While it has been an underdog or “specialty grain” in American baking for many years, rye’s rich tradition in many European countries tells a different story. From German Schwarzbrot to Danish Rugbrød, dense yet flavorful 100% rye breads which highlight this flavor packed grain’s heartiness have been baked for centuries. To quote a New York Times article by Julia Moskin, “Rye, like barley and oats, is an ancient grain that thrives in cold and wet weather. Before modern agriculture and transportation made wheat available everywhere, rye was the best (and sometimes only) option for bread baking in a huge swath of northern Europe, from Russia and the Baltic States, west through Poland, Hungary, Austria, Germany and the Netherlands and up into Scandinavia.” Luckily, in recent years more and more home and professional bakers have started baking traditional rye loaves and made rye bread attractive to a wider audience. Furthermore, bakers around the world such as those featured in Daniel Leader’s book Living Bread, have kept old world traditions alive and continued to inspire others to do so the same.
When it comes to my love of rye, I’ve always loved eating sandwiches with classic supermarket rye bread or fresh rye bread from my cousin’s bakery and favorite local kosher deli. However, in that manner it was about the caraway flavor and overall texture of the bread and not the grain itself. Once I started homebrewing in 2009 I slowly got to know the unique characteristics of rye and what it contributes to a fermented product, specifically beer. While it complements the malted barley, malted rye usually adds a distinct spiciness and extra mouthfeel when fermented at ale temperatures (∼62-80F). Of course, sourdough starter is not ale yeast, but it is similarly known for its ability to help grains like rye contribute their own unique set of flavors to finished loaves.
Since getting back into sourdough baking this past April rye has played a major role in my baking. I started with a 50/50 rye/all-purpose flour starter (it’s now 100% rye and 130% hydration) and the recipe that I have developed as my ‘base recipe’ has 15% rye in it. However, with each successful loaf an urge to delve deeper into the history and potential of baking with rye only got bigger. So in the beginning of August I came up with the idea to embark on a journey called “An ode to rye” in order to work towards mastering the skills necessary to successfully bake as many traditional and modern rye breads as possible. In order to do so I decided to split my loaves into the three following categories.
Categories: A: Ideal table rye breads – 20-35% rye breads
Through the combination of different rye flours with complementary wheat flours my goal for this category is to successfully bake batard-shaped loaves that are both complex in flavor, good for sandwiches, and for having on the table at meals. I chose 20-35 as my rye percentage range for this category to ensure that the differences made by the rye flour are undoubtedly noticeable without making its loaves too dense.
Progress so far: I’ve baked 6 loaves of a 35% rye (split between dark and light rye) recipe. The first two of which had caraway seeds in them. While I definitely have the flavor profile (well caramelized, hearty, and uniquely rye tasting) that I’m looking for dialed in; I’ve yet to get the fermentation and proofing to lead to a balance of the even crumb and moist yet not too dense texture that I pictured when developing the recipe.
Category B: Creative rye loaves w/ inclusions (mix-ins)
From pickle brine to dried fruit, incorporating rye into a new or previously baked recipe can add texture and flavor to one’s sourdough loaves. As much as I’ve already been doing so; I feel that there are a lot of traditional and modern recipes and methods that include anywhere from 10-50% rye that I need to bake and taste in order to learn more about the versatility of rye.
Progress so far: Since officially starting this journey I’ve baked one loaf, Drescherlaib from Daniel Leader’s book, Living Bread. This spiced whole spelt and rye loaf was one of two loaves that I baked once I made my rye starter (aka Randolph) 100% rye. While it came out tasting good, it was too dense for my taste. Next time I bake it I’ll do more initial hand mixing, one instead of two coil folds, and proof at room temperature instead of overnight in my refrigerator.
Category C: Traditional 100% rye loaves
Despite being the most challenging to ferment and bake due to rye’s lower gluten (and protein) content, results of baking these traditional loaves can be the most rewarding. So while I may not bake them as often as the two other categories; I’ll be researching how to achieve successful results just as often.
Progress so far: For my second loaf after making my rye starter 100% rye. I made a 166% hydration levain as per Food Geek’s recipe for Rugbrød, a traditional Danish rye bread. Overall, I was happy with how this loaf turned out and enjoyed pairing it with meats and pickled veggies. However, when I do bake Rugbrød again, I’ll most likely try a different recipe (for comparison) and use a different combination of seeds. For me the pumpkin seeds in this recipe made it harder to gauge when the loaf was ready to make, were too large, and over-shadowed the sunflower seeds.
Up next: In part two of this series I’ll go into more detail about the 35% rye batard loaves that I’ve already baked and how I plan on contuing to tweak the recipe (formula).