Stalemate - is the fridge bad for bread?

Portugese sweet bread

Freshly baked bread - it's one of the simple pleasures in life. It's also one of the most ephemeral, since the best breads are also the ones that go stale the quickest. Usually we turn to the refrigerator to help keep food fresh, but in this case the go-to appliance turns out to be the no-no one instead, as Serious Eats' Daniel Gritzer discovers.

The science behind the staling of bread is more than just moisture loss. It involves complicated processes like retrogradation and recrystallization of starch. If that sounds complex, that's because it is. Gritzer turns to Harold McGee to explain:

Wheat flour, the primary ingredient (along with water and yeast) of bread dough, is packed full of granules of starch. That starch, in its natural state, is largely in crystalline form, meaning the starch molecules are arranged in a defined geometric structure. Once mixed with water to form a dough and baked in the oven at high temperatures, the crystalline structure of the starch breaks down as the starch absorbs water and becomes increasingly amorphous (meaning the starch molecules have no clearly defined structure).

As the bread cools, however, those starches begin to slowly regroup into a more ordered, crystalline structure again, and it's this gradual return ("retrogradation") to the crystal state ("recrystallization") that causes bread to harden and grow stale. This process is so central to staling, in fact, that even bread that has been hermetically sealed to prevent all moisture loss will still harden and turn stale.

These processes explain why the refrigerator doesn't help keep bread fresh - the recrystallization occurs faster in the cold environment. But strangely enough, in the freezer, the process is almost stopped. Gritzer goes on to perform an experiment by storing bread in several different ways: wrapped, unwrapped, in paper bags, all of these methods at room temperature, in the refrigerator and in the freezer.

The articles explains the results of each storage methods, but in a nutshell, wrapping well in plastic and/or foil in the freezer and then reheating in the oven produces the best results. Second place goes to wrapping tightly at room temperature.

While you chew on that, here are some popular bread recipes from the EYB Library:

Sour cream sandwich bread from The Guardian by Dan Lepard
No-knead ciabatta bread from Food Wishes by John Mitzewich
Challah by Jeff Hertzberg and Zoë François
Sauerkraut-rye bread by King Arthur Flour

Photo by Darcie Boschee

4 Comments

  • TheSpicedLife  on  6/3/2014 at 9:59 PM

    But what if you are trying to prevent mold?

  • ellabee  on  6/4/2014 at 12:51 AM

    If the bread is a crusty, artisanal type, the best method for everyday use is to store it with its cut side down on a cutting board. But if you're not going to use it at all right away, freezing (with an oven refresh before eating) keeps it lke new.

  • jeanieINparadise  on  6/4/2014 at 4:12 AM

    Where we are, it must be in the fridge about 8 months of the year to avoid mould. BTW - not sure if this is allowed (I am very much a newbie), but if you ever want to cook focaccia, this is the most awesome recipe: http://fromcooktotrainedchefandbeyond.blogspot.com.au/2010/02/my-ultimate-focaccia-recipe.html

  • darcie_b  on  6/4/2014 at 8:12 AM

    I think Gritzer is saying that the freezer would be a better bet if you trying to prevent mould. It takes almost no time to thaw or reheat bread from the freezer, and you wouldn't suffer the negative effects of the retrogradation/recrystallization of the starch. Howver, I also think this advice applies to artisanal loaves, i.e. breads that don't have any dough conditioners. Regular sandwich or other enriched dough breads might not be as sensitive to refrigerated storage.

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