My inspiration and incentive to start baking bread came from living and studying abroad, where great bread is a part of almost all daily meals. In Sweden and Germany, where I spent most of my time (I was studying German literature), my typical meals consisted of cured meats, cheeses, preserves, and other accompaniments to the true centerpiece—bread. In fact, supper in German—Abentbrot—is literally translated as “evening bread.”
Most of the breads I enjoyed there were made with a large proportion of rye flour, including dark pumpernickel and dense rye bread. Rye grows more readily than wheat in the harsher climates of northern Europe, and from this robust, hearty grain came the robust, hearty breads we associate with the region. Because of baking characteristics that are different from wheat flour, breads made with a large proportion of rye flour are heavier and more compact. This is also true of your typical New York style rye—the bread we think of when we think “pastrami on rye”—quite chewy and often studded with caraway seeds.
That’s not the kind of rye bread I’m making here.
While I love the deep, earthy flavor of traditional rye bread, I wanted to create a rye bread that was lighter and airier with a crisper crust. I also nixed the caraway seeds, which many people wrongly believe to be the flavor of rye (and which is why many people think they don’t like rye bread).
I think that you’ll find my rye bread more akin to the artisan breads we’re starting to see more of at bakeries around the country, and one that better lends itself to the American palate and American food.
Start with the right rye
I like to use a whole-rye flour, which contains all the bran and germ of the kernel. In Germany, rye flour is graded quite specifically, but here the grind can vary widely from brand to brand. These differences in grind mean that volume measurements of rye flour can vary greatly. For this reason, I’ve listed the amount of flour needed by weight. Since it’s also much easier to portion the starters by weight, you’ll need a kitchen scale to make this bread.
I’ve developed this recipe using a finely ground organic rye flour. If you use a different rye flour, use the same amount by weight and adjust the liquid in your starter. In most cases, you will have a coarser flour and will need to add less water. Start with about 1 cup of water and then go by feel: you want a mixture that holds its shape yet squishes easily between your fingers when you make a fist. Spackle, papier-mâché, and the soft, silty sand at the edge of a lake are some things that come to mind when I mix the starter.
Add wheat flour to increase gluten
The main difference between rye flour and wheat flour is their ability to form gluten. Gluten is what develops when wheat flour is mixed with water; it gives a loaf of bread its structure and traps the gases given off during fermentation. These gases expand and lighten the loaf.
Rye flour doesn’t contain the two proteins that work together in wheat flour to develop superior gluten. It does, however, contain a larger amount of a gummy substance called pentosans, which can hold a dough made with mostly rye flour together, and which does trap some gas. Well-made loaves of rye bread will have significant and visible aeration, but they’ll always be much denser than wheat breads. What I’ve come up with here is essentially a wheat-based bread flavored with a rye starter, which for me unites the best of both grains.
Temper rye’s quick ferment with a starter
Rye flour has a higher sugar content than wheat; that, along with other variables, causes rye to ferment quickly. This can affect both the flavor and the texture of the bread. During fermentation, yeast converts the sugars into carbon dioxide and alcohol. The carbon dioxide makes the bread rise while the alcohol adds flavor. A long, slow fermentation provides the most flavor because, in addition to the alcohol, acids and other compounds develop, deepen, and mature. But the yeast consumes rye’s sugars so quickly that a long rising time is out of the question.
A starter offers a head start on fermentation. To achieve a full flavor before the final dough is made, I make a yeast starter with rye flour and allow it to ferment overnight. And because I want a lighter, airier texture for my bread, I also use a second starter made with wheat flour, specifically bread flour. As it ferments overnight, it will develop a structure that will enhance the texture of the loaf, and as a bonus will also help deepen the flavor of the bread. For optimum flavor and performance, the starters should sit at room temperature for at least 12 hours and up to 20. You won’t use all of either starter, but it’s difficult to make any less. You can keep the leftover starters in the refrigerator and use them up to a week later, but the longer you hold them, the stronger the flavor will be, and the texture of the bread may be denser.
Give the dough a good knead on an unfloured surface
Because this recipe is really a wheat-based bread flavored with a rye starter, you must knead the dough in order to develop the gluten network. Water helps bind the proteins together, but working the dough is necessary to develop them into the stretchy web that will trap the gas.
The dough will be sticky, but resist the urge to add flour to it or to your surface. Adding flour at this stage will only make the bread dry. If the dough sticks to the surface initially, use a pastry scraper to peel it off. After a few minutes of kneading, the gluten will begin to develop, and the dough will become less sticky and easier to work with.
Knead in two stages. For the smoothest dough—and to give yourself a break—it’s best to knead for about 8 minutes, let it rest for 10 minutes, and then finish kneading. Properly kneaded dough will feel smooth and elastic. I poke the dough to test it; if it springs back right away, my kneading is done.
Pay attention during the rising. As noted earlier, rye ferments quickly for several reasons, including the fact that it has more sugars available for yeast to consume. This means that breads made with rye rise quickly. Check on the dough before the hour rising time is up; you don’t even want it to double. An overrisen dough loses its elasticity because the gluten has been stretched beyond its limits. Such a dough will be difficult to shape, and the resulting bread will be flat and dense. The higher the rye content, the more watchful the baker must be; a rye dough is more delicate, and the margin for error is smaller. If your dough is close to doubling before the hour is up, punch it down earlier than directed.
As you shape the dough, stretch it to its limit
After the second rise, you’ll need to divide the dough and let it rest briefly again. For this rest, I shape the dough into balls by forming the halves into disks, pulling the edges into the center, and stretching the smooth skin on top taut. This starts the structure of the gluten web in the right direction and lets the dough relax so that in its final shaping it can be stretched even more without tearing. This stretching helps the dough hold up to the expansion that occurs in the oven.
The dough gets further stretched as you shape it into loaves. As you fold and shape the bread, you’re creating tension over the dough’s surface so that it will just about pop open when slashed with the razor. For nicely shaped loaves, be sure to seal your folds well using the heel of your hand. These seams will face strong pressure as the dough proofs and then expands during baking.
Step-by-Step: Shaping the loaves
Mimic a baker’s oven in your home
When the loaf hits the intense heat of the oven, all the gases trapped inside expand, and the loaf’s volume increases significantly. Bread bakers call this “oven spring.” Two things will help enhance this effect, giving you loaves closer to those from a baker’s oven: intense heat and moisture.
A pizza stone will deliver a more intense bottom heat. Heat the oven—with the stone in it—for at least 45 minutes before baking, so it really heats up.
Create steam to keep the crust moist during the initial stage of baking. This is important: you don’t want a hard crust to form before the expansion is complete. Be careful with the spray bottle and aim for the loaves. Don’t hit the oven’s light bulb with the water or it may shatter. And don’t put out the pilot light in a gas stove: I did that once and by the time I realized what had happened, I’d wrecked my bread.
Experiment with flavors that complement this rye
Much of the rye bread familiar to Americans is flavored with caraway (even the non-seeded ryes often contain caraway powder). In fact, some people so associate this flavor with rye that they don’t think a rye without it tastes like rye. For this recipe, however, I didn’t want the assertive flavor of caraway to overpower the subtler earthiness of the rye itself. There are other spices, however, that marry well with the rye flavor and could provide variations to this recipe. Try kneading in 1/2 teaspoon of ground coriander or a bit of ground anise or fennel seeds.
The earthy flavor of this rye bread enhances delicately smoked or cured meats and fish. Or try it with a rich soup, like split pea or beef barley. The French traditionally enjoy rye bread with oysters; the oysters’ brininess is delightful against the robust rye. This is also a great bread for a ham and cheese sandwich—or even pastrami.