On Saturday, as usual, I went to the Oak Park Farmers Market bright and early. I like to be there before it gets crowded and the organic farm runs out of eggs. I knew that we were planning to eat lunch at home that afternoon, and I had neglected to make our usual Friday night challah, so I stopped by the highly controversial Red Hen Bread table and bought a loaf of rustic farm bread. I brought it home and then I promptly forgot about it. Everyone used regular sandwich bread for their lunches. Dinner was Chicken and Tomatillo Stew with Corn Pudding — delicious but no need for bread. I woke up Sunday morning and saw the $6 loaf of bread on the counter getting harder and more stale by the minute.
Has this ever happened to you? You splurge on expensive artisan bread only to not use it, or not use all of it? Luckily, there are so many ways to use up stale or leftover bread. Even the sad heel of a loaf of bread that no one in your family wants to eat can be repurposed. Whatever you do, don’t throw leftover bread away!
Many breads freeze well so if you find yourself with more bread than you know what to do with, the easiest thing may be simply to freeze it. Baguettes and heartier loaves can be frozen and then thawed for later use without a significant loss of quality. Wrap the bread well in foil before freezing. More delicate or richer breads like challah and brioche do not freeze as well. That being said, when I get down to the end of a loaf of my homemade challah — too small even for a piece of toast — I pop it in a large Ziploc bag and freeze it. I save those little ends for weeks and weeks until I have a bag full. And then, I thaw the pieces and cut them up into 1 inch squares for bread pudding. Bread pudding happens to be one of my husband’s all-time favorite desserts and topped with fruit and a caramel sauce, it is quite a show-stopper for company. So, why would anyone throw out even a little heel of a loaf of bread?
Of course, you don’t need to freeze little bits and pieces of bread for weeks on end to make bread pudding. Bread pudding, which can be both sweet and savory, is a great way to use a loaf, or most of a loaf, of stale bread. To make a savory bread pudding, which can be a satisfying meatless dinner, you use the same idea as a sweet bread pudding. First, cut the stale bread into cubes and place them in a greased baking dish. Make a custard with eggs and milk but don’t add sugar. Include some grated cheese and sauteed veggies or slices of tomato and season well with herbs. Pour the custard over the bread cubes — this can be done ahead of time — and bake until puffed and golden. These savory bread puddings are also known as strata, which simply means layers in Italian. Here is a recipe for a tomato-herb strata from the New York Times that I have used with success. (A strata is also a great brunch dish for company because you can prepare it the day before and just bake it off in the morning before your company comes. This vegetable and cheese strata from dear departed Gourmet magazine was a favorite of my mother’s.)
Another easy way to use stale bread is to make homemade croutons. I sometimes do this even with fresh bread because they are so good. In the summer, we eat a lot of gazpacho and my favorite way to garnish gazpacho is with homemade croutons. Of course, croutons are excellent in salad as well. To make croutons, simply cut bread into 1 inch cubes and spread them in a layer on a baking sheet. Drizzle with olive oil and season well with salt and pepper. You can add grated cheese or dried herbs if you are fancy like that. Bake at 350 until very hard and crisp. Watch them so that they don’t burn. They will keep in a plastic container on your counter for a couple of weeks.
If you are feeling a little French, you can put these homemade croutons under a chicken while you roast it. (This also works with thick slices of stale bread.) The chicken juices will drip into the bread and they will be the most delicious croutons you will ever eat, if maybe not the healthiest.
My solution to my stale loaf of expensive farmers’ market bread was even easier than any of that. It just so happened that while I was at the farmers market, I also bought beautiful end-of-summer tomatoes and several stalks of basil. So, Sunday’s dinner included some crowd-pleasing tomato bruschetta. To make bruschetta, I simply toast or grill slices of thick, country bread — and stale bread is fine for these purposes — until it is pretty firm on the outside. Then I rub a clove of raw garlic on one side of each slice of bread.
The rough crust of the grilled bread breaks down the garlic so you will be left with a little nub, if that. In a large bowl, I combine diced and seeded tomatoes — or halved grape tomatoes — with a drizzle of olive oil, a splash of Balsamic vinegar and plenty of fresh basil. Season well with salt and pepper. Arrange the slices of bread on a platter and top with the tomato-basil mixture. It’s easy to make, pretty to look at and so good to eat. What could be a higher use for stale bread?
Do you have a go-to way to use up stale or leftover bread? What is it?