Should you use rye in your next loaf?

— 6 minute read

When I do something, I like to jump in with both feet. Since I've always loved rye sourdough breads, it's no surprise that my first loaf of sourdough bread was about 40% rye. I was attempting a difficult loaf with absolutely no experience and you can guess the result. My loaf was a hockey puck. But I kept trying, making another loaf every day, each one with the exact same ingredients. Having eventually failed in every way imaginable, I learned from each of these mistakes and finally discovered how to make a beautiful loaf of rye sourdough bread.

Normally I would encourage just about any baker to try baking with rye, not least for the amazingly full sourness it adds to your bread. But before you do, be aware of the common pitfalls so you don't have to live through my mistakes.

But, wait, why rye? permalink

Rye is an ancient grain, used by bakers for thousands of years as a cheap staple for bread-making. Even Pliny the Elder had an opinion on it! (He didn't like it, but we all know Marcus Aurelius had the better palate anyway.) Nowadays, it is loved by sourdough bakers for many of it's amazing qualities.

Flavor permalink

Rye flour is a wonderful addition to sourdough because it can provide a richer, deeper base sour flavor that white flour can't emulate. Where a well-proofed white loaf might give off a light and refreshing sour flavor, rye loaves have a more deep and savoury sourness. The effect of combining both these flavors together is to create a very rich flavor profile that can touch every part of your tongue.

Moisture permalink

Sourdough loaves are known for giving your jaw a workout as the high hydration tends to create chewier breads. Adding rye will make your loaves wetter and fuller, which is a nice balance to the strong gluten network you get from bread flour.

Rise time (in small doses) permalink

The bubbles in your bread are CO₂, which is formed by yeast as it eats the sugars and starches from your flour. The more accessible those sugars, the happier the yeast and the more CO₂ they create. Rye flours have much more sugar in them than white flour does, and this means that mixing a little bit of rye into your bread can decrease the time it takes to rise.

When rye doesn't fly permalink

I said it before - rye is wonderful. But if you don't treat it right, you'll start with a sticky dough and end with a hard brick. Here are some of the things I learned so you don't have to repeat my mistakes.

Pitfall #1: Rye dough is sticky permalink

Rye flour has very weak gluten. For a baker who's just beginning, this makes the dough much harder to work with. You might hear that your starter is supposed to be the "consistency of peanut butter," and if you use rye flour in your starter like I do, it'll really give you a workout!

The stickiness makes traditional kneading methods very messy. If you stick your whole hand in there, you'll end up with as much dough on your hands as in the bowl. Even Stretch and Fold might be too much contact. So what can you do?

If you do need to work a dough that contains rye flour, you might consider allowing your dough to autolyze for a while. Just letting it rest upfront will remove some of the stickiness of the dough. You can also try a Coil Fold. I've written about coil folds already, as they work wonderfully for high-hydration doughs, but they are also great for dealing with the stickiness of rye. And lastly, keep your hands wet! Keep a small bowl of water near your work area, and dip your hand in whenever you start to feel the dough sticking. The water acts as a protective shield, and can stop the dough from sticking.

Pitfall #2: Rye doesn't knead permalink

Wait, what? Didn't I just talk about kneading your dough? Well, yes, if your dough contains any normal wheat flour, they will still need a good working over to form a gluten network. But the rye portion of your loaf won't respond to the kneading at all! Because of this, you'll find that the more rye you put in, the weaker your gluten network is. So how can you ensure that your loaf has a nice open crumb?

If you're using a majority of rye flour, then the main factor will simply be time spent fermenting. You'll want to disturb the dough as little as possible and simply let the yeast go to work. But to be clear here, your crumb with a majority rye dough will never be particularly open! You might also consider autolyzing any higher protein flours for longer before you mix in the rye. You can even give them a good knead upfront. Just be sure to thoroughly mix in the rye when you're done so they can all bulk ferment together.

Pitfall #3: Rise time (in large doses) permalink

If you scour the Internet, you'll find some people saying rye flour shortens rise times and others saying it extends rise times. So which is it? Well, they're both right! As I mentioned above, the sugars in rye can help feed your yeast, so if you're using only a minority of rye flour you can see your dough rising faster than without the rye. But if rye is your main flour, you'll actually see slower rise times! A large part of this is simply the lack of strong gluten in rye allows more gas to escape. I suspect also the environment in a pure rye dough isn't quite as ideal for yeast, and this would also extend the rise time. So if you are using a lot of rye: watch out for a long bulk fermentation phase! And conversely, if you're just using a bit, enjoy a faster rise!

Enjoy your rye flour! permalink

I hope that helps you improve how you work with rye flours. If you have any questions, I would absolutely love to hear from you. Send me a message or leave a comment below!