Photo by tnarik/Flickr CC
The Spanish kitchen makes broad and continuous use of stale bread. To my knowledge this is something almost completely alien to the North American kitchen, and I think worth sharing.
The principle obstacle to integrating stale bread into American culinary practice is that in general the bread available in the U.S. is different and, if you'll pardon my saying so, largely pretty lousy unless you're investing in a six-dollar gourmet loaf, in which case you probably won't let any of it get stale. Here in Madrid I buy an 80-cent loaf every morning at the bakery downstairs, and usually in the course of the day use about two thirds of it. The remaining chunk can be left to get stale.
Migas are perhaps the apotheosis of old bread. The name literally means "crumbs," and that's pretty much what it is.
The second obstacle is some combination of elements--I'm not sure what it is--that makes U.S.-made bread get moldy before it gets properly stale. Initially I chalked this up to the climate, but even in the winter here when its rainy and humid for months I have never seen bread get soggy or moldy if left sitting out on the counter. It just dries out. I assume this means that most U.S.-made bread has preservatives that defer staleness and thus condemn it to moldiness or at least to sponginess. If anyone has more information on this point I'd be grateful.
[Curator's note: It's the too-fast yeast and preservatives U.S. breadmakers use. The hyperactive yeasts make bread go stale almost instantly, and the preservatives mean bread stays spongy and awful right until it turns moldy. Much of southern Europe--Tuscany and on down in Italy; all of Greece--has a tradition of using stale bread, I'd bet because the dry climate discourages mold. I wrote a column on one of the most famous of these, the Tuscan bread, tomato, and cucumber salad panzanella--make it before the hard frosts! And I mentioned there a book worth seeking out, Gwenyth Bassetti's Cooking With Artisan Bread, which largely focused on the tradition of cooking with stale bread. She knew, having started one of the country's most successful artisan bakeries, Grand Central in Seattle and Portland.]
There is also a certain psychological obstacle. Since the great hygiene campaigns of the 1950s at the dawn of our hyper-consumerist age, most Americans have a deeply ingrained aversion to letting foodstuffs get old or stale. In Spain, land of cured meats, aged cheeses, and stale bread, that's not an issue.
The fact is that in any kitchen in Spain you will find a basket of old bread, which is later destined to all kinds of uses. It serves to thicken sauces and give consistency to soups, both hot ones like sopa castellana and cold ones like gazpacho. Soaked in a little water it becomes the base for dips and spreads like salmorejo, and soaked in milk it becomes the base for torrijas or bread pudding. Why buy breadcrumbs when you can just grate a chunk of old bread? Why buy croutons when you can fry up little chunks of old bread? And then there are several traditional dishes in which old bread is the star of the show. Fresh bread won't work for these dishes; it has to be stale.