Rye Bread

Bread’s the “staff of life”. Milled grains, mixed with water and allowed to rise, then baked until golden is a staple food in much of the world.

In Hebrew, bread (LeCHeM) and war (MiLCHaMa) share the same root—L-CH-M, and are therefore related. According to Rav Shamshon Raphael Hirsch, earning our “bread” (which is synonymous with earning a living) and going to war are similar. In both cases, we have to “fight” to achieve victory.

Bread is so important in Judaism that in order for a repast to be defined as a meal it must begin with bread. In fact, in order to prepare for the eating of bread, we pour water over our already-cleaned hands and recite a blessing; then, we say another blessing over the bread itself. This blessing includes all the foods to follow, negating the necessity of saying a blessing for each individual type of food as we usually do.

After eating bread or a meal containing bread, we offer an ancient and complex group of blessings, a meditation actually, that in addition to thanking the Source of all our sustenance, delves into the eternal connection we have to our ancestral land of Israel, our sacred city Jerusalem, our appreciation for the various gifts G-d bestows upon us and so on. The blessing acknowledges our ancestors, our parents, our children and (if we’re guests at someone’s table), our hosts. We then move on to the rectification of the world, alluding to a future time when our food and drink will be spiritual food and drink and end with a blessing of peace, certainly the best possible outcome of the battles of war and the battles for livelihood.

Perhaps the condition of the average loaf of bread in America reflects the state of our ability to understand and appreciate that we receive our sustenance from a Divine source. The Jewish sages teach that we can easily fall prey to the illusion that our “work” produces our “bread”. Sure, we have to work—our work creates the vessel or container into which our blessing of sustenance is poured; without it, the blessing has “nowhere to go” and may end up on the floor or “stuck” in the spiritual realms.

We all know people with a “golden touch”. With seeming average effort they become very well off. And we also know others who work very hard, perhaps at two jobs, yet “cannot put bread on the table”. Judaism teaches there are many reasons G-d blesses and tests us with wealth and/or poverty.

A salient point—don’t judge others by their bank account! They may be rolling in “dough” or struggling—but as the saying goes, “We can’t know G-d’s measure”. We can never truly know if another’s financial situation requires a positive or negative value judgment.

Like most commercial breads, bakery-made “Jewish” or “corn” rye has become increasingly adulterated (and inedible) over the years. It used to be tangy and sour. Now, it’s loaded with yeast and dough conditioners. It generally consists of over-beaten (and oxygen bleached) white flour with a smattering of poor quality rye flour and a sprinkle of caraway seeds. A loaf used to weigh enough to severely bruise a toe if it dropped (yes, it happened to me when I was about five). I bet today if you threw a typical loaf at a window, it would bounce off.

Here in Brooklyn there simply aren’t any kosher artisan bakers that bake honest bread, let alone sourdough rye. What a shame. We have air-bread available on every corner and not a real loaf to be found.*

But we can bake real breads at home and honest sourdough rye is very easy to do if you don’t require perfection. Fall’s the time when I begin to bake sourdough breads. Sourdough is a sub-set of home-grown bread starters (for making bread without store-bought yeast). Not all homemade starters or breads made with them are sour, it depends on the temperature and they length of the ferment (proof).

According to Traditional Chinese Medicine, the fall is when most people may add more sour foods to their diets (and correspondingly reduce pungent foods). Obviously, we are all different and the appropriateness of any food depends on your personal health. Still, many people who cannot comfortably digest commercially yeasted bread have no problem eating even relatively large amounts of breads made with wild, home-cultured yeast, i.e., sourdough.

Studies show several benefits to eating sourdough breads, especially but not only, rye. Sourdough breads (even made with white flour) are far easier to digest than other breads (even if made with wholegrain flours). The starches in sourdough are actually pre-digested for you and you are able to assimilate more nutrients. Also of interest: sourdough does not spike the blood sugar the same way other breads do.

