Sourdough rye is an ancient food. Its rich, full flavor and deep color is the basis of a large number of traditional breads. Today, modern wheat has displaced rye, making many beloved breads less common in bakeries and on our tables. However, it is possible and fun to make old favorites at home. Before cooking with rye flour, it may be helpful to learn more about this amazing grain and how to use it.
WHAT MAKES RYE DIFFERENT FROM WHEAT?
Wheat has a very complicated genetic structure and is high in gluten. All that gluten means it will make soft, lofty bread with ease. Rye is quite different. The same techniques that work for wheat don’t always work for rye.
Rye is very low in gluten, so kneading is neither necessary nor useful. Rye does contain gluten, but in a form which is not able to form the tight, stretchy network found in wheat flour. Instead, rye relies on pentosans to hold together into dense, rustic bread. These properties make rye bread wonderful for someone who doesn’t want to spend time kneading.
Amylase is an enzyme contained in all starchy food. It breaks complex starches into sugars. Amylase in wheat is not very heat-tolerant. During baking, it is prevented from interfering with an even rise. Rye amylase can survive higher temperatures. That property combined with a weak gluten structure and the overaction of many yeasts consuming the plentiful starches, can cause rye bread to quickly deflate into hard, gooey patties in the oven. Thankfully, acids produced during a traditional souring slow amylase, producing lighter loaves of bread.
The pentosans holding the bread together also impact the way water works in rye bread. Those who have tried to mix rye and flour hoping to make a workable dough, may have decided rye makes great cement! Pentosans are very absorbent. As they swell, they form a network capable of trapping gases from the leaven. It is best to mix the ingredients enough to combine well, and then let them sit.
TIPS FOR WORKING WITH RYE
Be sure to use a fresh sourdough starter and mix ingredients together well. Trying to add more flour to make a stiffer dough is not advised. A thick paste-like consistency can result in wonderful loaves. In general, the less rye dough is handled, the better the final outcome. For a more wheat-like loaf, use at least 25% wheat flour to boost the gluten levels in the dough.
Using a traditional sourdough starter introduces acids, improving the texture of the bread. Remember that acid helps to slow the action of the amylase. It also consumes some of the sugars, slowing the yeast and preventing over-proofing the bread.
Free-form loaves can be made with rye flour, but most 100% rye breads work best with a pan of some sort. The dough is quite dense, so smaller loaves bake faster and more evenly than larger loaves. Mini pans, small baking dishes or casseroles, and specialty rye bread pans are all good choices. A basket can be used, but be sure to flour it well so the sticky dough can be released.
Rye bread can be baked at a range of temperatures, though 400-425°F (210°C) is preferred by many bakers. Expect loaves to take much longer than an all-wheat bread. To check for doneness, tip the bread out of the pan and thump the bottom. If the loaf sounds hollow, it is done. If not, return to the oven quickly and bake longer. An average sized loaf of rye bread takes 1-2 hours to bake.
The acids from the sourdough, combined with the properties of rye flour, make rye bread a great candidate for weekly baking. A loaf of rye stays very moist just below the crust and actually improves with age!
Rye can be a wonderful flour to bake with once you understand how it works. For those who avoid wheat, want to recreate an old family recipe, or just expand their baking skills, rye bread is worth learning how to make.