I find rye extremely interesting. It is one of man’s oldest grains, found growing wild throughout Europe, especially in the colder, northern climes – it is not as old as wheat and its relatives, and it often ‘forced’ itself on the growers of wheat, as it often naturalized in the fields of wheat – it was not cultivated purposely until the fifth century – yet its commonality contributed to its general unpopularity among the elite – making rye a peasant bread throughout its history.
Adding to its unpopularity was the fact that rye flour was not easy to work with and caused problems in the bakery. And if that wasn’t enough, about the year, 900, periodic epidemics of a serious disease, Ergot of Rye, began to occur across Europe, the cause of which -a parasitic rye grain fungus- would only be discovered as the culprit in 1670. Rye has only, in the last few centuries, begun to shed its negative reputation, until today, its fan base has entirely shifted – rye is now a bread of the elite, leaving the more common white bread to the masses.
Still, rye breads are far from popular in the U.S. – I suspect that they enjoy a greater appreciation in Europe, where true rye bread has a deep tradition. Rye’s history in America is also interesting, only arriving here with the great migration of the nineteenth century – especially with those from Germany, Scandinavia, Poland and Russia. While all those cultures brought their rye bread traditions with them to America, the most famous rye bread was, without doubt, Jewish Rye, most easily identified by its liberal use of caraway seed, something not seen in other European ryes.
But something interesting happened to all the ethnic ryes as they came to America – they all seemed to change from the 100% rye of the homelands and began to incorporate large percentages of white flour. Additionally, they often shifted from being a traditional sourdough to a yeasted loaf. But there were good reasons for these changes, besides the oft-heard rationale of leaving the old ways behind. First, no changes at all were occurring in the home kitchens of the new immigrants – they were more than willing to keep the old traditions alive. The changes were occurring in the bakeries, and for perfectly good reasons – at the same time as the great migration, there was a shift within the baking industry from wood burning ovens to those using gas and coal (and later, electric). This was occurring much faster in America than in Europe, since the majority of bakeries in America were new, while those in Europe were old, and held on to their old traditions and equipment as long as it was feasible.
This single change was significant, especially in the baking of rye breads – the old European tradition of baking 100% ryes called for a long, slow baking, with sourdough as the leavening. This traditionally occurred late at night, in the slowly cooling wood ovens of the bakeries, which was the perfect complement to the dense, moist 100% ryes.
On the other hand, the newer coal and gas ovens of the American bakeries heated and cooled much faster than did their counterparts in Europe, which was seen as an improvement over the old wood ovens, since this increased efficiency and profit. But the change required a shift from the 100% ryes to a mix of rye and white flours, to facilitate the use of commercial yeast to speed the process, and to allow the development of more gluten in the loaf.
The move away from sourdough seemed a natural companion shift with the newer, faster ovens, since those who continued to use sourdough could not bake as many loaves in the same work time. The only problem was for the public to eventually accept the changes and instead begin to buy the yeasted, lighter ryes that the bakeries were producing. Sadly, that is exactly what the public did, and the long, slow baked 100% ryes of Europe soon became only a memory in America.
This regrettable shift is the basis of a rant of bread guru, Jeffrey Hamelman, who spends a fair amount of space in his seminal book, Bread, to condemn the development of American Jewish Rye – he characterizes it simply as a profit driven move by the baking industry, and shares the blame with the American public for being so willing to accept an ‘inferior’ loaf of rye. I’d agree with the last point, but what’s new about that? But I don’t think Hamelman fairly states the ‘whys’ that were driving the baking industry at the time, nor do I think he is fair about the quality of the bread that has come to be known as Jewish Rye – some people like the taste of caraway, Jeffrey. However, he does include several of what he calls ‘light ryes’ in the book, including one which he suggests comes close to an American Jewish Rye – I’ve never bothered to try his version!
Having not grown up on a steady diet of dark European ryes, I must admit to an appreciation of good Jewish Rye – and although I have developed a taste for dark ryes of late, I still think a good Jewish Rye is the ultimate sandwich bread. And if you agree, Nancy Silverton‘s book, Breads from the La Brea Bakery is a good place to start – I love that although there is not one word about it on the book’s cover, Silverton’s book is 100% sourdough! To date, I’ve made maybe 6 or 7 breads from it, and not one has been a disappointment – don’t know that I could say that about any other bread book I own – and you baker-types know exactly what I’m saying.
Silverton’s contribution to the repertoire of Jewish Ryes is one which she calls, Izzy’s New York Rye – this is a good choice, given that New York was the epicenter of American-Jewish baking during the twentieth century, and thatis a transplanted New York baker. But Silverton admits right away that if this were her bread, she’d use more dark rye flour than the traditional white rye used in a classic Jewish rye bread – and that will be the essential adaption I make with the formula I share with you today.
