In celebration of Le Pain Quotidien's 25th anniversary, and inspired by a seasonal lunch and bread-baking demo with their founder Alain Coumont, we're sharing recipes and all-year-round tips for breaking bread together.
But what's the point? Why does hot bread smell so good—taking butter so perfectly—if it's not meant to be ripped into immediately after it comes out of the oven?
It turns out that the mandate to cool bread completely is not just a cruel trick passed down from generation to generation of bakers. Allowing the bread to come to room temperature—which can take anywhere from 30 minutes for small dinner rolls to 8 hours (or more!) for bigger boules—optimizes texture and flavor, and there are several theories as to why.
1) According to The Kitchn, the starch molecules in raw bread dough begin to gelatinize (to swell as they absorb moisture) when the raw dough reaches around 150° F in the oven. After a loaf comes out of the oven and falls below this temperature, starch retrogradation takes place, meaning that the molecules shift as the water that was absorbed during the baking process is expelled and, eventually, evaporates. Starch retrogradation is what gives bread its hard, dry texture (and is the reason why reheating bread in the oven—raising its temperature back above 150° F—temporarily causes it to soften).
As the bread is cooling, starch retrogradation is still taking place: Water continues to move outward, drying the bread and firming up the crumb. If you cut into the bread while it's still warm (that is, before this process is complete), you risk finding a doughy, gummy, and sticky texture, as the molecules are still dense and water-logged. You'll come away with squished and sticky—rather than firm and airy—slices. If you are going to rip into warm bread despite this advice, use your hands rather than a knife to avoid squashing the starch molecules.
2) When you cut into hot bread, you cause the steam to escape at a much faster rate than if you had left the loaf to emit steam slowly, at its natural pace. By releasing the steam all at once, you set yourself up for drier bread later on.
3) Many bakers find that flavor develops as the bread cools, which is why some people leave sourdough for 6 to 8 hours before slicing it. For breads with a high percentage of rye four (upwards of 25%), cooling time is even more important for flavor development and moisture distribution. Allow these breads to cool for 24 to 48 hours, if you can.
So yes, it may be hard to resist cutting into a warm loaf of fresh bread—to watch it longingly as it cools (on a rack to avoid a soggy bottom crust!)—but you'll be rewarded with the best possible flavor and texture.
Photos by James Ransom and Emily Vikre
In celebration of Le Pain Quotidien's 25th anniversary—and their use of fresh ingredients—we're sharing seasonal recipes and all-year-round tips for breaking bread together.