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THE BEAUTY OF DRIED BREAD

A (Modern) Depression Era Cookbook

By Susan @ 4EverSeeds


One of the great unsung heroes in the world of cheap food is stale bread. Most of us think that stale bread is only good for crumbs or croutons… and there's only so much you can do with crumbs and croutons, right? But in fact, there's a wealth of value in old bread, and it can often be gotten for free, and with a little effort.

While many bakeries sell day-old bread, some only sell fresh bread, just because that's their business model. These bakeries often turn remaining bread inventories over to local food banks or bread wholesale outlets, who give it away or move it at a discount. But even these venues end up throwing a tremendous amount of bread away once it's beyond reasonable freshness, because they don't have the manpower or facility to process stale bread into other value-add products.

Many of these venues are delighted to have someone willing to pick-up and use the remaining items, which will otherwise go into the garbage – at their expense. In some cases, these shops will want to be assured that you don't plan to use the bread for commercial purposes, which would mean there's liability involved for them. But it you're clear that you only want the bread for personal use, most will be happy to let you haul it away on a regular basis.

So what to do with all that bread once you've got it at home, sitting in garbage bags on your kitchen floor? This little guide will try to walk you through the process, and give you a number of ideas for creative use of the end products. You can only store so much bread in your freezer, and it has a tendency to get freezer burn quickly. But if you dry the bread it will last for years, maintain nutritive value, flavour, and value-add in fresh dishes. Yes, bread has fats in it that will eventually go rancid, even when the bread is dried, but if you rotate your inventory every few years you'll always have a great storehouse of dried goodness.


PROCESSING STALE BREAD

The most important rule of thumb (other than cleanliness) is this: moisture is your enemy. Stale bread can sit for a relatively long time – from days to weeks – as long it gets plenty of air. But bread that's in bags or sealed packages that trap moisture will become moldy much faster.

Once bread has molded, you should just throw it away. Don't believe the old wives tale that you can just cut off the moldy part. Depending on the kind of mold that's taken hold, it can permeate the food, even though it looks like it's just on the surface. Better safe than sorry. There's nothing worse than food poisoning… not even being hungry.

You'll also find that the better the quality of bread, the longer it will last before it begins to mold. That's because good bread isn't loaded with preservatives, chemicals, and other crap.

Tools of the Trade

Here's what you'll need to start an efficient bread processing operation in your kitchen at home:

    Several good quality bread knives with comfortable handles
    A knife sharpener
    Several large cutting boards
    A dozen metal pans
    Lots of heavy-duty, extra-large Ziploc bags
    Permanent marker
    Storage facilities

Don't waste time in your bread processing by using a dull knife. Some breads, when cut up in quantities, are a real workout! Sourdoughs, for example, have a very hard crust. Cutting it all up can really wear your hands and wrists out. A very sharp, high quality bread knife is your best friend in this work. Keep the sharpener handy, and use it often, and your work will go so much more smoothly.

While I find metal pans to be preferable, glass baking dishes will work too. They're often low, however, so you can't fit much in them. I recommend roasting pans… the kind that come with your new oven. You can find these at a dime-a-dozen at the Sally Ann. Also helpful are lots of aluminum bowls, of all sizes. The big ones have to fit on a shelf of your oven (keep two shelves running at all times to save energy). The little pans can be used to fill-in the spaces left by larger pans.

The most expensive part of this deal, other than the energy, is the Ziplocs. Only use the high quality bags, the larger the better (up to 2X size). I always double bag them, to be sure they're airtight. Dried bread cubes have extremely sharp corners, and will puncture Ziplocs, so double-bagging is important.

Use a permanent marker to write the type of bread and the date on the outer bag. You'll be glad you did. More on storage facilities later.

Methods

Work with one type of bread at a time, and for the most part, keep each type of bread product separate. Once dried, each type will be particularly adapted to certain cooking uses. If you've mixed them all together, you lose the unique qualities. See the following recipe section for a number of menu-stretching recipes you can try.

Basically, all you need to do is cut, slice, dice or cube the various types of bread, put them into containers and stick them in the oven on low heat. Yes, it takes electricity to leave the oven on all day, but at these low temperatures you'll find that the cost is negligible. (Make sure you have a good seal on your oven.) We find that we can leave the oven on at low heat 24x7, and it adds only $3/month to our bill.

