Fact: Unless you’re feeding a crowd, it can be tough to finish up an entire loaf of bread in the brief time it takes your carby goodness to go from fluffy and chewy to dense and hard. But letting even a slice of that $7 artisan loaf go to waste would be sad. (And hey, maybe you’re not in the mood to make croutons or French toast.) So what can you do?
Turns out, it’s possible to bring bread that’s past its prime back to life. And according to the internet, there are actually lots of ways to do it. Whether they all work is another story, of course. So I decided to see which method worked best.
(For the record, we’re talking about bread that’s stiff or dry. Once you spot mold, there’s no turning back. You’ve gotta toss it.)
Here’s what happened—and how you can do better by your stale bread.
Why Bread Goes Stale
To figure out which method would do the best job of bringing my bread back to life, I thought it would be helpful to understand what causes bread to turn dry and hard in the first place.
Did you know that bread starts going stale within minutes of being pulled from the oven? “As bread cools, the structure of the starchy carbohydrates start to crystallize,” explains Institute of Food Technologists past president Roger Clemens, Ph.D. This crystallization process occurs as the bread loses moisture and heat. It’s actually a good thing, because it’s what helps piping hot, fresh bread firm up enough so you can slice it. But as more moisture is lost, more of those starch crystals form, and the bread starts to turn stale.
The good news is that adding heat and moisture back into bread can make it soft and chewy once again. To a point, anyway. “In many cases, the bread won’t be 100 percent, but it will still be palatable,” Clemens says.
The Best Ways to Revive Stale Bread
Armed with this knowledge, I decided to put a few popular stale bread hacks to the test. Here’s a look at what worked—and what didn’t.
Method 1: Put bread in a bag with some celery.
Will tucking a sad loaf into a bag with a stalk of celery and letting the two hang out overnight give you delicious bread? Some folks say yes, but I was pretty skeptical. Celery does contain a lot of water, and it’s possible for dry bread to absorb some of that moisture. But it still didn’t seem like the best option because there was no heat involved.
And indeed, my celery bread wasn’t the most delicious. I let the two sit in a rolled-up paper bag for about eight hours. The bread was noticeably softer as a result but in a soggy, damp, unappetizing sort of way. Also, it smelled like celery.
Method 2: Microwave bread with a damp paper towel.
Wrapping bread in a damp paper towel surrounds it with moisture, and the microwave adds heat. So, in theory, you should have all the elements you need to bring dying bread back to life, right?
Still, the results were underwhelming. Enshrouding the bread and microwaving it for one minute did make my stale half-loaf noticeably softer with more moisture. But instead of getting pleasantly crisp, the crust turned soft too. If that doesn’t bother you, then this method works, but I thought it was meh.
Method 3: Wrap bread in foil and bake it.
This technique seemed like a step in the right direction. The foil wrapping seemed like it would trap some steam as the bread warmed up, yielding a softer texture. And letting the loaf hang out in a 375-degree oven for 10 minutes seemed like it would add enough heat to get the outside nice and crisp.
It definitely worked better than the other two tricks. The crust got fairly crisp, which I liked. The downside was that the rest of the bread kind of dried out too. So it didn’t exactly make the texture fresh. Instead, it just turned the clock back by a day or so.
Method 4: Spritz bread with water and bake it.
This hack, which was basically like method No. 3 but with one extra step, seemed like it would be the holy grail. Before wrapping my bread in foil and baking, I used a spray bottle to lightly spritz the crust with water. I had a feeling this would add back some of the moisture that my bread had lost, yielding a loaf that was crisp on the outside and soft on the inside.
Was it perfect? No—this didn’t taste exactly like the bread I had bought from my local bakery four days earlier. But it was pretty close! Out of all the methods I tried, this one was far and away the winner.
The Bottom Line
You need two things to revive stale bread: moisture and heat. Misting the crust lightly with water, wrapping the loaf in foil, and baking at 375 degrees for 10 minutes delivered both of these key elements and made my four-day-old bread taste relatively fresh.
Of course, it would be even better if you could keep the bread from going stale in the first place. It’s impossible to make bread last forever, but if you know it’ll be a few days before you plan to finish up that loaf, consider sticking it in the freezer. (These instructions tell you exactly how to do it.) That will help slow the loss of moisture so your bread is fresher whenever you’re ready to eat it.