Most people don’t realize that the final stage of baking bread is to let your bread cool properly. Slicing into a hot loaf of bread can cause bread to tear instead of slicing cleanly through, or it can be gummy on the inside . To cool your loaves properly you need to transfer your loaves from the oven to a wire cooling rack, and let them rest until they have cooled to about body temperature. The air that circulates around the bread will keep the crust from becoming soggy and is a crucial step to having that perfect crust.
The science behind it…
As bread cools, the process of starch retro-gradation is completed and the water molecules move outward, evenly, toward the crust. If you were to cut into a hot loaf, the crumb is still too soft and wet. The bread won’t slice neatly, it will tend to be gummy and stick to your knife. The steam that is in the hot bread will be lost through the cut, versus making its way outward towards the crust.
How long should bread cool?
Since there are many factors that can influence how long a loaf of bread will need to rest before it is ready to slice or store, a general rule of thumb is to allow your loaves to firm up and cool to about body temperature, but preferably to room temperature before slicing. This will typically take 30 minutes for a small loaf to over a couple of hours for a larger loaf.
Breads that can be eaten while they are still warm are rolls and baguettes, because the crust-to-crumb ratio is so high, and there is not much further internal cooking that has to take place.
For breads such as a larger crusty sourdough loaf, or a pan loaf I would typically wait 1-2 hours before slicing. Whole Grain and rye breads should be all the way down to room temperature before slicing.
If you plan to freeze the bread, I have always waited until the loaves are completely cool before freezing.
What is the best way to store bread?
It depends. If you plan to eat the bread within the next few days, keeping it in a bread box or paper or linen bread bag works well. Kept at room temperature it should keep it fresh for a few days. I always just keep mine cut side down on a cutting board on my counter. The crust does not get soft this way and it is my preferred method.
Breads that are made with commercial yeast can be stored the same way as above, but they stale noticeably quicker than my sourdough loaves. I never put sourdough in plastic bag, but I will sometimes put the leftover enriched doughs in plastic to preserve their shelf life for a couple days.
Sourdough breads tend to keep longer than commercially yeasted loaves, up to several days.
Whatever you do, do not store your loaves in the refrigerator, as this accelerates the staling process and your bread will not last as long.
If you don’t plan on eating the bread for days after baking, I recommend freezing it. I’ve found this is the best way to store bread for more than a few days, and tossing them in the oven for a few minutes will quickly bring them back to life.
How to properly freeze bread?
This will first depend on the type of bread you are freezing.
For most crusty loaves of bread, simply wrap them in tin foil and place them in the freezer. When you are ready to use the bread, remove the loaf from the freeze and remove the foil. Allow to thaw completely or at least close to complete. Then place in a 350 degree oven for 10 minutes. Five minutes may be enough for smaller loaves, like baguettes.
For most softer breads, such as rolls, white bread, bagels, etc… can be frozen in a plastic bag, wrapped in tin foil, or stored in a container. These breads tend to thaw pretty quickly, so simply pulling them out an hour or so before you are going to use them will allow them enough time to thaw to room temperature. If you need them to thaw more quickly, simply toss them in your oven, or microwave for 1-2 minutes at 30-40% power.
Tip: If you are freezing bread for sandwiches later, I recommend pre-slicing so you can pull out a couple slices at a time as you need them.
Bread should easily keep in the freezer for months, so just be sure to label it so you know how long it has been stored for. If your freezer starts to look anything like mine you’ll find yourself with a couple dozen different types of bread frozen at any given time.