Bread is likely the most common food in homes, villages and cities around the world. Every culture has developed their own bread recipes, and some have developed recipes specifically to extend shelf-life. In this article, we’ll cover a range of factors that affect shelf life. We’ll also share some recipes.
Factors That Impact Shelf Life
The primary cause of bread spoilage is mold. Every loaf contains dormant spores, waiting for the right conditions to grow. This resulting fungus or bread mold can actually be toxic. In fact, yeast — a primary ingredient in many bread recipes — is a form of fungus. As warm water, sugar and flour come in contact with the yeast, it feeds and reproduces. This causes the yeast to give off a waste product: carbon dioxide. The carbon dioxide is what causes a bread to rise and give it a soft texture and larger size.
The good news is that yeast is somewhat benign when it comes to spoilage. Throughout the day spores are drifting through the air in our kitchens and pantries; all it takes is one spore to come in contact with a slice or a loaf, and the mold begins to grow. That’s one reason why it’s so important to keep bread sealed in a plastic bag or at least wrapped in paper. If bread is carelessly put into the bread drawer, bin or pantry without being properly sealed, the spores have free access to the loaf.
But even when properly sealed in an airtight bag, there are other factors affecting bread shelf life:
- Ingredients such as eggs, milk and sugar create a petri dish environment for the accelerated growth of mold. Any bread made with these types of ingredients should be eaten as soon as possible or stored in the refrigerator or freezer.
- The storage space also can affect rapid growth of mold. That’s why bread boxes and bread drawers are usually sealed carefully to limit the exposure to ambient spores in the air.
- Preparation style also can affect bread shelf life. The more a bread dough is mixed and kneaded, the more oxygen is incorporated into the bread. Oxygen is another factor that encourages the rapid growth of mold. This is not to say that a bread should not be mixed or kneaded, but only to the point necessary. Over-mixing or kneading just adds more oxygen.
- Moisture can trigger mold growth at a surprising rate. Areas of high humidity can be extremely challenged by bread spoilage. The location of the bread also can increase its exposure to humidity. It’s another reason why it should be sealed and kept in a proper storage space.
Techniques for Extending Shelf Life
These techniques to extend the shelf life of bread do not include the use of artificial preservatives often found in store-bought bread.
Temperature has a significant effect on mold growth. Spores, molds and fungus prefer a warm temperature to thrive and grow. Room temperature is not ideal if you want to extend the shelf life of breads. However, refrigeration can inhibit mold growth up to an additional two weeks Freezing can extend shelf life even more.
Ingredients like salt, water and vinegar as opposed to milk, sugar and butter can also inhibit mold growth, but here again it’s a matter of days at room temp.
Some people have reported that allowing dough to rise in the refrigerator overnight after being carefully wrapped can inhibit mold growth. Once again, it only adds days to the shelf life.
This is actually the most significant technique for extending bread shelf life. (See recipes below.)
The Bread Shelf-Life Scorecard
Here’s a quick overview of bread shelf life. These are estimates from various sources, and the factors affecting bread spoilage can vary as we’ve already discussed.
- Pantry – 3 days.
- Refrigerator – 1 week.
- Freezer – 1 month.
- Homemade white or wheat bread.
- Pantry – 3 to 7 days.
- Refrigerator – 1 week.
- Freezer – up to 2 months.
- Store-bought bread (with preservatives).
- Pantry – 5 to 7 days.
- Refrigerator – 1 to 2 weeks.
- Freezer – 3 months.
- Sourdough bread.
- Pantry – 7 to 10 days.
- Refrigerator – 2 to 3 weeks.
- Freezer – 3 to 4 months.
- Matzo bread.
- Pantry when stored properly up to 2.5 years.
- When stored properly in an enclosed container 5 to 10 years.
The clear winners for long-term shelf life are matzo bread and hardtack. However, they do not present the typical, soft texture that we typically associate with bread. But in a situation requiring a long shelf life, they can fulfill the bread function as a foodstuff and actually taste pretty good. Here are the recipes:
Basic Hardtack Recipe
A piece of hardtack from the Civil War was determined to be not only preserved, but edible. The thing you need to know about hardtack is that it’s more of a thick, hard cracker and needs to be soaked in milk, water, broth or coffee to soften it up. This is an unleavened bread that was often present on old sailing ships crossing the oceans. Our pioneer ancestors, in addition to soldiers in various wars and skirmishes, ate it often.
- 5 cups of flour.
- 2 cups of water.
- 3 tsp. of salt.
Mix the flour, water and salt together, and make sure the mixture is fairly dry. Roll it out to about half-inch thickness and cut it into 3-by-3 inch squares; poke holes in both sides. Place on an ungreased cookie or baking sheet, and cook for 30 minutes per side at 375-degrees Fahrenheit.
When done, let it dry and harden for a few days in an open space like a countertop. When it has achieved the consistency of a brick, it’s fully cured. Store it in an airtight container or bucket. To prepare for eating, soak in water or milk for about 15 minutes, and then fry in a buttered skillet. You can eat it with cheese, soup or just plain with a little salt added.
Basic Matzo Bread Recipe
Matzo bread is the unleavened bread from the Bible that sustained the Israelites across their travels and wanderings. It, too, is more of a cracker than a traditional bread but can be eaten without soaking in liquid like hardtack. The top end of the shelf life for matzo bread is two and a half years when stored in a dry place.
- 1 cup of all-purpose flour.
- 3 cup of water (and more if needed).
- ½ teaspoon of kosher salt.
- 1 teaspoon of olive oil.
Move an oven rack near the top of the oven and preheat it to 475-degrees Fahrenheit. Preheat a heavy baking sheet in the oven.
Dust a clean work surface and a rolling pin with 1 teaspoon flour, or as needed. Place 1 cup of flour into a mixing bowl; set a timer for about 16 minutes. Start the timer; pour the water, about 1 tablespoon at a time, into the flour. Stir the water and flour together with a fork until the dough forms a rough ball. Remove the dough to the prepared work surface, knead rapidly and firmly until smooth, about 30 seconds to 1 minute.
Divide the dough into four equal pieces; cut each piece in half again to get 8 pieces total. Swiftly roll each piece into a ball. Roll each piece of dough out into a 5-inch pancake, dusting the top and rolling pin with flour as needed. Gradually roll the pancakes out to a size of about 8 inches, increasing the size of each by about 1 inch, then letting the dough rest for a few seconds before rolling again to the finished size. Roll from the center out. The bread rounds should be very thin.
Using a fork, quickly pierce each bread about 25 times, all over, to prevent rising. The holes should go completely through the bread. Flip the bread over, and pierce each piece another 25 times with the fork.
With at least 5 minutes left on the timer, remove the hot baking sheet from the preheated oven, and place the rounds onto the baking sheet. Place the baking sheet onto the rack near the top of the oven, and bake for 2 minutes; turn the bread over and bake an additional 2 minutes, until the matzos are lightly browned and crisp.
Have you ever made matzo bread or hardtack? What tips would you add? How do you extend the shelf life of bread? Share your thoughts in the section below: