There are few pleasures in this world that rival freshly baked bread. On the flip side, what is more unpalatable than stale bread? There are numerous anecdotal stories about bread that never staled. The Show Bread in the ancient Temple was reported to remain miraculously warm and fresh as the day it was baked – for an entire week.
Russian folklore tells of Borodinsky bread, a coriander spiced loaf baked by the wife of General Kutozov on the eve of the battle of Borodino, which remained fresh for weeks.
What is staling? Can it be prevented and if so, how? Staling, a physical process that transforms a moist delight into a dry and crumbly lump, has been the subject of much scientific study. It was originally thought that dehydration was the only cause of staling.
From the time bread is baked in the oven, water begins to migrate from the interior of the loaf, outwards into the air. Over time, additional water is lost, and the bread becomes dry. This is why bagging bread in plastic keeps it fresher longer (unfortunately, it also accelerates mold growth). Dehydration accounts for the “dryness” factor of staling, but there is also something else at work. Even bread kept hermetically sealed to prevent water loss still goes stale.
The second culprit in the staling process is the starch in the flour. When mixed with water in dough, starch granules soak up water to capacity. They are then baked under heat, which causes them to burst and gelatinize, creating the moist, flexible, rubbery crumb structure of fresh bread we are all familiar with.
Starch, a complex sugar, contains two polysaccharides – amylose and amylopectin.
During baking, the amylopectin transforms from its natural crystalline state into gelatinized strands. Immediately following baking, as the bread cools, the amylopectin begins to revert back to its original crystalline state, a process that continues with time, making bread crumbly.
Fresh bread tastes fresh because it is moist.
It has not experienced major water loss, and the starch is mostly gelatinized, making the bread crumb rubbery and flexible. After a few days of water loss and the starch reverting back to its crystalline state, the bread becomes dry and crumbly – i.e., stale.
Technology has not yet come up with a way to prevent staling. It has, however, devised numerous ways to retard it. The two main methods that have proven effective are freezing and the use of additives.
Common additives used commercially are enzymes that chemically alter the starch and retard crystallization; emulsifiers, in the grain increasing sugar levels in the bread; and alcohols. All these have good track records in keeping bread fresh for longer but are not necessarily the healthy route. The health conscious will not be happy with the addition of numerous compounds beginning with E in the ingredient list.
Freezing bread is another way to retard the staling process. Note: Freezing and not refrigeration! Many people put bread in the refrigerator, thinking it will keep fresh for longer. Unfortunately, bread stales quickest in the temperature range of 4º to 7º. Freezing bread, on the other hand, preserves the fresh state of the bread for long periods.
It is important to note that using the freezing method, bread passes through the “staling temperature” (4º to 7º) twice: once while freezing and the second while defrosting. It is critical, therefore, to minimize the time the bread is in that temperature range, first by freezing the bread as soon as possible – in an uncluttered freezer with good air circulation – and then defrosting it quickly, preferably in a microwave, taking care not to overheat or “nuke” the bread.
Bread kept frozen can remain viable for up to two months, assuming it is in a freezer not also occupied by frozen cabbage or last week’s leftover lasagna. Plastic is impermeable to water, but not to air, so bread that shares the freezer with other items will absorb their odors.
One final trick for reviving stale bread is to slice it, spray it lightly with water and warm it in the microwave. This rehydrates and reverses the starch crystallization process.Caveat: It can only be done once.
Regarding legends and bread that remained fresh for weeks, like Borodinsky bread, this may have been due to the high acidity factor from the sourdough that also acts a preservative. The bread may not have gone moldy over time, but you can bet that after two weeks it was as “stale as the hills.”
As for the Temple Show Bread remaining fresh …. I prefer to think the reason for that was as stated – a divine miracle.
BLACK RUSSIAN (BORODINSKY)
Rye Bread Stage 1: The sourdough
✔ 1 cup rye flour
✔ 1¼ cups water
✔ 1 tsp. ground coriander
✔ ¼ cup sourdough culture (see http:// www.jpost.com/Food-Index/In-the-Grain- Sourdough-for-dummies-317813)
Mix ingredients until fully incorporated with no lumps. Leave covered overnight for 12 hours.
Stage 2: The bread
✔ ½ cup white flour
✔ 1 cup rye flour
✔ ½ cup finely ground whole wheat flour
✔ ¼ cup water
✔ 2 tsp. salt
✔ 1 Tbsp. honey
✔ ½ tsp cocoa powder
✔ 1½ tsp. instant powdered yeast
✔ Sourdough mixture (from previous night) Mix ingredients until fully incorporated.
Knead for 15 minutes by hand or 10 minutes in an electric mixer. The dough is sticky. Shape into an oval loaf and place in a loaf pan. Leave to rise for 1½ to 2 hours.
Bake for 50 minutes at 190º. Cool completely before slicing.
Master baker Les Saidel, originally from Johannesburg, South Africa, lives in Ginot Shomron with his wife, Sheryl, and four children.
He is the owner of Saidels Bakery (www.saidels.com), specializing in handmade, organic health breads and the inventor of Rambam Bread. He also works as a consultant in the fields of cereal chemistry, health and nutrition.