For Italians reusing leftover staples like bread that’s maybe a few days old, or that has gone stale, is very common. Today I’m sharing 10 simple ways you can reduce food waste in your own home and extend the life of bread.
Bread is life. Food is love.
In the long months of lockdown, be it the shortage of yeast or simply joining an internet craze, everybody was making sourdough bread. I got very close to baking some myself, but only got as far as reusing my leftover sourdough starter discard for crackers, the fluffiest pancakes in the world and delicious scallion flatbreads. I was just too emotionally fragile to attempt bread-making and the inherent 50-50 chance of failing. Had I known then about Roya Platsis––whom I learned about thanks to the Dear Food Podcast––I would have applied her simple folding, no-knead method.
That doesn’t mean that I ate less bread during lockdown. I purchase and consume obscene amounts of bread. I eat bread at every meal. Slathered with salted butter and homemade jam for breakfast; for sandwiches at lunch; and to sop up the sauces in my dinner plate. Oh, and for snacks, too. As you know I am a cheese lover, so where there’s lots of cheese, there’s also lots of bread.
My neighborhood bread baker
I have a trusted forno where the staff does a little dance every time I walk in. I’m their best customer. I may go in for only a loaf of Pane della Salute (a thick crunchy sourdough crust concealing a fluffy, airy whole grain crumb, studded with assorted seeds, that’s aptly named “bread of health”) which I know will last me 4-5 days. But I always end up leaving the shop with additional focaccia barese, bread rolls, pizza bianca, pasticciotti, kilos of stone-milled flour and sugar-coated donuts. Everything they bake is perfect.
My bread-purchasing frenzy, therefore, results in massive amounts of sourdough in my house. Italians always have some form of rustic loaf on the table at meals. But despite how much we consume or use in recipes, there’s always some bread left over. If you know me by now, you are familiar with my no-food-waste obsession. I cannot stand to throw away food. It hurts when I have to. This is very Italian of me.
When I was growing up and Nonna or my Mom had to throw out a rock-hard end of a loaf, they always reminded me to kiss it before throwing it away. I hardly have reason to do this any more, because I’m very good with reusing old bread, but the kiss habit has stuck with me.
If you too like me, have way too much bread on your hands, here are a few tips on what to do with it to extend its life.
I’ve stopped spending money on store-bought breadcrumbs when I understood how much better (and easy) making my own was. I toast slices of my favorite bread in the warm oven at 250°F for about 8-10 minutes, or until evenly golden. This dries out the moisture and toasts the bread evenly. After cooling on a wire rack, I blitz the toast in the food processor to the desired coarseness. I add herbs, lemon zest, pepper and a fistful of polenta (cornmeal) for added crunch. I use toasted breadcrumbs for dredging fried arancini and mozzarella sticks; or sprinkle it on baked pasta casseroles, sautéed greens, and soups. Keeps for a month if stored in an airtight container.
This is a fantastic (and easy) traditional summer dish from Tuscany. It is made with (preferably stale) bread, tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, a ton of fresh basil, salt & pepper, red wine vinegar and lots of quality extra virgin olive oil. The vegetal juices, vinegar and olive oil moisten the bread and create a uniform texture throughout. A great example of how Italians make good use of leftovers.
3. Torta di pane
Bread pie is a dessert I make with leftover bread fluffed with warm milk, mixed with brown sugar, cinnamon and a shot of cognac. Once completely cooled, I fold in eggs, a handful of raisins and bake in a hot oven for 15 minutes. Rustic, genuine, delightful. Even better with crème anglaise vanilla sauce poured on top…
4. Polpette ~ Meatballs
Nearly one third of the food the Western world buys each week is discarded without ever nearing the plate. In these staggering numbers, are also precious loaves of bread that harden to rocky, unyielding firmness, forgotten in brown paper bags. My Nonna’s secret to perfectly soft meatballs was using old bread that was too hard to eat. She’d soak the slices in milk and mix the obtained pulp in with ground meat and an egg, seasoning with garlic, grated Parmigiano and fresh basil. Additionally, she taught me to use the bread for the meatballs’ toasted breadcrumb coating. Yum.
5. Canederli, aka Knödel
These scrumptious dumplings of leftover bread are very similar to Jewish matzo balls (except for the addition of small bits of speck, a smoked ham from South Tyrol). Likewise, the canederli are cooked and served in broth, and consumed preferably in front of a blazing fireplace. For a “lighter” version, you fish them out of the broth, douse them in melted butter and dust with grated Alpine cheese…
In Tuscany, bruschetta is commonly called fettunta, a contraction of two words (fetta unta) meaning, oiled slice. When the olives are taken to the local mill for pressing in late November, the growers bring a loaf of Tuscan (unsalted) bread with them. There is usually a small fireplace burning in a corner of the pressing room. When the first stream of fragrant liquid gold emerges from the press spout, the farmers toast some bread on the fire to sample the olive oil. Rub slices with a clove of garlic and season with a dash of salt and you’re in heaven. In summer, diced fresh tomatoes and basil can be added as additional topping.
7. Pappa al Pomodoro
Cucina povera at its finest. This bread-and-tomato pappa (Italian children’s talk for ‘baby food’ and ‘mush’) is a summer soup again from Tuscany. It’s made by cooking down stale bread, fresh chopped tomatoes, fresh basil and sage, minced garlic and extra virgin olive oil. Pappa al pomodoro is served at room temperature. In the past it was very much an unpretentious meal, a tasty and clever way to use leftover bread.
Ribollita was once the soup of Tuscan farmers: humble, hearty and filling. Now it’s a regional badge of honor. The main ingredients in ribollita are cavolo nero (Tuscan kale), bread and cannellini beans. After a first slow stewing, the soup is left to rest. It’s then re-boiled the next day (hence the name, ribollita). All your bowl needs is a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil and a big spoon. In this case hold the cheese, please.
Soups, veloutés, creams and salads all benefit from a fine amount of bread crunch. I dice the stale bread, toss it in a pan with some olive oil, and toast it until crisp, seasoning with a dash of salt.
10. Freezing the slices
When I have still too much bread sitting on my kitchen counter, I slice it and throw it in a brown paper bag, and I freeze it. So, in case I’m out of fresh bread, I always have some at the ready: all I do is pop it in the toaster still frozen for perfectly fragrant, warm slices. Just like fresh out of the oven!
Pain perdu (aka French toast), strata, turkey stuffing, French onion soup… Without a doubt, there are many other ways of extending the life of bread. Can you think of others? Tell us in the comments below!