Fresh-Baked and In-House: Here’s Why Your Grocery Store’s Bread is Wrapped in Paper Instead of Plastic
The paper jacket isn’t just for artisanal aesthetics to emulate a Parisian bakery
The time is 9:00 PM: It is one hour before the grocery store closes. There are just a handful of customers, and employees are starting to perform select closing duties.
Granted, I am there at this time to avoid crowds and anxiety as much as possible. And as a creature of habit, I also know that it’s time for markdowns — including freshly baked bread. For me, it’s a win-win situation.
But before I even get to the bakery department, I am greeted by neatly stacked fruits and a procession of lettuces and herbs, kept hydrated, manicured, and replenished. As the first point of contact, the produce department keeps a handsome appearance at all times.
Yet the same can be said about the freshly baked store bread, carefully tucked into their brown paper sleeves, followed by their own designated cubbies and baskets. However, it’s not all about looks and charm.
While presentation standards are critically important to the overall business of the grocery store, the packaging of fresh house-made bread is more about form and function. It serves an end-to-end use and purpose.
Dry air is the crust’s best friend.
Remarkably, the environmentally friendly and compostable material helps to prolong the freshness of the bread — yes, you heard that right.
Because just about every other food item under the sun is over-packaged, nowadays, this rather rudimentary packaging seems, well, old-school.
But it is the reason behind maintaining a crusty exterior that’s so loved and enjoyed with fresh bread. And this is exactly what customers look forward to when they opt for one of the store’s loaves.
With one end open, the brown paper bag, importantly, lets room temperature air travel freely in and around the bread — and this is how it maintains its crusty texture, thanks to the drier conditions.
Inside, the bread is then protected by this desiccated and crispy outer layer. You then have what makes fresh bread so attractive — a moist inside and a crusty outside. Now it all makes sense.
But this ideal soft-and-hard textural bliss only lasts for up to three days, which helps to explain the selection of baguettes, focaccias, and more, ready to be scored at half off — as they don’t have much longer before they become stale.
And so, why would several different loaves of bread be kept and sold in this fashion, then? Simply, it has always been the status quo prior to the advent of industrial food production and plastic.
Otherwise, in many ways, it doesn’t even matter when you consider the fact of having a nicer feeling in the hand, being offered a pleasant smell upon selection, and receiving an endearing look.
The buyer’s experience is just at a whole other level above and beyond picking up a loaf or a baguette that has been wrapped in plastic.
What about those that are off to the side of the freshly baked, stored on shelves and covered in plastic? Is there a comparison to be made?
This is where the packaging decisions become clearer: Firstly, plastic is perfect for keeping loaves from expiring because it effectively keeps the environment as air-tight as possible; secondly, this prevents the bread from then turning stale and mouldy.
With the likes of name-brand products from ultra-processed backgrounds, which more often than not include preservatives, it is easier to understand how their products fare with a longer shelf life.
However, the situation with the store-prepared bread isn’t the same; at most, it can sit on the counter for a couple of days. While you could cover the exposed and leftover bread in a plastic bag to gain a few more days, it would be done at the expense of its taste and texture.
So the brown paper bag is the best option for ensuring the best flavour and texture, since plastic would simply encourage more moisture, which would, in turn, soften the crust and potentially lead to mould. Dry air is the crust’s best friend.
As a little anecdote, one of my fondest food memories from my childhood was seeing my mom come home from the office with a baguette, wrapped in its brown or white paper bag, peeping out of her handbag.
It’s a memory that has stuck, and it’s one that’s been unlocked again through writing this article. And I have to say that I feel a certain elegance and nostalgia when I have a baguette in my basket, popping out the side, just like my mom’s.