The Intrinsic Excitement of Rye

An 100% Rye Sourdough Leavened Normandy Rye Loaf

I am off on another new bread adventure – these are always like planning a new travel location, since investigating a new bread scape means you inject your own subjective feelings, opinions, and fantasies into the process.  And just like travel planning, it becomes quite a voyeuristic endeavor – so much so, in fact, that when you finally get to really bake your new bread -or arrive at your new destination- you discover a disappointment, for the process of learning and discovering is often actually more satisfying than is the reality of arriving in a new land, or biting into a new bread.

My new bread adventure is taking me to the world of ryes – not an entirely new world to me, but not one where I stayed around long enough to learn much – and I can certainly say that I’ve never done an ‘immersion’ into really learning a lot about this fascinating, but often frustrating segment of the bread world.  But recently, as a member of Mellow Bakers -a group devoted to working their way through Jeff Hamelman’s book, ‘Bread– I baked a relatively challenging loaf of rye that Hamelman calls, ‘Horst Bandel’s, Black Pumpernickel’ – this particular loaf was challenging enough that I decided to wade through Hamelman’s significant segments of background info on rye itself and its use as a bread flour.  By the time I had finished that effort -and Hamelman devotes a goodly amount of his book to rye- I’d been inspired to learn more, and to spend more time baking more rye breads as well.

Well, for the month of January, Mellow Bakers choose another of Hamelman’s ryes, this time the trio of Detmolder Three Stage Ryes, arguably the most challenging ryes of the book, in a world where. arguably, rye reigns as the most challenging grain a baker may choose!  I thought about this for a bit and decided that my rye education just wasn’t far enough advanced for me to dive right into the Detmolder trio – at least not at this early stage in my current fascination of rye itself.

I looked over my collection of bread books for an author who had given rye a place of respect, but who had also included several sourdough rye recipes in their book – and the one I finally choose to bite into was Nancy Silverton‘s, ‘Breads From The La Brea Bakery‘.  Silverton was Wolfgang Puck’s early pastry chef at Spago in L.A., before she and her husband, Mark Peel opened their very successful restaurant, ‘Campanile‘, and she says the original motivation for La Brea Bakery was simply as a source of good breads for the restaurant – but her experience at Spago had taught her the folly of using the same kitchen to bake breads and pastries, while using the same space for serious food preparation as well – so the bakery and the restaurant would remain separate.

But Silverton also admits that it was her time spent in Paris, for pastry training, that introduced her to really excellent breads, and especially those with a natural, wild yeast base – upon her return, her new interest in bread soon developed into an obsession with sourdough, and her self-directed education led her in every possible direction as she collected bits and pieces of knowledge – but she knew that the true way to learn was by doing, and so The La Brea Bakery was born.

‘Breads From The La Brea Bakery’ is a baker’s delight – it is written with the excitement of one who is discovering a new joy -and sharing that joy with you- but it is also written from the perspective of an author who knows their bread well enough to be able to bake off hundreds, maybe thousands, of those loaves on a daily basis.  You learn a lot when you have this kind of experience behind you!

And there’s one more thing about Nancy Silverton that endears her to the readers of her book – she has a reputation for ‘telling all’.  She has included in ‘La Brea Bakery’ the formulas for the most popular breads of the bakery.  Hopefully, this is a trend which will catch on with other cookbook authors, for currently it is the norm to simply smile and refuse to reveal the secret recipe that makes ‘Chef X’s’ restaurant or bakery so popular.  This regrettable trend has contributed to the immense popularity of copycat recipe books such as Todd Wilbur’s – Whatever, … it sure is nice to see a chef/baker willing to share the ‘how to’ on something they sell everyday.

Now, here’s what I like about Silverton’s book most of all – take a look at the cover – do you see the word ‘sourdough’ anywhere on it?

Photo courtesy of

No, ’cause it ain’t there – and yet, there’s not one bread in her whole book that isn’t made with sourdough – and that probably means that there are no breads sold at La Brea Bakery that aren’t sourdough!  I love it!  Yeah, I know that some readers/bakers would object to picking up a bread book that they thought was mainstream, and then finding that it was 100% sourdough – but there’s a not-so-subtle message here, and that message is that natural wild yeast is basic – and this is a book about basic bread!  It’s commercial yeast, invented to bring consistency and speed to the world of bread, that’s the off-center newcomer to the party.  Sourdough is the original, the natural wild leavening that needs no apology in the way of introduction – it’s real bread – and this is a real bread book.

