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Lessons from Bread Artisan Chad Robertson: Storing, Slicing and Making Sandwiches

The co-owner of San Francisco’s Tartine Bakery, Chad Robertson, is a baking expert, but good bread deserves proper care. Here, Robertson reveals essential tips for bread lovers from how to revive an old loaf to where to buy an exceptional knife that will razor through a sturdy crust.

What’s the best way to store bread?

A breadbox is still the best way—one that’s slightly ventilated, but keeps the moisture in. They usually they have some grate, something like a pie safe, that keeps the draft off but doesn’t let it become totally soft.

Wrapping it in a piece of linen is an alternate way, or a paper bag with a piece of cloth around it.

Plastic is only good for freezing, or if you want to keep the bread for a few days. Once you take the bread out of the oven, there’s a continual moisture exchange that happens from the inside out. That’s why the crust eventually gets soft though it starts out so crispy: The moisture is migrating out and softening the crust. If you put the bread in plastic, it makes this happen faster because it stops any evaporation. If you plan on wrapping it in plastic for a few days, like if a customer tells me they’re going back to the East Coast and will eat my bread in two days, I tell them to put it in plastic, but leave the bread out at room temperature. Then when you want to eat it, take it out of the plastic bag and put it either loosely wrapped in foil or straight into a pretty hot oven, like 400, 420, 450 degrees, until the loaf is heated all the way to the center. Then you’ve almost completely restored it to how it first came out. It might look a little beat up, but the crust will look steamy and fresh again.

Never put bread in a refrigerator. Refrigerators stale bread quickly. Harold McGee talks about that in his book On Food and Cooking—that’s the first place I read about it, in culinary school, because it was one of our textbooks. Staling is not necessarily moisture loss, it’s water migrating from one part of the starch to another. You can reverse that process by heating bread up again—although not 10 times, maybe once or twice at the most. But every degree cooler increases the rate of staling, so the fridge, which is ideally just above freezing, is at the worst possible temperature to store bread.

What’s the best bread knife?

A good bread knife is important. When a loaf has all the qualities I like, it’s hard to cut, because it’s got a hard crispy crust and an inside that’s really soft and wet. It’s tricky not to crush the bread, or for the blade not to skip. I’m a big fan of the blade designed by Bob Kramer. Shun and J.A. Henckels now both make one. It’s not cheap, but it’s got an unusual serration, a repeating pattern of three teeth, where one tooth is longer and two are more shallow. The longer teeth perforate the crust and the shorter ones help slice through the crumb. It razors right through a loaf of bread, it’s a little crazy. Because of the extreme contrast in textures, it’s very hard to slice a loaf of bread that I like really thin, because it’s got big holes in it and a tender crust. But with his knife you can do it.

How do you build the perfect sandwich?

  1. Consider the bread’s thickness. If it’s a closed-face sandwich, I tend to think the bread either needs to be hot pressed to integrate the whole thing, or very fresh with a thin, crisp crust—nothing too hard to bite through. If it’s open-faced, like the traditional Danish smorrebrod, I like very thinly sliced dense sprouted-grain bread with a finer crust.
  2. Choose the proper flavor bread. The bread should also contribute to the flavor of the sandwich, as opposed to just providing this delivery mechanism.
  3. Layer flavors and textures. At Bar Tartine we’re starting to serve smorrebrod, which literally means bread and butter. But we definitely want a lot of vegetables, maybe some meat, and a cultured dressing like either butter or mayo. I’m a big fan of mayo, I think it’s one of the great sauces of the world, but we make our own and flavor it with fermented ramps, different things to give it some nice tangier flavors. And then different textures because the bread is softer, so something crispy, something pickled with some acid, or a crispy vegetable. Then you get all these different tastes and sensations in one bite.
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