We can eat a lot of bread in my house. But even for two carbivores, a big loaf can sometimes be too much to finish before it starts to go stale.
Thank goodness for the freezer.
We're often admonished not to refrigerate bread, which accelerates staling, but the freezer is another matter. It serves as a kind of pause button, meaning fresh bread you move into cold storage can come out almost as good as the day you put it in.
The best way to freeze bread (figure on a freezer life of about three months) depends a little bit on what you're dealing with and what you want to do with it. You always want to start with at least a double layer of protection against freezer burn. Two layers of plastic wrap is usually sufficient; you can also combine plastic wrap with a layer of aluminum foil. I often throw plastic-wrapped slices or chunks that are small enough into a plastic zip-top bag for extra insurance and easier organization.
Pre-sliced store-bought breads can be grouped into packets of a few slices each. Separate slices with pieces of parchment or wax paper if you think you're more likely to use one slice at a time. Larger artisan-style loaves can be saved in several ways. Double-wrap whole loaves if you want to use it in one fell swoop down the line. Or first cut into more manageable chunks for gradual consumption. Thick-cut slices can be wrapped individually and placed in a bag.
For defrosting advice, check out these ideas for how to use your frozen bread.
• Eat as is! The simplest thing to do with frozen bread is to eat it out of hand. This works particularly well if you're pulling out a whole loaf. You can let the loaf thaw, still wrapped, on the counter for a few hours or overnight, and then crisp it in a 350- to 400-degree oven for a few minutes. Or wrap the still-frozen bread in foil and heat for 15 to 30 minutes, depending on size and whether you want to just quickly thaw or also warm it.
• Make fancy toast. Take your thick artisan slices out of the freezer to thaw while you prep your toppings. Any residual defrosting can happen while you're heating the bread. Brush with oil and broil in the oven, griddle in an oiled/buttered skillet or heat in your toaster or toaster oven. You can add even more to your feel-good freezer thriftiness by combing through your pantry and refrigerator for odds and ends of cheese, produce and condiments for your toppings. The possibilities are endless.
• Cube it for croutons. So much better than store-bought. Let the bread thaw on the counter. Toss or drizzle chunks or cubes of it in olive oil (a flavored one is great if you have it) and crisp on a baking sheet in a 350-degree oven for 15 minutes, or until golden brown. You can also toss the bread with some dried herbs or spices before it goes in the oven; be extra indulgent and scatter the chunks with grated cheese before cooking. Croutons are a natural on top of salads or soups. Or you can use them as the basis for a panzanella (bread and tomato salad) in the summer. They're also an addictive snack (nope, not speaking from personal experience at all!).
• Grind some fresh bread crumbs. You can use your food processor to grind the bread crumbs to freeze later, or you can make them with thawed bread. Bread crumbs can transform a simple bowl of pasta, especially when toasted in a skillet with garlic and olive oil. They can serve as the binder in crab cakes or veggie cakes. They're the basis of the crispy topping on mac and cheese or the exterior of pan-fried chicken cutlets or baked chicken pieces.
• Soak it. Counter-thawed bread (pre-sliced or sliced after thawing) is great for French toast or a strata. Come summer, you can put them in the bottom of a ramekin or glass as the basis of a berry pudding.
So the next time you find a good sale on bread or realize your eyes are bigger than your stomach, know that the freezer is not just a last-ditch option but rather a gateway to a great meal in the future.