canister” bread box (the lid is on the top), a plastic-lined twill bag, expandable acrylic and plastic bread keepers, heavy plastic bakery bags, and paper bags made from polyethylene-lined “Freshness Paper”. We measured moisture loss by weight from both sandwich and artisinal bread stored at room temperature in each model. We also stored one loaf of each type of bread in the bag we purchased them in as well as one loaf of each type in the refrigerator.
While a couple of the bread keepers did a good job at minimizing moisture loss, within just three days all of the artisinal loaves were shrunken, discolored, and firm - in other words, they staled. The bread stored in the refrigerator fared even worse, hardening within a day or so. Why? According to food scientists, the major reason that bread stales is not moisture loss, but rather a process called retrogradation, in which the starch molecules in the bread crystallize. Retrogradation occurs about six times faster at refrigerator temperatures (36 - 40 degrees) than at room temperature, thereby making the refrigerator the worst choice for bread storage. However, the retrogradation process does slow down significantly when bread is stored below freezing temperatures.
Because retrogradation is accelerated by cold temperatures, it’s logical that it would be reversed by heat. Anyone who has ever softened stale bread in an oven or microwave has witnessed retrogradation reversal. Ovens don’t add moisture, but when stale bread (bread with crystallized starch) is heated to temperatures above 140 degrees, the crystals break down, softening the bread, (140 degrees is the gelation temperature of wheat starch -- that is, the temperature at which the molecules form a gel).
To minimize retrogradation, store bread at room temperature -- for up to three days -- in a container that minimizes moisture loss. (See our recommended storage containers below.) After three days, wrap bread tightly wrapped in foil, place in a freezer bag, and freeze. Thaw the slices at room temperature, or in the microwave or oven. (For a frozen full- or half-loaf, we recommend heating the bread, still wrapped in foil, in a 450-degree oven for 10 to 15 minutes, then crisping it by removing the foil and returning it to the oven for a minute or two.) If you find yourself with stale bread, wrap it in plastic wrap and reheat briefly in a microwave, but be prepared to use it almost immediately as retrogradation will set in again fairly quickly. Finally, only refrigerate bread that you’re intending to reheat (e.g., toast or grill) later on.
Room Temperature Storage Containers:
For store-bought bread, the plastic bag the bread came in was just as effective as any of the bread keepers we tested - just keep it on the counter. For artisanal or home-baked bread, the reusable, washable twill bag from Best was the most successful at minimizing moisture loss and keeping the crust crisp. The two expandable bread keepers we tested (an acrylic model from Progressive International and a plastic version from Lillian Vernon) prevented moisture loss but were too small to accommodate large, awkward-sized loaves. Brotk๖nig’s “Freshness Paper Bags” had minute holes that helped keep the crust crisp but that also allowed the bread to lose too much moisture.
Recommended for Artisanal or Homemade Bread:
Best Twill Bread Bag: $20.00, Item #BS1010
This reusable, washable twill bag kept moisture in longer than the alternatives, and it also kept bread crusts crisp. The bag is lined with polyethelene plastic and comes with a Velcro fastener to accommodate a variety of shapes.
Bread boxes should not be used for primary bread storage, but they provide an alternative to keeping bags loose on the counter. Of the three bread boxes we tested - a classic hardwood rolltop by Kamenstein, a metal rollup by Hailo, and a stainless steel canister design (the lid is on the top) by Polder, the Polder retained moisture better than the other two boxes and had more usable storage space.
Recommended For Commercially Wrapped Bread:
Polder 616204 18/8 Stainless-Steel Bread Canister, $50.00, Item #616204
The canister measures 12 1/2 by 9 by 8 inches, is made of heavy brushed stainless steel, and comes with rubber corner guards to prevent scratches on countertops. Its top lid allows items to be piled on each other, effectively allowing storage space to be well-utilized--the box comfortably held two oversized loaves of Pepperidge Farm Hearty Bread.