Buying baguettes, boules, ciabattas or anything else not pre-sliced and packaged will, at some point, raise the question of what to do with that which goes stale. Pitching it, of course, is not an option—so how to handle the steady accumulation? I keep a big metal bowl of the stuff, half full at any given moment and often brimming. Stale bread, alongside oil and salt, is one of my more relied-upon pantry items.
Croutons are the most obvious application, and should be reserved for the freshest of the stale bread. This has less to do with flavor than it does with safety; cutting very hard, stale bread is risky, even for those with developed skills. A heavy chef’s knife works best here. Use the heel of your free hand to knock the back of the blade until it bites, then push through. Don’t focus on uniformity; a little variety in your croutons will signal they are homemade. Fry them in plenty of butter or good olive oil, seasoning with salt, pepper and, if you wish, dried herbs. These are particularly delicious if served while still hot. For salad, add half the croutons prior to tossing and the rest after plating. This way some will remain perfectly crisp while others will soak up the vinaigrette.
Bread crumbs are far more fun. To make them you will need a clean apron, a stout rolling pin and a hard surface. Wrap whatever stale scraps you have in the apron and let them have it. Frying pans, cricket bats and empty Champagne bottles are just as effective. Toddlers are good to have on hand as well; they will appreciate the excitement far more than your neighbors. The most obvious advantage to the homemade route is the control you have over the crumb—just cease bashing when you’ve reached the desired level of pulverization.
Uses are innumerable. Deep-frying requires bread crumbs to form the crunchy exterior, but in the case of fritters and such, can be used in binding the wet ingredients. If you don’t mind being associated with the late 90’s, bread crumbs are also crucial in crusting things. My favorite of these dated preparations goes like this: scale and de-bone a whole salmon laying it flat on a greased sheet pan. Prepare a paste of bread crumbs, chopped shallots, minced parsley, dijon mustard, softened butter, white wine, salt and white pepper. Pack this mixture on the flesh side of the salmon and cook for twenty minutes in a hot oven.
Milk or stock-soaked bread has a fancy name—panade—and is classically used in everything from forcemeat to soup, efficiently thickening or providing moisture. Irregular pieces of stale bread can be soaked in milk, stock or wine and incorporated into meatball and meatloaf preparations. This technique all but guaranties a moist result as the bread mush bastes from the inside while cooking. And really is the concept so unfamiliar? Most Americans eat stuffing at least once each year, and what is stuffing but stock-enriched stale bread and vegetables?
Sadly, some bread is beyond use. While an open metal bowl and airy storage prevents mold, some higher-gluten bread seems to petrify instead of going stale. Rather than risk a filling, I like to return that which cannot be used to the wild in the form of bird feed. The massive city crows that swoop in for these scraps have formidable beaks and I've often watched as they reduce even the largest, toughest pieces to crumbs. They seem to enjoy it, and it certainly fattens them up... Maybe those stalest scraps serve a purpose after all.