Bread redux: Don't throw out those stale loaves
In our home, the start of the New Year represents a fair amount of house cleaning. It's an opportunity to pare down and give away unused or outgrown clothing, toys and objects. In the kitchen it means cleaning the refrigerator and cupboards, discarding items with passed use-by dates and refreshing the spice cabinet. It's a cathartic ritual our family knows well and in which everyone participates. They also know that when they are tossing out old food, under no circumstances are they allowed to throw out the stale bread. Neither should you.
Days or even a week old, stale bread is the faded belle of glorious loaves past: golden-hued breads, piping hot from the oven, furiously steaming when broken apart, simply yet luxuriously dressed with a pad of butter or a drizzle of olive oil. The aroma and pleasure of eating freshly baked bread is sublime and fleeting.
Once the fragrant loaves are exposed to air and cool down, they begin to lose their moisture, drying out and hardening as time passes. Within a day or two, the steamy fresh loaf is looking more like a has-been, banished to the corners of the bread tin or the back of the refrigerator, ignored or forgotten.
But before you consider using that wedge of week-old sourdough as a doorstop or smashing yesterday's baguette into bird food, have another think. Stale bread still has a few culinary tricks up its sleeve. Not only are these tricks sensible and frugal; they also are smart and delicious.
Perhaps nothing showcases the opportunities for dried bread better than European cuisine. Daily bread is a table staple in Europe and the Mediterranean, and you can be sure that old bread is never wasted. And why should it be? For every cuisine that embraces bread you will find recipes that deliciously incorporate dry, day-old bread.
Without stale bread we wouldn't have toast, puddings, trifles and stuffings, which would spell tragedy for British cuisine. Italian panzanella salad without stale bread would be a mere tomato salad. How would we gratinee cheese in French onion soup without a crouton to grate it on? And a baked strata without any bread to absorb and elevate the eggs to a crusty breakfast souffle might be mistaken for a frittata.
Of course these might be fine dishes without any bread at all, but what truly defines them and captivates us is the comforting squidginess of stale bread gallantly absorbing or providing a vessel for the juices, flavors, custards and cheese in dishes we love.
So don't throw out that old bread just yet. It's the new year, after all — a time for renewal, recycling and a second chance. Pull out the fondue pot, slice dry baguettes into crostini or crumble them into breadcrumbs.
If you are undecided or simply too busy recovering from the holidays, freeze any old bread in a zip-close bag until it can be put to use. After all, when it comes to bread, sometimes the best things in life are stale.