Few things are better than homemade bread. The flavor is hard to beat, and it makes the kitchen smell amazing. However, the shelf life often leaves much to be desired. It’s not something you need to worry about if you intend to gobble up your loaf right away, but if you make a loaf on Sunday and want it to last through lunch on Friday you might end up disappointed when by Thursday the loaf starts to mold. And lets face it, you’re not saving any money making your own bread if you have to throw it out.
I usually have good luck with my bun recipe lasting a full week. My recipe uses an egg, and the lecithin in the egg yolk can act as a preservative, so that could be why. However, as wonderful as my bun recipe is, sometimes I want to make a different kind of bread. I know, crazy, right? Besides, I wouldn’t mind squeaking a few more days of freshness out of my buns from time to time.
I don’t want to go out and buy a commercial dough enhancer because they’re pretty expensive and the reviews on whether they work or not seem pretty mixed. In hopes of finding a cheaper alternative, I decided to embark on an adventure to try to find if there is something, natural or commercial, that I can add to a bread recipe that will help extend its shelf life. My first contender: Vital wheat gluten with vitamin C.
Vital wheat gluten is better known to improve the texture of breads, however this product has vitamin C, which is an additive that should improve shelf life.
For this experiment I’m using this recipe for Crusty French Bread. I chose this recipe because it has minimal ingredients, which should showcase the effect of any additives. Another reason for choosing this recipe is that it makes two loaves. I think this is ideal so I can make one batch of dough then the ingredient I’m testing can be added to half while the other half is baked as stated so I can have an “experimental loaf” and a “control loaf.” This would remove any factors for inconsistencies in measurements, rising temperature, oven temperature, etc.
The only deviation from the recipe is that I didn’t use an egg white wash before and during baking. I used water. That’s our preference and how I typically make it, it wasn’t a change for this experiment. However, by not using it I’m also not introducing an extra ingredient that might affect the outcome.
I made the dough then kneaded it for 8 minutes then divided it as instructed in the recipe.
I then added my wheat gluten + vitamin C to one half of the dough and kneaded by hand for the final two minutes. The box calls for 4 teaspoons per loaf, which equates to 1 teaspoon per cup of flour. This half of the dough should contain 2 cups of flour, so I added 2 teaspoons of vital wheat gluten + vitamin C here.
For the second half of the dough I added 2 teaspoons of bread flour to equalize the moisture content of the two loaves and kneaded that dough for two minutes. I should note that before kneading I sprinkled just enough bread flour on my counter to keep if from sticking, and tried to replicate that amount before kneading the second half of the dough.
I placed the two dough balls into equal sized containers so I could compare how they rose. The dough with the gluten has the green pick (green for gluten! …. yes, I planned that.)
I didn’t notice much difference in the rise.
For each half of the dough I rolled it jelly-roll style then cut the loaf into three smaller loaves, for a total of 6 small loaves. Those got a second rise…
The dough with the gluten is on the labeled side of the baking mat. There seemed to be slightly more rise to the dough with the gluten after this rise, but not too much.
I baked the loaves for 15 minutes, brushed them with water, and returned them to the oven for another 10. Here they are straight from the oven:
The loaves with the gluten got noticeably more golden than the loaves without. They also puffed a little more during baking.
Upon taste-testing, I noticed that the loaves with the gluten had a slightly lighter texture than the loaves without it. Maybe the only downfall to using this recipe is that it calls for a lot of yeast and is inherently a very fast-rising dough. I think the texture difference using gluten vs. no gluten would be more pronounced in a recipe that uses less yeast. But that’s also not the primary objective of this experiment.
I intended to do more taste-test comparisons for freshness on the days following baking with the other small loaves, but those loaves just got eaten. And not all by me. So, I have no observations to share on whether the vital wheat gluten + vitamin C preserved freshness, texture, and taste after the first day.
The shelf life test: I put half an experimental loaf and half a control loaf in individual sandwich bags and put them on the counter where I typically store my bread (Why half a loaf? Because that’s what fit in the bag). They each got their own bag to prevent cross-contamination (cross-molding?). I checked both bags once or twice a day for mold. I never opened the bags. On the morning of day 4…..
If you can’t quite see the handwritten label on the baggie, the loaf with the gluten is on the left. Although the loaf without the gluten had more mold, they both still had mold that appeared on the same day. So, if I wanted to make myself a sandwich on day 4, I couldn’t have used either loaf.
The vital wheat gluten with vitamin C didn’t extend the shelf life, at least not in the quantity recommended on the label. So, use your vital wheat gluten with vitamin C to make a more tender loaf of bread, but don’t necessarily bank on it to delay your bread from molding.
I plan on experimenting with more additives in the future, and I’ll be sure to share my findings with you!