I’m a rye girl from way back. When I was growing up in Michigan I ate either rye or challah; these breads were the toast I had in the morning and the bread my mother used for our lunchbox sandwiches.
My mother wasn’t a bread baker, but was able to find challah and rye at our local grocery store, loaves brought in from a bakery called “Rosen’s” out of Chicago or Detroit.
The rye was rather white and mild in flavor, with caraway seeds and a chewy crust. It wasn’t bad bread, but it wasn’t anything spectacular either. Yet this was the bread of my childhood, so it still holds a place in my heart.
Later, my view of rye bread, and bread in general, exploded (in a good way) when I became a bread baker at Zingerman’s Bakehouse in Ann Arbor, Michigan. There I learned to bake rye and challah that far surpassed the bread of my youth. Zingerman’s is known for its bread all over the Midwest and beyond, thanks to their commitment to traditional baking methods (as well as their mail-order business).
Above is a photo of me baking a load of rye bread at Zingerman’s. Rye baking at the Bakehouse was a bit of a marathon sport. The baker, with one or two “loaders,” needed to load two giant deck ovens with a total of 21 doors (each “door” holding about 25 loaves). Once that was done the baker set out on his/her own, racing back and forth between the two ovens to be sure that all 525 or so loaves of Jewish rye, caraway rye, pumpernickel, and onion rye were rotated and baked to perfection.
Baking all that rye at Zingerman’s, and then later helping teach rye bread classes, made me realize that Jewish rye has attained an almost mythic position in the baking world and American culture; it’s bread that conjures up both Eastern European traditions and New World hopes and dreams. Everyone seems to be looking for the perfect Jewish rye, but what that means differs from one person to the next, depending on their own history and bread memories.
One of Zingerman’s founders, Ari Weinzweig, writes in Zingerman’s Guide to Good Eating about his own search for real Jewish Rye, and what defines it.
Weinzweig points out that American rye has significantly changed from the peasant rye breads our ancestors ate in Eastern Europe. Peasant bread was generally made with whole-grain rye, which was cheap and readily available. It was only as immigrants prospered in America that our rye bread became more and more refined, eventually including only a small percentage of white rye flour. The heavy use of caraway seeds is also an Americanization of rye bread.
For Weinzweig and Zingerman’s Bakehouse (who learned their methods from upstate New York baker Michael London), the components of a good Jewish rye are these:
• A tasty rye sour
• At least 20% medium rye
• Time, not excessive yeast
• Baked on a stone with steam
• No milk, oil, or sugar
• Rye flavor: As Wienzweig says, “Rye has a deep flavor, a flavor of the earth, a flavor full of character that gradually fills your whole month. Good rye has guts.”
These are also the major components of Jewish rye outlined by George Greenstein in his Secrets of a Jewish Baker, although he uses a three-stage rye sour and favors a combination of white rye and first clear flour. Both Zingerman’s and Greenstein also include a small dose of ground caraway seeds and an old bread soaker in their recipes.
An old bread soaker (Zingerman’s calls it “Old” and Greenstein calls it “Altus”) is a traditional European baking practice that involves using up old bread by soaking it, mashing it up, and adding it to the new bread mix. This is not only frugal, but adds a depth of flavor to your rye bread. In Germany this method is still widely used.
My understanding of rye bread further exploded (also in a good way) when I took an advanced bread baking class from Jeffrey Hamelman at King Arthur Flour. It was in this class that I developed the rye sourdough starter that I use today.
Hamelman is a great proponent of rye bread and his book, Bread: A Baker’s Book of Techniques and Recipes offers a wealth of knowledge on the subject, and also a wide array of rye bread recipes, from the simplest deli rye to a dense and delicious 100% rye vollkornbrot.
With these three sources of inspiration (Zingerman’s, Greenstein, and Hamelman) spread out before me, I began my own search for the perfect Jewish rye. I wanted something that reminded me of the rye toast I had as a child, but with more of the tang and rich rye flavor that characterize traditional Eastern European rye breads.