Try to develop the most efficient cutting techniques you can, because this will save you a great deal of time. For example, you should choose the length and direction of your cuts, then do the same sequence over and over. This way you don't have to stop and think about it with each loaf, and you're less likely to cut yourself if it becomes automatic. You'll develop your own cutting patterns for each differently shaped loaf or item.

Temperatures

Bread is best oven-dried at 185 to 190 degrees Fahrenheit. The longer you let the cut-up bread air dry, the less time it will take to fully dry it in the oven. While it's sitting at room temperature, air drying, turn it often so that the pieces on the bottom get exposed to the air. The same is true when it's in the oven… pieces on the bottom, sides and top will dry more quickly, so turn the bread pieces every few hours for quickest and best results.

If you try to use a lower temperature than 185-190 degrees, you'll find that it takes much longer to dry bread. If you try to use a higher temperature to make it go faster, you'll actually "cook" many of the nutrients out of the bread, and you'll change it's consistency in ways that's not desirable when you want to cook with it later.

"High Value" Breads

Different types of breads can take very different lengths of time to dry, depending on the ingredients and the original baking process. When you have the choice, always go for the "value add" breads rather than the plain white or wheat types. By "value add" breads, I mean anything that has extra ingredients, which means added food value: fruit, nuts, sugars, custards, icing, vegetables, etc. All those are typically added to specialty and artisan breads, and all greatly increase the food taste and nutrition value once you've dried and stored them.

Generally, you'll find that the breads slowest to dry out are those loaded with 'wet stuff' – fruits, vegetables, and gooey sugars. When it comes to fruits and sugars, you get relatively less drying out while air-drying, compared to lighter grain breads, which will air dry to a great degree.

The value-add breads can be extremely messy to cut-up and process. Work close to the sink, and just wash up your hands, knives and cutting boards as often as necessary. Forget about keeping the counters and floors clean… it's not gonna happen. Finish your work session then do a good clean-up. Otherwise, you'll be sweeping and mopping every half hour.

With the gooey breads, I find that there's little energy savings by letting them air dry first. They're just as wet, so you might as well stick them straight into the oven, and get it over with.

Drying Times

Breads laden with gooey sugars and fruits can take two full days of oven time to completely dry. You'll need to bake it until all the ingredients are completely bone dry. Sugars will dry up very nicely, going somewhat translucent as they dry. Most bread items will lose bulk (moisture) as they dry, and some more than others. As volumes drop, you can combine pans of like kinds, and add more new pans to the oven. If you choose your pans carefully, and set your racks at the right height, you should be able to get four full-size, large pans in the oven at once. And that is a lot of bread product!

The fastest drying breads are typically the 'light weight' ones: white, whole wheat, French, Italian, and grain breads. If you've pre-air dried them, these can be done in a few hours.

All breads are different, so you'll need to experiment. Drying times will depend on the recipes the baker used, ingredients, your oven, and even altitude.

"Is it done yet?"

Make sure the bread products are completely dry before you call them 'done'. Test break several pieces, from various areas of the pan: top, bottom, sides and middle. Make sure they're all equally dry.

When it comes to the value-add breads, especially with fruits, it's a little harder to judge done-ness. Once you're pretty sure the batch is done, take a few pieces out and let them cool completely, then test to see how dry the fruits are. If you test them while they're still warm, they'll seem much moister. Once cooled off, a piece that seemed too soft while it was warm might prove be dried enough for storage. Just compare the fruit dryness factor to other dried fruits you're putting up for storage. Many breads will also darken a few shades, and that helps clue you in that it's done. Practice makes perfect. You'll quickly develop a 2nd sense for the right done-ness.

How to Use Different Breads & Pastries

It's all a matter of taste (literally), but I've found that certain types of bread lend themselves best to certain uses. Each of these dictates how to best cut-up or process the bread.

    White, Whole Wheat, French, Italian, Sourdough and Grain Breads: All make beautiful croutons and stuffing cubes, and of course, bread crumbs. I suggest you just worry about cutting and drying the bread to get it into storage. You can season it before using it, for example, by taking dried cubes and tossing with olive oil and herbs, giving them a quick sauté before using as croutons. Adding the olive oil up front will shorten the length of storage time.