To date, I’ve baked maybe 10 or 12 breads from ‘La Brea’, each one a success.  Is that coincidence?  Maybe – but frankly, I’ve done enough baking that I always bake a new bread expecting that I’ll have to have a few swipes at it before I get a good hit – this is just the nature of baking.  But strangely, I’ve never had that experience with this book – all my La Brea breads have been good ones, first time up.

OK, there’s my collection of positives for this book – but you guys know me as a cynic and critic, and there must be something in here that I could so target – right?  Well of course there is – Ms. Silverton, in another notable contribution of merit for a cookbook author, not only suggests to us that when baking rye breads, one should use a rye starter, she then goes to the trouble of giving us detailed instructions on just how we can take our current pet sourdough starter and in three days turn it into a rye starter.  Now, this too is wonderful info, and it’s something that in all my years of baking and reading bread books, I’ve never seen before!  She begins by telling us that there’s a world of difference between a wheat and a rye sourdough starter, and that because of the chemical differences, the rye starter is a much faster fermenter/proofer than is the wheat starter – she then outlines a three day process for transitioning a wheat starter into a rye starter.  And here’s where she loses me.

The process that Silverton gives us is a symphony of arcane instruction – each day she has us adding large amounts of rye flour and water – always a different amount of flour and water – and never a word of ‘why?’ this is.  This is quite out of character for Ms. Silverton, for the rest of her wonderful book is a study in detailed explanation – What happened here?  Additionally, she twice warns us that our mixture may get too thick, and if so, we should add more water.  However, nowhere in the process are the ratios of flour and water such as to result in a ‘thick’ mixture – this fact, and her strange warning, lead us to believe that somehow her instructions are faulty, and that perhaps the amounts are incorrect.

Notwithstanding this glitch, the resulting rye starter works superbly – so, if you wish, you may simply ignore my rant, and get on with your baking.  However, I shall not share with you here Silverton’s process for changing a white sourdough starter into a rye starter – instead I’d suggest that you simply make the transition in the same way you currently feed and maintain your normal starter, with the possible exception of increasing the number of feedings to three a day for two or three days, and using rye flour.  And once you’ve done that, you’ll be ready to try what I think is perhaps the best ‘La Brea’ bread I’ve baked to date, namely, Normandy Rye.

Good Even Crumb Throughout

Normandy Rye

(adapted from Nancy Silverton’s ‘Breads From The La Brea Bakery’)
25% rye flour
72% hydration (if you trust my math!)

Sponge Ingredients – Day One:
8 ozs. cool water (70 degrees F)
1 Tbs barley malt syrup
13.5 ozs. rye starter
3 ozs. high protein white bread flour
3 ozs. dark rye flour

Mix all the above into a sponge, cover with plastic wrap, and leave at room temp for 24 hours.  If the room temp is 80 F, or above, give it 8-12 hours at room temp, and then refrigerate for the remaining time.

Ingredients – Day Two:
All the Sponge from Day One
8 ozs. cool water (70 degrees F)
8 ozs. fermented apple cider (I used Hornsby’s Hard Cider)
29 ozs. high protein bread flour
1 oz. dark rye flour
1 Tbs. sea salt
1-2 Tbs. vital gluten (optional)

Place water, cider, flours, and all the Sponge from Day One into a mixing bowl, and mix with a dough hook on a standing mixer (lowest speed) for two minutes.  Cover mixer bowl (leave on mixer) and leave for 20 minutes.

Add salt, and continue mixing on machine (use med. low – two on K.A.) for 8 minutes until dough is about 78 degrees F.  Dough should be soft and a bit sticky.  Remove from mixing bowl and move to a lightly floured board – hand knead for a few minutes.

Clean the mixing bowl, dry, and coat with oil – move the dough to the oiled bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and let it ferment at room temp for about two hours, or until it doubles in volume.

Move the fermented dough to a work surface, cut it into two pieces and form into rounds – sprinkle with rye or rice flour, and place each into prepared proofing baskets – cover and allow to proof for about 1 or 2 hours (avoid over-proofing these – they’re fast for a sourdough!).

Turn on oven about 1 hour before baking time, and allow to preheat to 500 degrees F.  Silverton uses special shaped baskets for this bread and bakes them as an oval loaf – this gives them a distinct look, but there is of course no reason why they can’t be baked as round loaves as well.  Score them as you wish, but expect a healthy oven spring (even though I proofed in round baskets, I scored these as Silverton does, as if the loaves were ovals – and they tend to open in the oven with an oval shape).

