Growing up, we always had one loaf of bread in the fridge and a second loaf on deck in the freezer. I didn’t question this cycle (usually a seamless stream of Tuscan pane from Trader Joe’s), or analyze either the refrigerator bread or freezer bread too closely until I started making my own. Since homemade bread is a labor of love—and it’s all the more tragic when it gets moldy or stale—I found myself suddenly paying more attention to how I was storing it.
It was best, obviously, the day I’d made it, but the runner-up wasn’t the loaf I was storing in the fridge; it was the first slice cut from the loaf that I had chucked in the freezer soon after baking it. The fridge bread was drier and steadily verging on stale as the days wore on, whereas the freezer bread was a nearly perfectly preserved version of the little slice I always sneak when a loaf is fresh from the oven. It continues to surprise me that the freezer bread not only tastes fresher, but is also not soggy after thawing out, and I wanted to know why.
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As with most food questions, there’s a pretty simple scientific answer, and it can help you understand why freezing and thawing many other delicious carbs can also work so well. Armed with a little knowledge, a freezer can basically act as an extension of a shelf-stable pantry—it doesn’t have to just be a cold place where odd leftovers go to die.
What Happens In the Fridge vs. the Freezer
When starchy food goes stale it’s not so much because moisture is fleeing the scene. It’s because starch molecules, which change when combined with water and heat, are slowly trying to return to their original state, as the food cools down and then sits around.
Using bread as an example, the original state of the starch molecules in flour is “crystalline,” which means they have a pretty firm geometric shape. When you add moisture and heat—for bread that would be the water in a dough recipe, and the oven you bake it in—the crystalline structure starts to break down into an “amorphous” state. The best way to visualize this is to think about what a salt crystal looks like, and then to think about what happens to those crystals when you dissolve salt in warm water.
From the moment bread comes out of the oven, amorphous starch molecules are slowly trying to fight their way back to that crystalline state. As you might imagine, bread made up of amorphous starch molecules is softer and bouncier than bread with rigid crystalline starch molecules. Stale bread is really just a loaf with crystalline starch molecules.
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If that’s not what you’re after, then beware of the refrigerator. Bread will go stale in the refrigerator more quickly than it will on the counter because air that is colder than room temperature, but—and this is crucial—warmer than freezing, actually speeds up the re-crystallization process. Below freezing temperatures stop it from happening altogether. So while refrigerating bread will help delay mold, it won’t delay staleness—a freezer delays both. Unless you’re planning to eat an entire loaf of fresh bread in one sitting (which I wouldn’t judge you for at all), the best place to store it, as soon as possible, is in the freezer. Here, your bread is not only frozen in temperature, but also frozen in time, with starch molecules in a state as close as possible to when you first pulled them from the oven.
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It’s not all about starch crystals, though. The reason frozen bread doesn’t get soggy when thawed is a hydration issue. As with atmospheric pressure, there’s less moisture in the cold air of a refrigerator or freezer than in the warmer air of a home. The low-moisture cold air actively draws moisture out of any food being stored in a refrigerator or freezer—you can see this happening when condensation forms on refrigerated food, or ice crystals form on frozen food. It’s also the reason why you really need to cover food stored in either place; without coverage, a dry crust will begin to form. When you thaw frozen bread and those ice crystals melt, the bread doesn’t get soggy because you’re really just re-hydrating it with the internal moisture that the cold air drew out. It’s nothing like spritzing a loaf of bread with additional water, which would of course sog it up.
Other Foods That Are Made for the Freezer
With all this in mind, here are some other starchy foods, beyond store-bought or homemade bread, that really benefit from being preserved in the freezer—versus refrigerated or left out—and thawed when you’re ready to eat: that package of crackers you opened for a wine and cheese party, but didn’t finish; flour or corn tortillas (you can even go so far as to prepare whole breakfast burritos, which reanimate exceptionally well in the microwave); the bagels that you had to fight your way to the counter for on Sunday morning and for which you would like to delay doing so again; dumplings and pierogi; fresh pasta; and birthday cake, so your birthday can last for weeks.
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