Also, rye is notoriously low in gluten. If you avoid today’s high-gluten wheat products for non-medical reasons (and you’re not allergic or celiac) sourdough rye might not bother you at all.

The lactobacillus (which is usually where much of the lactic acid in sourdough comes from, though other friendly bacteria do pinch-hit) is said to be destroyed during baking. Yet once the bread starts to mature, the bread sours noticeably.  I wonder if the friendly bacteria count rises, too? If you know, please email me at healthyblog@optimum.net.

Sourdough rye is in a class by its self. It’s even gentler on the blood sugar than other sourdough breads. Plus, rye flour has an array of health benefits. It’s loaded with minerals and B vitamins and other nutrients, plus tons of good quality fiber.

On the down side, rye berries, as the grains are called, can develop a fungus called ergot (which is where LSD comes from). Poor quality flours may contain small amounts of ergot-infected grain. You can nix this fear by buying the whole grain and grinding it yourself. Just remove any darker, unusually large grains from the batch before grinding.

If you plan to bake with purchased rye flour, it’s important to buy a fresh, organic dark rye flour. For this recipe, the darker the better. A good quality, widely available brand is  Bob’s Red Mill. If you buy it from a store near you, make sure that it’s a popular item—you don’t want a flour that’s been sitting on the shelf for ages. If you can’t find fresh flour it pays to order from a busy online source.

Unless you’re sure you’re going to be doing a lot of rye bread baking, small quantities go a long way. If you do buy enough to make more than one batch, make sure you keep it in a cool, dark place. If you don’t have a cool pantry, you might want to consider freezing any flours you have on hand. Put them in heavy plastic containers and wrap the outside of the containers with foil so they don’t pick up any off tastes.

Perhaps my recipe for sourdough rye bread below, can be better described as a guide to techniques and an ingredient list rather than a recipe, but don’t let that put you off. However, if you are a stickler for precision recipes, here are three of my favorite bread-baking books:

Artisan Baking, by Maggie Glezer (whose book, A Blessing of Bread, is wonderful tour of Jewish breads), which is a terrific book for the beginning to advanced home bread baker.

Bread: A Baker’s Book of Techniques and Recipes, by Jeffrey Hamelman, is really a professional’s guide to bread baking (with conversions for home bakers). Although it’s geared towards the advanced baker, a serious home baker with a yen to go to the next level will find this book essential. Lots of science and enough math to make me pull out a calculator.

Peter Rheinhart’s Whole Grain Breads, another book with precision recipes, but still friendly enough for somewhat experienced home bread bakers. The recipes in Rheinhart’s book are very appealing.

Another great resource, and one I have listed on my links section, is TheFreshLoaf.com. I’ve been recommending it since the day I “discovered” it. If you’ve never baked bread before or have, but still feel beginner-ish, visit the Your First Loaf page. There are videos, too. They have amazing forums and the members are an exceptionally helpful bunch. Bread bakers are real straight-shooters, I think, not that I have anything against pastry chefs and cooks,  but I’ve never met an arrogant or frivolous bread baker.

I wouldn’t advise doing this but a couple of years ago another TheFreshLoaf.com member and I emailed each other. It turns out she was a doctor who lived in my neck of the woods. She wanted some basic hands-on instruction on sourdough. I invited her over and gave her a brief run-down and a starter sample to take home. (Probably not really smart to invite strangers to your home based on an Internet meeting. I promise I’ve never done it since).

Floyd, who runs the site, was nice enough to email me some background on TheFreshLoaf.com.  The site has been around since January of 2005 (I think I’ve been visiting since 2007 but have been a member since 2009). Currently, there are 38,281 members. Floyd says “Many of those folks only post once or twice or just signed up to get the newsletter. I would guess more like 10,000 folks have ever been active participants in the site with a few hundred core members at any given time. The site gets around 250K visitors every month, however, so most people just come for a recipe or two and never join.”

