Sitting on my kitchen counter is an oval-shaped loaf of rye bread, with an amber crust and chewy insides flecked with caraway seeds. When I bought it three days ago, I immediately cut a few crusty slices for snacking. Then I left it alone to stale—intentionally.
On the same counter is one of the first winter squashes of the season. It is a pale blue bard squash, shaped like a fat teardrop and covered in pebbly warts. As I simmer torn bits of bread with the squash, the loaf takes on new life, swelling and breaking down into creamy, saturated flavor. By the time I ladle the soup into bowls, bread and squash have united entirely, developing a texture so luxurious you’d swear butter was at work.
Resourceful cooks, of course, have been putting their days-old bread to work for centuries. Take, for example, Italy’s panzanella, that utterly simple salad in which roughly torn pieces of day-old bread act like tender little sponges, soaking up the flavors of tomatoes, herbs, olive oil and vinegar. Or consider the savory, richly textured bread casseroles of France known as panades, in which hunks of stale bread are layered with other ingredients, such as vegetables, cheese and herbs, moistened with stock or broth and baked until tender and sumptuous. And then there are bread soups like the one I favor in autumn, itself inspired by a traditional rye bread, squash and cheese soup of northern Italy, which appear in variation throughout the world.
I have learned over the years that stale bread smacks more of opportunity than waste. My grandmother was always baking buttermilk biscuits or corn- bread. When there were enough biscuits left over, she’d refashion them as strawberry shortcake, split into halves, toasted and topped with her own strawberry jam and whipped cream. My grandfather took a simpler approach, crumbling day-old wedges of corn bread into tall glasses of cold buttermilk, a treat I would accept any day of the week. I like to think I inherited their sensibilities.
Cooking with days-old bread is more than just economically sound. It brings magic to the kitchen. Stale bread gets its allure thanks to a sort of culinary alchemy. As bread ages, its network of starch—the scaffolding of the bread—becomes stronger. That strength is what helps stale bread maintain its structural integrity, giving, for example, a bread soup its light, fluffy texture. In the same soup, fresh bread would disintegrate and lose its body, breaking down into something looser and less lofty.
Once you begin thinking about bread in these terms, “stale,” with its negative connotations, starts to seem a bit harsh, even misplaced. Let’s call it “aging gracefully.”