These need steam during the beginning of their bake session – use whatever method you like, but give them a good steaming for the first five minutes of the bake time (if you use a pan with boiling water, remove it from the oven after 5 minutes).  As soon as loaves are placed into oven, lower the baking temp to 475 F, and once the steaming is done, do not open the oven door for 20 minutes.  After they’ve baked for 25 minutes, reposition the loaves in the oven to allow for even browning.  If the loaves are getting too brown, lower the temp to 450 F, and stick a metal tool into the oven door to hold it ajar – continue baking another 10 minutes for a total of 35 minutes bake time.  I wanted a 205 F internal temp, but as you can see, my loaves exceeded that – they were fine!

Amazing Oven Spring - Especially For a Rye

Nice Thin Crispy Crust - From Lots of Early Steam

My Notes:
Note that Silverton calls for using ‘dark rye’ – this may not be available to everyone, since it’s not as popular as ‘white rye’ – But both she and Hamelman claim it has the most flavor among all rye flours.  I’m also using whole dark rye, which is always what you will get when you are grinding your own grain.  The difference between white rye and dark rye is simply how much sifting is done at the mill – whole rye is always dark rye!

This is a wet dough – it’s not overly wet, and depending on your own flours, yours may not be wet – but I couldn’t get my dough off the bottom of the KA mixer bowl – so after several minutes of mixing, I added a Tbs of vital gluten, and almost immediately the dough tightened up and pulled into a ball.  It’s a nice trick to remember.

BTW, this is a 25% rye mix, and rye being a bit temperamental, doesn’t take to excess mixing – over-mixing a rye dough can result in it breaking down and becoming slack – so if you’re thinking about adding some gluten, do it early on.  And don’t add more flour!

My dough was a quick proofer!  Very aggressive – I attribute that to a starter that had just gone for 3 days with 4 refreshes a day.  No matter what kind of starter you use here -and I wouldn’t think twice about using a white starter- if it gets fed 4x a day for 3 days, it’ll be aggressive!  But whatever you do with this bread, don’t let it over-proof on you – give it lots of finger pokes, and when it springs back slowly, your bread is ready for the oven – but is your oven ready?  Turn it on before you start the final proofing.

In case you’re wondering, rye and sourdough are a great natural combination – and the reason why you’ll most often see a recipe for rye bread using a sourdough starter is that the acidic character of sourdough corrects several of rye’s quirks – they are a natural pair, and often bakers who seldom use sourdough, will use some with their rye breads just for this reason – it gives a better rise than with yeast alone.

Think It's Burned? Nope, That's What Flavor Looks Like!

A Nice Consistent Sourdough Rye Crumb

This is a fun rye!  And it’s got tons of flavor, and a crisp, chewy crust – if you’re a fan of caramelized crust, you’ll love this one.  In fact, about the only negative here is that this is a two day affair – But then, don’t we already know that there’s always a reward for patiently waiting?


About drfugawe

I'm a guy with enough time to do as I please, and that my resources allow. The problem(s) are: I have 100s of interests; I have a short attention span; I have instant expectations; I'm lazy; and I'm broke. But I'm OK with all that, 'cause otherwise I'd be so busy, I'd be dead in a year.
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18 Responses to The Intrinsic Excitement of Rye

  1. What an adventure, Doc! And such a gorgeous crumb to show for it. I love how well the dough held the slashes..

  2. Glenn says:

    That is some seriously nice looking bread. What I’d give for a slice right now, with some butter……………………

  3. joanna says:

    Looks like a very handsome loaf – bet it was bursting with flavour after that long and complex build.

    When you say the starter is aggressive I guess you mean that it is full of very active yeasts reproducing away, isn’t that what you expect if you have been feeding it that frequently? I’m interested to know if it was milder than usual, as my experience is that with lots of frequent feeds and a warmish temperature you get a sweeter milder sourdough, it’s how you build the starter for Susan Wild Yeast’s panettone too and that’s a sweet mild but aggressive starter.

    I wonder how this one differs from the Hamelman Normandy bread, I must admit I am more than tempted to try yours instead…

    • drfugawe says:

      Absolutely right on! With all that frequent feeding, it doesn’t get a chance to be sour – and the ferment is short as well – so, yes, it’s a sweet rye, which I find very pleasant. The caramelization provides a slightly ‘bitter’ tone, which is offset well by the sweetness of the cider. I’d bet that most folks who associate rye taste with caraway, wouldn’t even guess this was a rye bread (like 99% of Americans).

      I took last month off Mellow Bakers, but I’m back this month – and I think I’ll do Hamelman’s Normandy Rye so I can compare them. Is he using a hard cider or sweet? Actually, even though I used a hard cider here, it was still very sweet!

  4. Is hard cider what we call here dry cider? Or is it more like West Country ‘scrumpy’?, high in alcohol and quite rough and raw?