Floyd himself studied with one of the world’s best known bread bakers. “I got into bakery by working in Peter Reinhart’s bakery (Brother Junipers) in high school. I went on to a career in web development and started TheFreshLoaf as a side project because I couldn’t find a nice place to chat with other amateur bakers. It has grown far beyond my wildest dreams.

“Overall we have a great community of supportive bakers with a huge range of skills and interests. It has really become a special place and I feel honored to manage it (which mostly means staying out of the way so the community members can do their thing… that and keeping the spammers away).”
Okay, here’s my easy, forgiving, autumn sourdough rye. Whether I serve this to people from Polish, Ukrainian, Russian, or German backgrounds they all claim it as their own country’s rye. Although I love precision baking, our ancestors probably made breads without all the thermometers and gauges and math. So that’s what I do.
Sometimes I make 100 percent rye  bread, but this recipe contains whole wheat flour (and/or organic, white high-gluten flour). The texture is like a classic German rye. It contains a moist crumb and is tangy and delicious plain. It also keeps very well at cool room temperature.
HJC’s Easy, Unscientific, No-knead, Real-deal, Sourdough Rye
Active sourdough starter, 1/2 to 1 cup (it can be made with rye flour or in a pinch, high gluten flour or whole wheat flour; I use Maggie Glezer’s starter recipe and technique, and then convert it to a liquid starter or you could try any number of methods to produce a liquidy sourdough starter. It’s ridiculously easy to make and you only need flour and water.)
1 22 oz. bag of Bob’s Red Mill organic dark rye flour
1 cup water
1 cup best quality whole wheat or white high gluten flour (or more rye flour, if you prefer)
Optional: 2 teaspoons unrefined sea salt,1 tablespoon caraway seeds, 1/4 cup sunflower seeds 
In large glass or ceramic bowl, mix sourdough starter, 2 cups rye flour, and water. Cover with clean dish towel or loosely with plastic wrap, and let ferment in a coolish spot for 2-3 hours until somewhat bubbly.
Stir in remaining ingredients and mix well with hands or heavy wooden spoon. This will form a most un-dough like mass. That’s okay, it’s supposed to look like a swamp monster. (At this point you could add salt, which I never do, caraway seeds which spouse always requests, or sunflower seeds, which a friend I sometimes bake for, requests).
I always bake this bread in a pan so it makes a rectangular loaf that slices easily. Slide and scrape the dough one deep 9 by 5 inch pan. Let it ferment in the pan, covered in a coolish spot for about 2-3 hours. Time is an essential ingredient in this recipe, it’s needed to develop the sour flavor and it takes the place of kneading.
After 2 or 3 hours, move the pan to a warmer spot (like on a counter-top close to an oven) and let it ferment for at least 2 more hours (I’ve gone as long as four hours and it’s always been fine, but the warmer your kitchen the less time you’ll need).
Preheat oven to 450 for at least half an hour and slide bread into the oven on a middle rack. Turn the temp down to 400  and bake for approximately 30  minutes then turn down to 375 or 350 depending on your oven, and bake for 30 minutes more. The bread should be a rich russet-gold and slide easily out of the pan. It should sound hollow when tapped on the bottom of the loaf. This is one bread that’s delicious without a crisp crust so don’t worry if the top is very firm but not crispy.
Cool and wrap in parchment paper or a cloth dishtowel, and slide into a large paper bag or breadbox for storage. It gets more sour as it ages, and though it should keep for several weeks, ours is eaten well before then. I’m planning on sending loaves of of kosher sourdough rye and some small sweet Challahs to the Ukraine for the New Year—I hope security at Borispol lets them in!
If you prefer to get scientific about your sourdough rye or sourdough rye/wheat breads or you merely want more definitive recipes and techniques, you can read posts like this or this on TheFreshLoaf.com.
*The exception to the rule is a packaged bread, Windmill Farms which does a non-sour but still delicious, spelt sourdough.

2 responses to “Rye Bread

  1. Pingback: Sourdough: The Longer-Shorter Path « healthyjewishcooking·

  2. Pingback: Schlissel Challah | healthyjewishcooking·

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