Though some bakers scoff at the “over use” of caraway seeds in American rye bread, when I asked my family about their thoughts on Jewish rye, both my cousin and sister said, “Don’t forget the caraway!”
I tested so many Jewish rye recipes that my mind (and taste buds) began to boggle at the choices. I tried adding a cornstarch solution to the crust (Greenstein), and minced onions and ground caraway to the rye sour (also Greenstein). I tried various combinations and percentages of white rye, medium rye, pumpernickel flour, clear flour, bread flour, and all-purpose flour, as well as different concentrations and hydrations of the rye sour.
One weekend at work I brought in five different versions of Jewish rye and coaxed my coworkers to “bite and write” – a common request in the employee kitchen at King Arthur.
Yes, we King Arthur Flour employees have to endure taste-testing all kinds of delicious recipes and mixes-in-the-making. I know, poor us – although my insistence on bringing in loaf after loaf of Jewish rye for my coworkers to sample did border on abuse by the end of it.
As in all things baking, perfection is a worthy but elusive goal. One loaf looked beautiful, but was a little too dry. The next loaf had great flavor and rise, but the surface tore during baking. Another loaf rose nicely without tearing, then flattened out too much in the oven.
The whole tearing-during-baking drove me crazy for awhile, even though the tears I was seeing were pretty minor and didn’t affect the integrity of the loaf. I tried changing various factors (fermentation time, kneading time, maturity of sour, quantity and duration of steam) and it was only during my very last week of baking that I was able to pin down the problem.
Again, as in all things baking, a number of factors usually contribute to any one problem. But I think the major issue had to do with the hydration of the dough. I kept my final recipe on the stiff side so the dough would be easier to work with and wouldn’t flatten out during baking. But the drawback of a stiff dough is that it isn’t quite as able to expand in the oven (especially rye dough). I did add a bit more water to the recipe, and also adjusted my steaming method, and this seemed to improve the situation enormously.
The moral of the story is that we’re making bread, not works of art. It’s a lesson every perfectionist baker (and aren’t we all perfectionists?) must grapple with at some point. If our loaves of bread are delicious and fulfill their intended role, isn’t that what matters most?
I don’t think it’s wrong to strive for the perfect loaf. This is actually one of the things I love most about baking; everyday there’s the opportunity to do things a little bit better. But it’s equally important to take joy in our less-than-perfect attempts and to feel good about what our efforts are truly for – providing nourishment.
My final recipe resembles most closely Jeffrey Hamelman’s “40% Caraway Rye,” from Bread, although I added a touch of ground caraway and some old bread soaker, as a nod to Zingerman’s and Greenstein. I also reduced the pumpernickel content to 36%.
It’s stronger in rye flavor than your typical Jewish rye because of the pumpernickel flour, and also has quite a hardy tang. I love it for these reasons and I hope you will, too. No, it’s not your typical mild-mannered Jewish rye, but a loaf that carries with it a bit more of the depth and tradition of European rye breads. And this Jewish rye can stand up to the thickest, juiciest deli sandwich you can assemble.
So, let’s get started! Today will be our prep day; we’ll prepare an overnight rye sour (“sour”), an old bread soaker (“old”), and ground caraway seeds. Tomorrow we’ll mix and bake our Jewish Rye Bread.
To make our overnight rye sour we need a very small amount of fed sourdough starter.
Jeffrey Hamelman argues in Bread that sourdough rye breads benefit from a dedicated rye starter, and this recipe allows you to develop one for future loaves; but it isn’t a necessary component if you only make rye bread occasionally.
The amount of sourdough starter you add to create the rye sour is very small, so you’ll want to be sure it’s very healthy and active. Especially if your starter has been refrigerated for a week, several feedings at room temperature prior to adding it to the rye sour will help give your bread the best flavor and rise.
