A Bit on Rye

I realized that all of the recipes I have posted so far have rye flour involved in some way. Some are 100% rye, while other use a slight touch of rye for the subtle nuttiness and depth that it gives to a finished loaf. Since it is evidently an integral part in my baking, I’ve decided to dedicate this entry exclusively to rye. I’ll talk a bit about its history, its use in baking, and other useful, interesting tidbits.

Rye, or secale cerale, is a member of the wheat family (Triticeae). It is used for flour, in the production of rye beer and some whiskies & vodka, as a cover crop, and as animal feed. Nutritionally rye is similar to most cereal grains, but it has higher levels of fiber, vitamin E, riboflavin, folacin, and pantothentic acid than wheat.

Image from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rye

Cultivated rye that we use today is thought to have originated from either Secale montanum, a wild species found in southern Europe, or Secale anatolicum, a wild variety native to Syria, Armenia, Iran, Turkestan, and the Kirghis Steppe. Rye was considered a weed in barley and wheat fields for many thousands of years and during this time coevolved with the two species. Domesticated rye did not become prevalent until the Bronze Age of Europe (c. 1900-1500 B.C.). During the Middle Ages rye was a main staple throughout most of Central and Eastern Europe. The English and the Dutch brought rye to the Americas on their trans-Atlantic voyages. In the United States, it is predominantly cultivated in the Great Plains. Russia, Poland, and Germany are currently the three lead producers of rye and in 2005 13.3 million metric tons of rye were produced globally.

Uses in baking
Rye flour is unique in that it has a low level of gluten as compared to wheat flours. The main structure of rye bread is therefore based on complex polysaccharides (such as rye starch), which can be easily broken down by amylases found in rye flour. Furthermore, rye amylases (enzymes that break down starch into maltose molecules) are active at higher temperatures than those found in wheat flour and thus often inhibit the rise of the dough in the oven.

In order to counteract the low levels of glutens and particularly active amylases, various methods are used. Firstly, the use of a sourdough culture that contains acid-producing Lactobacillus results in acidification of the dough and the inactivation of rye amylases, which cannot function in acidic environments. This method is particularly important for doughs that contain little to no gluten-rich wheat flours. Secondly, high-gluten flours can be added to the dough to compensate for the amylase activity and low gluten levels of the rye flour. This allows the bread to retain its structure as it bakes.

Rye Bread Varieties:
Rye bread is a staple of Northern and Eastern Europe. There are a wide variety of breads from different cultures. A few are listed below.

Westphalian Pumpernickel: A German-style bread that is made with a combination of rye flour & whole rye berries and traditionally involves the incorporation of a sourdough starter. The resulting dough is more like a batter and is thus baked in long narrow pans that have a lid. Pumpernickel also requires an extremely long baking time (16-24 hours) at a low temperature (250 °F or 120 °C) in a steam-filled oven. This slow bake gives the pumpernickel loaf its dark color. The resulting loaf is dense, moist, and grainy.

American Pumpernickel
: A bread that arises from the American Jewish culture and attempts to approximate the color of Westphalian pumpernickel by incorporating molasses, coffee, cocoa powder, or other darkening agents. This bread uses a combination of rye and wheat flour to ensure a better gluten structure, allowing for the loaves to be free standing. Often commercial yeast is used as well. In addition, some American bakers add caraway seeds to pumpernickel. Sometime, American pumpernickel is combined with a light rye dough to yield a bread that is both white and brown and is known as ‘marble rye’.

Volkornbrot: Made with whole rye grains and slowly baked at a low temperature in a pan, this bread is similar to traditional pumpernickel. Sunflower seeds, linseed, or other nuts are often added to it. The leavening agent may be either yeast or sourdough or a combination of the two. It is sliced thinly and often served with strong cheeses, cured meats, mustards, butter, and beer.

Rugbrød: A Danish rye bread that is in the form of a long brown rectangular loaf. Sourdough is used as a leavening agent and the bread is made with either exclusively rye flour or up to one-third whole rye grains. These breads are low in fat and contain no oil or flavoring (except salt). Rugbrød is generally found only in Denmark as it is not favored by other cultures due to its extreme sourness and density. The smørrebrød, or Danish open sandwich, uses buttered rugbrød as its base.

Ruisleipä or hapanleipä: A Finnish dark and sour rye bread whose name literally means ‘sour bread.’ Finnish rye breads, unlike German-style rye breads, lack a greasy or moist texture. Included in this category of breads are Limppu and Reikäleipä. Limppu is a traditional eastern-Finnish rye bread that is in the form of a round loaf. Reikäleipä (or literally ‘hole bread’) is a traditional western-Finnish rye bread that is in the form of large, flat discs with a central hole. The breads are baked and then placed on poles suspended below the kitchen ceiling to be dried and stored.

Limpa: ‘Limpa’ literally means ‘loaf’ in Swedish, but has come to be associated in the Untied States with a bread that is made with a combination of white wheat flour and rye flour, sweetened with molasses, enriched with milk, and contains various spices, such as orange rind, fennel, caraway, and anise seeds. This type of limpa made around Christmas time in Sweden is also known as vörtlimpa (“wort loaf”) because it was traditionally made with fermented brewer’s wort produced during the beer-making process.

Crisp breads: Originating in Sweden, but also prepared in Finland, Baltic countries, Poland, & Germany, crisp bread comes in three varieties: normal yeast fermented, sourdough fermented, and cold bread crisp bread. Cold bread crisp breads are baked without any sort of leavening agent, but rather achieve the correct texture from a foaming process during which air is incorporated into cool dough. Crisp breads tend to have a long shelf life due to their low water content.

Other tidbits:
Rye is extremely susceptible to the ergot fungus. Human and animal consumption of ergot-diseased rye causes ergotism, a disease that can cause convulsions, miscarriage, necrosis, and hallucinations. Some northern European countries have experienced epidemics of ergotism during particularly damp years.

‘Pumpernickel’ is thought to derive from the words ‘pumpen,’ the German synonym for being flatulent, and “nickel,” a form of the name Nicholas, a name associated with a goblin or the devil. Thus, pumpernickel as a single word means ‘devil’s fart,’ perhaps because it can be a difficult bread to digest.


2 Responses to “A Bit on Rye”

  1. Awesome informative post. I’m always looking for information on rye breads and specific variations but they’re usually in a language I can’t understand. I come across these bread names frequently but have no idea what they are.

  2. How handy is this? I’ve just recently thought it would be fun to try making one of those dark dense square loaves that are sold in Eastern European delis – but had no idea what they were called.

    Now, I just have to find a source of rye flour….

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