Grain Spotlight: Rye

In my experience, many people associate rye with the flavor of caraway seeds. Don’t get me wrong, that’s a great combination, but there’s so much more in the world of rye.

Rye is a widely-used grain. Besides milling for flour, the grains can be eaten whole after being boiled, rolled like oats to make rye flakes, or chopped very coarsely (rye chops) to provide crunch and flavor to baked goods. Rye is also involved in the brewing and distilling of certain beers and whiskeys.

Breads made with whole rye flour are hearty and full of earthy flavor. I’m currently working on building a variety of recipes that showcase rye. Currently, rye is an important part in Maritime Brown Bread, though it’s not the main star. Coming soon are rye crackers, rye jalapeño gouda bread, and perhaps others.

 
 

Rye has significantly less gluten than common wheat, which means that breads made with a significant portion of rye flour (around 30% and up) handle much differently than breads made only with wheat. Rye dough is sticky, clay-like, and has minimal elasticity. The difference is best experienced first hand, but here are some pictures to illustrate. I prepared four 100-gram doughs, two rye doughs hydrated at 68% and 100% and two wheat doughs hydrated at the same percentages. They autolysed for 30 minutes before I handled them.

The stiff doughs both hold their shape as a ball, but when stretched, the rye breaks apart. The wheat dough rips a little, but is much more pliable. The liquid doughs don’t really hold a ball shape and when scoop them with your hand, the rye breaks apart quite easily, while the wheat has quite a bit of elasticity.

It takes some practice to handle rye doughs, so here are some tips.

  • A dough scraper is your friend if you mix by hand. Actually, a dough scraper is one of my most-used kitchen tools. Look for one that’s flexible enough to bend to the curve of a large bowl, but solid enough to be useful for folding dough. For reference, I use this one but found the regular-duty version too flimsy (note: I’m not associated with KAF, it’s just what I happen to use). Back to rye, wetting the scraper and using it to finish mixing the dough after the dough gets too thick for a spoon or whisk really helps ensure the flour is hydrated and the dough is smooth and cohesive. I try to avoid touching the dough with my hands during the mixing. Not pictured above is how much of the rye doughs ended up on my hands.

  • You won’t be doing a lot of slapping and folding, but when you do work with the dough on the bench, a light dusting of flour is good, but then I use wet hands and dough scraper for everything else. Use the wet dough scraper to get the dough out of the bowl, then deflate with it your wet hands and fold either by hand or using the dough scraper for assistance. Same goes for shaping.

  • One common issue is that the bread doesn’t rise in the oven to form a nice loaf but rather sprawls out to create a flat disk. It’s happened to me plenty of times during experimentation. Two fixes are to use less water in the recipe (a stiffer dough will hold its shape better) and to reduce the final proof time (don’t give it time to lose its shape). Experimenting with different shapes might help, too.