Mix your rye sour 13 to 16 hours before you plan to mix and bake your bread. Mix together:
1 rounded tablespoon (1/2 ounce, 14g) fed (“ripe”) sourdough starter
2 1/4 cups (8 3/8 ounces, 237g) organic pumpernickel flour
7/8 cup (7ounces, 198g) room temperature water (70°F)
Note that the water temperature for this overnight sour is 70°F, as is the desired rising temperature. Water temperature and room temperature both play a key role in the proper fermentation of your rye sour, so it’s beneficial to try to replicate these conditions as closely as you can.
This rye sour is very thick, and a bit arduous to stir by hand. This is normal, allowing for a long, slow fermentation. You can also mix the sour in a stand mixer with the paddle attachment on the lowest speed, stirring just until all the flour is thoroughly moistened.
If you’re measuring your flour by volume, be sure to follow this method, or you’ll find yourself trying to bring together an impossibly dry mixture. For those of you new to our recipes, this is how we recommend measuring flour by volume in all our recipes.
Place the rye sour in a nonreactive container with room to grow (it won’t quite double, but needs some room for expansion). Smooth it out and sprinkle a small amount of pumpernickel flour on top, to cover the sour.
Why the sprinkling of pumpernickel? This is a traditional practice with rye starters, meant to protect the starter and also to make it easier to tell when the starter is fully ripened.
At full maturity the sour will dome on top and show islands of rye flour surrounded by small cracks and crevices. It looks a little volcanic in nature. There’ll be small bubbles visible from the side of the container and the sour will have risen up, although not quite doubled in size. This will take about 13 to 16 hours at 70°F.
Our next step is making the old bread soaker. Although you can use any old bread for this soaker, rye bread is preferable. And once you’ve made a loaf of Jewish rye, it’s easy to save a slice or two in the freezer for the old portion of your next rye bread.
When I worked at Zingerman’s we baked so much rye bread that a portion of our bake had to be dedicated to making old bread soaker for future mixes. Slicing buckets and buckets of rye bread was a frequent prep duty.
Making “old” is easy. Simply cube up 1 large slice of rye bread (1 heaping cup, 2 5/8 ounces, 74g). Avoid using the ends of the loaf, as that’s a bit too much crust. Soak the bread in 1/3 cup (2 5/8 ounces, 74g) cool water. Store in the refrigerator overnight.
Next day squeeze out any excess water from the cubes and mash the old bread by hand, or using a mixer with paddle attachment set on the lowest speed.
When finished, the old should look like very thick cooked oatmeal. Don’t worry about bits of crust as long as they’re broken down.
You’ll only need 1/3 cup (3 ounces, 85g) old for this recipe, so you’ll likely have a little extra that can either be discarded or refrigerated for up to a week. When I was testing all those loaves of Jewish rye I’d make a large batch of old to get me through a week of baking.
Be sure that the old you add to the recipe is room temperature, rather than straight out of the refrigerator. Your old can also be frozen if you make a really big batch.
The final ingredient to prepare for tomorrow’s mix is ground caraway seeds. Although an optional ingredient, it adds a lovely note of caraway. Those who don’t enjoy seeds in their bread can add more ground caraway and leave out the seeds completely, though don’t go crazy; a little caraway goes a long way and you don’t want to overpower the rye flavor. One to two teaspoons of ground caraway should be plenty, if you plan to omit the seeds.
I grind my caraway seeds in an old coffee grinder that’s become a dedicated spice grinder. Just buzz the seeds until they’re a powdery consistency. Be careful if you use your regular coffee grinder, as you may have caraway-flavored coffee for awhile!
You can grind a batch of caraway seeds and store them in your freezer in an airtight container, since you’ll only need a small amount for this recipe.
Well, we’ve gotten a lot done today! Stay tuned tomorrow as we learn a little more about the unique characteristics of rye flour, then mix and bake our Jewish Rye Bread!
Here’s a shot of the delicious Jewish rye we’ll be baking tomorrow. It makes amazing toast! For the recipe and complete preparation techniques, see How to Make Jewish Rye Bread, Part 2.
And share your own Jewish rye memories and tips below.