Every last crumb

Categories: Features

Jenny Chandler on the many uses of past-its-best bread

This year, 22nd February to 1st March is Real Bread Week, celebrating all those independent bakeries producing fabulous, additive-free bread and encouraging us to get baking at home too. I work with one of the campaign’s ambassadors, baker Richard Bertinet, teaching home cooks how to make an honest loaf and I can’t imagine a kitchen without good bread.

One of the great advantages of ‘real’ bread, and particularly sourdoughs, is that they age beautifully—unlike their mass-produced, sliced cousins that retain their soft, rather pappy texture for a few days and then suddenly turn green with mould. By using preservatives to keep bread ‘fresh’ for longer, industrial bakers have deprived us of one of the most fabulously versatile and useful ingredients: stale bread.

In Britain, around 40 per cent of all the bread produced is thrown away, an astonishing figure that we obviously need to reverse.

A good loaf will naturally become drier and rather leathery as it ages. I’m a fan of the continental-style drawstring bread bag hanging on the back of the kitchen door, rather than a clammy bread bin (which often encourages mould). Here the bread will enjoy its passage through life: a soft, fresh accompaniment to soup or cheese on day one, a sandwich or great toast on day two, day three means more toast and perfect stale bread for any number of recipes and, if by any chance there’s anything left, by day four it’s time to crush up some crumbs. 

‘Stale’ bread may sound negative, suggesting a shadow of its former fresher self, but soon becomes a blessing rather than a disappointment when you have a few ideas up your sleeve. So what to do with that maturing loaf? A slightly leathery slice of good bread is just perfect for the ridged griddle with a brush of olive oil, and can even be rather glamorous once you top it with a few Italian goodies and call it bruschetta. 

The French have their tartines, the Spanish rub over a little tomato flesh and garlic for pan con tomate—it’s just a question of crowning the fabulously chewy base with seasonal veg and herbs, great cheese or cured meats and a dash of olive oil. The firmer texture of stale toast is perfect for the classic croute to top French onion soup or bouillabaisse, or to soak up the flavours in the bottom of a soup such as Tunisian chickpea lablabi.

Bubbling and golden
Our own British kitchen has some great traditional dishes using old bread, like summer pudding, bread and butter pudding, or brown bread ice cream. I’ve recently discovered an American savoury dish called strata, where the bread is layered with a fabulously cheesy sauce and leeks, mushrooms or whatever other vegetables are to hand. The dish is left to stand overnight and then baked until bubbling and golden the following day. It’s heaven.

Hanging on to leftover bread is a no-brainer when you think of all the recipes out there. Chunks of old bread sup up the tomato juice perfectly in my favourite Italian panzanella salad. Croutons, fried or roasted, provide that welcome crunch in soups and salads. Soaked bread is used to thicken purees such as gloriously garlicky Greek skordalia, or add body to soups such as Spanish gazpacho.

And lastly come the crumbs—every kitchen should have a good supply. You can break the bread into chunks and blitz it in a food processor for the fresh crumbs required in dishes such as stuffings, treacle tart, meatballs or white sauce (best kept in the freezer), or dry them out in a low oven before grinding up finely as crispy coatings for fish goujons, croquetas or to top a cottage pie.