    JH says ‘use unfiltered and unpasteurized cider if available for superior flavour’

    • drfugawe says:

      I’m not that familiar with U.K. ciders, but what they call ‘hard cider’ here is just fermented sweet apple cider – it’s not very popular here, and I can only find one brand in one store.

      When I do a bread with an ale or beer, I’m always a little afraid of the CO2 interfering with the yeasts, so I usually let it go flat before using it – but with this one I used it as soon as I opened the bottle – and from the aggressiveness of the proof, there obviously was no ill effect from the CO2.

  5. ?? OK, now I have gone and googled ‘what is hard cider’ and discover, is this right? That cider in the US is non alcoholic? It’s just apple juice? Not fermented, not fizzy, nada? In England and Ireland as far as I know cider is always alcoholic, though the levels and styles are variable. So, is the Hamelman recipe using apple juice then not proper cider??? I think I’d better enquire…

    • drfugawe says:

      OK, it’s coming back to me now (see, I told you I didn’t know much about cider in the U.K.). Yes, US cider is always non alcoholic (except when it’s ‘hard cider’). But there are two kinds of sweet cider: fresh cider, which is always refrigerated lest it begin fermenting quickly; and a mass produced, pasteurized stuff which is never called cider, but rather, apple juice. So when they turn sweet cider into alcoholic cider here, they call it, hard cider.

      When Hamelman talks about using sweet cider in his bread, he means the first kind (non alcoholic, and non pasteurized). Above where I said,” ‘hard cider’ here is just fermented sweet apple cider”, I meant fermented to imply alcoholic – I think that was confusing.

  6. Well, not confusing if you are American 🙂 This one ranks along with corn flour and pumpernickel in the shifting meanings of words section of my baking brain. Thank you for helping me out.

    Sweet cider in England is simply a sweet alcoholic cider

    We have sweet, semi dry, dry, scrumpy which is orange and slightly cloudy and very high in alcohol usually

    Apple juice, you can buy cloudy fresh unfiltered or the reconstituted stuff which is clear

    If you read Wiki you can see all the diferent varieties throughout the world, Swedish cider is made with other fruits for example.

    Apparently cider switched its meaning following Prohibition over your way….

    Thanks for being patient and explaining all this, I wouldn’t have known without your post!

  7. Interesting reading about rye and rye starter being converted from wheat starter. I was talking to my father today about his mother’s cornbread she always made every week.

    He doesn’t remember wouldn’t as a kid would you? But he says she always made some sort of mixture first the day before making her bread..I’m guessing this would be her sponge.

    He thinks she use to make her cornbread “Broa” sponge from rye flour…she used cornflour from corn she grew in her field and rye…

    It was an incredibly dense crumbly loaf..I would like to make it and when I get a chance might try the conversation of changing the starters…but the rest would be guess work to try and match my memories of that bread.

    A very good looking loaf you have there and looks like a light crumb for a rye…the sort that I would eat.

  8. hi I forgot to ask you, I’ve been meaning to post on the Fresh Loaf forum about recipes that use powdered maltose but then thought you may have the answer, do you know why you would choose that as appose to just adding ordinary sugar?

    There’s an Italian potato focaccia recipe I’ve been meaning to try that uses it and it made me wonder.

  9. How interesting Dr. I love ryes and have been playing with a few myself lately. I love the depth that you and Joanna go to with all the ‘nuts and bolts’ of the breads. I’m going to have to read it all again to take it in.
    Interesting also about the hard cider, I’d never heard the term before. As far as I know we are the same as England and cider is generally alcoholic, sweet or dry…haven’t heard of scrumpy before though.
    I agree, sourdough is ‘real bread’ 🙂

  10. Pingback: English Cider ‘n’ Apple Bread | Zeb Bakes

  11. Came back to this post because at the back of my mind while wondering amazon and Nancy Silverton name came up I had vague memory of that name and thought it was here I first read about it..and it was.

    Also remember you mentioning the conversion of wheat to rye starter since lately I’ve been wanting to try out some rye breads but can’t be bothered with beginning a rye starter just for those *lazy baker*.

    why is it a problem with over-mixing rye? I thought with it lacking gluten it would be fine as in no harm done?

    thanks! 🙂

  12. drfugawe says:

    I have a natural aversion to over-mixing any dough, no matter the grain – I think because I’ve ruined so many doughs by over-mixing. You’re asking another chemical question, and I don’t have a scientific answer – maybe I’m just not as curious as you – for the lazy baker in me, it’s enough to have learned that it’s good not to spend too much time on the mixer.

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