America’s flour mills make rye a complex subject for home bakers – their attitude seems to be that no one should need or want anything but the lightest of rye flours, known as white rye. However, since there are no standards by which flour mills label what they sell as rye flour, and since what a home baker most often finds in their grocery is labeled simply Rye Flour – who knows what it is? Supposedly, we in America have white (light, least amount of bran fiber) rye, medium (medium amount of bran fiber) rye, and dark (whole grain, maximum amount of bran fiber) rye – but I don’t see these types in my stores. And I really don’t care, since I now grind my own, which I know is then a whole grain, dark rye. That makes a very hearty and dark bread, but it has a full, rich flavor – and I have no complaints about any of that. But for most others, god knows what they’re getting.
I should note that when I made this bread, it handled quite well in my KA spiral mixer – I don’t remember this happening before, when instead, the rye dough would move around the bottom of the mixer bowl, but never pick up and pull away from the sides of the mixer bowl – this may well be because whole grain rye has a reputation of absorbing more liquid than do the other types, or it may just be the nature of this recipe – it would be interesting to know if others had the same experience re the ease of handling.
But I do hope you’ll take a shot at what I think is a superb example of American Jewish Rye, and which I know will still be excellent no matter what changes you make.
Izzy’s New York Rye
(from Nancy Silverton’s ‘Breads from the La Brea Bakery’)
- 16 ozs cold water (about 2 cups)
- 1.2 oz yeast (4 tsp. yeast)
- 20 oz rye starter* (about 2 cups)
- 19 oz high gluten white bread flour (about 5 cups)
- 13 oz white (light) rye flour (about 4 cups) [I used freshly ground whole grain rye – you may use whatever you find]
- 3 Tbs caraway seeds, plus some for sprinkling
- 1.5 tsp chernushka seeds**, plus some for sprinkling
- 1 Tbs salt
- 4 oz polenta or corn meal
- 1 cup water
- 1 tsp corn starch
* You can easily create a rye starter by simply using rye flour to refresh your white starter for a time or two before using.
** This is a seed with a thousand names! My supplier calls it, Nigella – it is also commonly known as black cumin – if you can’t find this, just skip it, it’s a rather acquired taste anyway – or use fennel for a nice change!
- Put cold water, yeast, rye starter, flours, and caraway and chernushka seeds into the bowl of a heavy duty mixer with a dough hook – mix on low speed for 3 minutes – the dough should be wet and sticky.
- Let the dough rest in the mixer for about 10-15 minutes.
- Add salt – continue mixing on medium speed for about 8 minutes, or until the dough reaches an internal temp of 70 degrees – it may, or may not, pull away from the sides of the mixer bowl.
- Move the dough to a lightly oiled bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and allow it to ferment at room temp until double in size, about an hour and a half.
- Turn the dough out to a board that has been lightly floured – cut the dough into two and knead each piece briefly to deflate – roll each piece into a ball and cover with a towel – let rest for 15 minutes.
- Preheat your oven to 500 F, one hour prior to baking.
- On a clean board, place each dough ball in the middle of the board, and place your hands on the top, and roll them back and forth as it begins to make a football shape – do not let it get longer than 12″ – as you shape the loaf, pull the skin of the dough tight and fold it under so the loaf has a smooth skin.
- Place the polenta into a small tray – take each loaf and place the bottom of each on the polenta covered tray – press the loaf gently into the polenta and rock it in the polenta so the loaf picks up polenta on the bottom and 1″ up the sides of the loaf – if your loaves are dry and won’t pick up much polenta, try wetting the bottom surface of your loaves before trying again.
- Either place each loaf on a sheet pan, or if baking them on a stone, place each loaf on a small piece of baker’s parchment – cover with a towel and allow to proof at room temp for 45 minutes – during the last 15 minutes, check the loaves frequently to see if any tiny cracks are forming, or if any or the small bubbles on the bread’s surface have popped – if you see either of those, the bread is ready to be baked.
- Uncover the loaves and either spray lightly with water, or brush water over the tops – and sprinkle a tsp of chernushka and a tsp of brown caraway seeds on each loaf.
- Dock each loaf by pressing a wet finger 1″ into the center of the loaf (this is equal to slashing the top of a loaf – Jewish Rye is not traditionally slashed).
- Open the oven door and spritz the hot interior heavily – quickly close the oven door – wait one minute, and do the same again, but this time also load the loaves into the oven – now spritz again before shutting the door of the oven.
- Reduce the oven temperature to 450 F – spritz the inside of the oven two more times at 5 minutes and 10 minutes into the bake time – now do not open the oven door again for 20 minutes.
- After 20 minutes, open the oven and rotate the loaves – continue baking for an additional 15-20 minutes, for a total bake time of 40-45 minutes.
- In the last few minutes of baking, bring a cupful of water to the boil in a small saucepan – while heating, mix a tsp of cornstarch with a Tbs of cold water until it is dissolved -when the water boils, add the dissolved cornstarch mixture – stir quickly as it begins to boil again, and continue until it has thickened slightly – remove from heat and set aside.
- Check the breads to see if they are done (internal temps should be 200 F or more) – if they are done, move them from the oven to a cooling rack – immediately brush on a thin coating of the cornstarch mixture – this needs to be done quickly or it will soften the bread’s crust as it cools.
- Allow breads to cool for at least 30 minutes before slicing.