    Focaccia and cheese breads: These are often very light (non-dense) breads, which again makes them great for cubing and crumbs.

    Baguettes: Thin slice them and dry the rounds. These make wonderful little garlic breads to have with pasta. When you're ready to use them, just brush with oil, top with spices and parmesan, and broil for a moment. Or, top them with a little butter, cheese spread, or fresh vegetable pesto as a snack.

A quick note on using all dried bread products…

Depending on how you want to use them, all dried breads respond well to a little hydration. If you carefully put back some of the moisture you dried out of them, many breads will return to amazingly wonderful textures. With practice, you can make this work to your advantage. One day soon, I'll try to post my recipe book, which goes into a lot of detail on creative re-hydration processes as part of the recipes.

    Sticky Buns (iced and plain): These things are fabulous! Messy as they are, thin slice them into wafers. You can thick slice them too (1/4" to 1/3") for a nice texture, though they'll take a bit longer to dry. The dried slices are like cookies… dip them into milk or hot cocoa, eat them with butter, with ice cream, or just plain, as snacks. You can also break them up to mix in with oatmeal or cold cereals.

    In fact, drying sticky buns and other bread products with cinnamon is one of the great hazards of this whole process… The smell in the oven is heavenly, and you'll be hungry the whole time they're drying. So just give in to it…. keep a stick of butter close by, and have at it. This can also be a great treat for the kids.

    Savory Breads: These are value-add breads with veggies like spinach, or jalapenos, or Italian cheeses and tomato sauce. I find they're best used like the white/wheat breads, or the baguettes.

    Danish, Twists, Sweet Breads, and similar fruit or nut-filled Sweets: You can treat these like sticky buns, and thin slice or cube them. Try turning some into longer 'finger' cubes, just for variation. There are a million things you do with them: Put them in yoghurt and let them get soft before eating; blend them up into smoothies; bake them into other treats.

    One of the greatest ways to use them is in cobblers and buckles. Normally you'd be using flour, sugar and butter in a cobbler… well these are all ready to go, plus they have added fruit and nuts! As you prepare your fruits, just pour the juices over these dried bread pieces and let them soak up enough to re-hydrate them. Pour your fruit on top, add a little topping, and you've got a beautiful dessert, with much less work and few ingredients/cost.

    Scones and Baking Powder Biscuits: The items in this category need to be treated a bit differently than other breads, because of their consistency. Instead of trying to cube or slice them (which is impossible, given their texture), just break them up into coarse pieces, and dry.

    Depending on the flavour of the scones, you can use them just like the sweet breads described above. If you have savory scones or biscuits, like chive, herb or garlic, these work beautifully in casseroles. Treat them just like you would treat Bisquick… they're like biscuits, already made. When you put them on the bottom or top of casseroles, they re-hydrate and add wonderful flavor, nutrition and bulk to your meal.

    Crumbs and pieces: If you really get into processing bread for your family and friends, you won't need to worry about grinding the dried cubes up into crumbs. The process itself generates a tremendous amount of crumbs. Save them all! They're wonderful to use. Separate the plain/savory from the sweet. Use the sweet crumbs in your baking, in yoghurt and oatmeal, etc. Use the plain and savory as you normally would.

    And don't forget those wonderful croquettes your momma used to make for you. Nothing adds variety to garden vegetables like dredging them in a little milk and crumbs, and baking them.

Shelf Life and Storage

While I haven't done any official tests, experience and common sense tell me that if properly dried and stored, these bread products will last for several years. Like all your storable foods, try to keep them cool and in the dark. Mice and critters love dried bread, so putting them in Ziplocs isn't enough. You'll need to put the bags into plastic buckets or containers, or metal garbage cans. Do be mindful of the crush factor… Dried bread is amazingly heavy, so put the more delicate items (like sticky buns and 'rounds') on top, and the heavy stuff like dried sweet breads on the bottom.

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Soon to come -- part two, the recipe section. Meanwhile, I hope there's been something of value for you here. Please remember all those who are uninformed or unable to prepare for the coming turbulence. They're going to be hungry, and if you can hand them a big bag of wonderful dried bread products and instructions on how to use them, you'll be doing them a good deed.

Stay safe, be happy, and thank God every day for providing all that we need.