Food Science: What is Staling? Can You Reverse It?

One of the most debatable foods in the health and fitness realm has to be bread. Whether people who view bread as the devil use that argument as a defense mechanism for their Celiac disease or their guilty pleasure for consuming a whole loaf in one sitting (which I have done before and I NEVER regret it), or praise bread as the holy grail of human survival, there is one central agreement that everyone who has consumed bread at least once in their lifetimes indeed holds: Staling. Is. The. Worst.

Nothing ruins my mood more than biting into a slice of tasty-looking bread, only to struggle for what feels like hours to grab a bite, then to lastly figure that it’s absolutely not worth it given how inflexible the piece of cardboard bread was in the first place. Question is, what exactly happens to the bread while it stales? Why do some products stale and some do not? Lastly, are food products salvageable or ready for the dumpster? To respond to the final question: just like in nearly any food science situation, the answer is…well, it depends.

  • What is staling, anyways?
    • First and foremost, a starch has little to no water content in its composition. Once heat and water are added, the starch granules (grain particles) open and release amylose (polysaccharide that is part of a starch’s structure), which creates a mostly uniform paste system of starch and water. With cooling the starch, the amylose and starch granules entrap the water in the solution and maintain their composition with hydrogen bonds (in courtesy of the water being soaked up). What happens with staling is when the starch granules and amylose re-form their glycosidic bonds (which exclusively encompass carbohydrates), resulting in a crystallized structure and precipitate that pack much more tightly together and contain as little as moisture as possible. Staling is also known as retrogradation.
  • Why don’t every foods undergo staling/retrogradation? What kind of foods go stale?
    • As articulated before, staling only occurs with starch molecules that are integrated with water. Retrogradation cannot occur in a protein-rich food or a lipid molecule because of their unique chemical structures. What defines a food’s functionality is its primary macronutrient’s composition. Bread will not go rancid the same way as red meat or olive oil simply because they are arranged entirely different. That being said, food products that are prone to staling consist of grain-based products such as cereal, bread, crackers, cookies, popcorn, croutons, starchy chips, pretzels, and breakfast pastries.
  • So…what do I do with a stale food?
    • Question is, what is the food product in the first place? Stale bread has actually be used in culinary delicacies such as French toast, casseroles, quiches, breadcrumbs, bread pudding, stuffing (Thanksgiving is just around the corner, so might as well save that stale loaf of bread!), panzanella, homemade croutons, bisques, grilled cheese sandwiches, paninis, and meat loaf (more holiday recipe ideas, woot woot!). However, if all you really want is just a slice of fresh bread or if you’re dealing with a breakfast pastry or cereal, all you have to do is apply heat with a little bit of moisture. On the other hand, take the necessary precautions to see if the food is safe to eat first.
      • Bread and breakfast pastries: Obviously, if there is mold on the bread, you should not eat it. Though mold is technically not deadly to consume, it can cause unpleasant sickness symptoms and does migrate towards other areas of the loaf quickly, so toss out the whole package to be safe. For revamping the bread, cover several slices at a time with a damp paper towel and microwave it or bake it. Spread a little bit of oil or water on top of the sliced bread for the stove-top. This method utilizes a wet paper bag, but I personally have not vouched for this procedure. For breakfast pastries, you can do the same, but be more delicate-handed with the water if there’s frosting on the pastry.
      • Chips: There is one defining factor that will dictate if the chips are salvageable or not. Assuming that the oil is not rancid, there are several ways to liven them back again. According to these food hacks, the best way to restore that perfect chip quality is to bake the chips for five to ten minutes at 375F. This site also offers other methods to use stale chips as breadcrumbs and in various baking recipes.
      • Cereal: Use the potato chip method above. For other creative ways to use up stale cereal, you can use them in baking, as breadcrumbs (only for corn flakes or rice krispies), in a pie crust, and more.
      • Popcorn: Search for areas of moisture transfer, oil rancidity, or any off-putting appearance qualities. If the popcorn seems salvageable, back to the oven we go! Heat at oven at 250F and bake the popcorn pieces for five-ish minutes or so. Check them frequently to ensure they reach your desired quality of texture and flavor before devouring (obviously).
      • Pretzels: Again, pretzels function nearly the exact same way as popcorn. Toss out pieces that are soft, rancid-smelling, moldy, or off in appearance. For reviving, utilize the oven–bake the pretzels for five minutes at 350F. You can also incorporate stale pretzels into baking for a fun kid-friendly addition.
  • How can I prevent a conversation from going stale?
    • Wine. Or any alcoholic beverage. KIDDING!!!! (had to include that there, it was my cousin’s idea. You can go blame him.)

Hope you learned something new from this post! Have you ever dealt with a stale food product?


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