Like many people raised in Mediterranean households, I was taught to preserve and venerate bread. Whether collecting fallen crumbs from my cupped hands while exiting church or feeding ducks with our weekly scraps, many of my childhood memories revolve around bread and how best to honor it and stretch its uses. Naturally, my grown-up menus now include homemade breadcrumbs and fragrant garlic croutons, but with so many fresh bread options available today, my repertoire has expanded to use up other varieties such as pita, whole wheat and sweet brioche. One only has to investigate the indigenous recipes of different countries to find creative and delicious ways to utilize leftover bread.
Most countries and cultures that consume bread put its dry leftovers to good use. In the Middle East, breads like pita and lavash are added to salads. Matzo, crushed into a fine crumb, is an acceptable replacement for matzo meal when preparing matzo ball soup. In Europe, Spain’s tapas bars serve the ubiquitous Pan Catalan, or dry bread rubbed with a fresh tomato. Italy, too, finds frugal reuse of bread. Panzanella salad and ribollita and pappa al pomodoro soup all benefit from the added bulk of bread. The French added eggs and milk to stale bread to create French toast, while the British have their baked bread-and-butter puddings. Their seasonal summer pudding wouldn’t hold up as well without slightly stale white bread acting as a spongy vessel for sweet and juicy red currants and berries.
Nearly all forms of stale bread can be brought back to life with a little liquid. Reconstituted bread acts as a thickening agent for soups, stews and baked foods. It was, and still is, a great way to stretch a dish. When you don’t think you have enough salad ingredients to feed unexpected guests, throw in a few handfuls of torn sourdough and add an extra splash of dressing. Short an egg or two for a breakfast scramble? Add torn pieces of baguette or white bread and a shot of olive oil or a spoonful of cream.
I love to look back on the lessons from history, especially when they teach us what not to repeat. Sometimes, though, they prompt us to reflect on the good and remind us of a simpler time when something like a loaf of bread was sacred and considered a valuable commodity, not discarded like waste. One loaf provided several meals’ worth of sustenance. Even when my cupboards are plentiful, I try to never forget the times when they weren’t. Using all my bread scraps in stale bread recipes is my way of honoring history and food itself.
As long as bread is not moldy, it can be used in leftover bread recipes. Fresh, preservative-free bread has to be either dry or kept refrigerated to inhibit the formation of mold. If you’re unsure how or when you are going to use your leftover bread, freeze it by wrapping tightly in foil and placing in an airtight container or Ziploc bag.
Using leftover bread in recipes is simple, as long as you follow some basic steps. The sooner you know how you will use up your leftover bread, the better. Allowing bread to harden in a dark, dry place prevents mold from forming. If possible, slice or cube bread into appropriate-size pieces and place on a cookie sheet to dry; place in an unheated oven overnight to thoroughly dry out.
Sophia Markoulakis is a food, home, and garden writer and recipe developer living in the San Francisco Bay Area. Read more of her work at Sophia Markoulakis.
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