My Favorite Rye Bread
It's hard to find a loaf that lives up to memories--so now I make my own!
If there’s one food I could never give up, it’s bread. And if there’s one bread I wouldn’t relinquish, it's rye—the kind made with a sourdough starter that causes your nose pucker when you park it over the bowl and sends your mind racing back to childhood and—for me—to those long tan, seed-speckled loaves that were a fixture at our table when I was a kid.
The folks at Langer’s attribute the crunchy crust on the rye bread in their famed pastrami sandwich to double-baking the bread, a trick that I suspect several delis employ. But, when we brought a loaf home, it never quite equaled the crunch of the bread we had eaten at Langer’s, even when I tried baking it a second time in the oven.
Trader Joe’s used to carry an excellent corn rye we loved, but, alas, TJ’s no longer stocks it because, I was told, “it didn’t sell well.” For a rye obsessive, there really is nothing for it but to try to bake your own—or head to your nearest Jewish deli, which, sadly, is becoming an endangered species. (These days, perhaps all independent restaurants are on the endangered list!)
Baking rye bread is something I’ve been attempting now for more than a decade. Check out my previous posts on how to make a sourdough rye starter, a sourdough potato rye recipe, and a raisin-pecan rye bread recipe.
This week, I found a recipe that created a loaf so sour and delicious that I had to make it a second time because we devoured the first loaf so quickly.
It’s a King Arthur recipe, and I wouldn’t recommend it to beginning bread bakers—unless you want a challenge, which perhaps you do. Even after more than 10 years of baking ryes, I haven’t perfected them. And, after reading King Arthur writer Barb Alpern’s 2016 two-part blog on developing this recipe, I realize what a deep dive rye baking can be—and not to expect perfection.
I’ve learned that using rye flour is particularly tricky—with doughs tending to be on the sticky side, temperature-sensitive, and recalcitrant risers. Alpern compares wheat and rye to dogs and cats. Wheat, she says, “is more like your friendly, affable and generally eager to please dog; it’s easy to work with and does what you want it to (most of the time).”
Rye, however, is more catlike: “a little finicky in its needs and tastes and not quite so compliant,” Alpern says. (With a 10-month-old terror of a kitten, I can attest to that!)
Rye works best when combined with a sourdough starter, which prevents it from developing a gummy texture. Also, since rye flour, though not gluten-free, has a lot less gluten than wheat flour, to get the required rise and to avoid having a bread that emerges from your oven like a bowling ball more suitable for throwing than consuming, it pays to add at least half wheat flour to your mixture—sometimes a lot more.
Most deli ryes contain much much less than that—one of my favorite rye recipes contains about 25% rye. Alpern says her recipe contains just shy of 40%. She uses whole grain pumpernickel flour—King Arthur’s organic brand—to give the bread a more “old world” flavor. Most deli ryes use a much more refined rye flour called white rye.
I wondered why the bread I grew up calling just “rye bread” was referred to as “Jewish rye bread.” Turns out that, like bagels, it was commonly made in Ashkenazi Jewish communities in Europe and was brought to this country, as well as to Canada and Israel, by immigrant Jewish bakers. The bread was also called sissel bread for the caraway seeds in it (sissel is caraway seed in Yiddish).
This recipe calls for both a sourdough starter—which, unless you happen to have a rye starter on hand, begins with a tablespoon of a starter you may already have in your fridge (a lot of us made them during this pandemic!), plus pumpernickel flour and water. The bread also requires a slightly fermented mash of bread cubes (preferably from the last rye loaf you made) and water. The mash is called “altus” or “old bread soaker.” According to George Greenstein, author of one of my favorite bread cookbooks, Secrets of a Jewish Baker, adding altus is an old-style method used by European bakers to give certain breads, particularly pumpernickel ryes, added flavor and moisture. It’s also an economical way to use up stale bread!
I won’t go into more detail as Alpern goes to great lengths to explain the process, along with how she came up with her Jewish Rye Bread recipe in a 2-part blog post—see Part 1 here and Part 2 here. But I loved the result—a little too much since I kept carving off slices and now have just about enough leftover bread to start the next rye loaf (and have undoubtedly packed on a few pounds in the process!).
And I will have to try it again—the last two loaves cracked more than I would have liked, a result of rising the dough insufficiently in a cold kitchen and, perhaps, choosing to bake the bread in a Dutch oven instead of on a stone with steam, as recommended. But, as Alpern says, “we're making bread, not works of art.” The point is to have fun and make delicious bread. And if you don’t feel like baking rye—and even if you do—buy some at your local deli; they need your support!
Below are a few photos of the process:
Of course, one of the reasons I bake bread, whether rye or any other kind, is to serve it with soup, which we have quite often at our house. This week, our rye was a perfect accompaniment to a bowl of chicken soup with semolina and bulgur dumplings—called Chamo Kubbe—an Iraqi-Kurdish recipe from a terrific book called Israeli Soul, by Michael Solomonov and Steven Cook, authors of the equally excellent Zahav. All and all, it was a comfort meal to cap off a troubled pandemic year and welcome in one we hope will be far better.
Do you love rye like I do? Do you have a favorite deli, bakery or grocery where you buy it? Would you ever consider making it—or is it too steep a mountain (don’t blame you!). Please leave me a comment and let me know.
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