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The Quest for Real Rye Bread

Real German rye bread is rarely seen in North America.

The tender crumb was brown tinged with gray; the rich brown crust was shiny, almost leathery, but tender. The aroma was dark and grainy, both lactic, like fresh cheese, and tangy, like subtle vinegar, with a hint of dark pipe tobacco. The finish was intense and the pungent acidity on the tongue was slow to dissipate, a bit unnerving, like the very first sip of some unfamiliar dark beer that makes you want to give it another try. I was in Germany not long ago for the first time, and this was a prime encounter with good German rye bread. 

James MacGuire, “Real Rye Bread,” in The Art of Eating, August 2017

This haunting description of German rye bread was written not long ago by the legendary Canadian baker and author, James MacGuire 1 He was trying to describe his first taste of real German rye. The words have stayed with me and have guided me ever since in my quest for good rye bread.

Skill and attention to detail

I’ve made a few 100 percent rye loaves for the Happy Monk Baking Company. None have achieved the character of the bread MacGuire describes. Properly made, this bread requires skill and attention to detail, which is rarely seen in the “new world,” this side of the Atlantic.

We know little or nothing of rye bread in North America. We think of it primarily as something served in a Jewish deli with corned beef or hot pastrami — little more than flat white bread.

Some believe that “pumpernickel” is the real stuff, but, in fact, it often contains more whole wheat flour than rye. Store-bought pumpernickel also has flavouring ingredients made to mimic real rye and usually has no sourdough at all.

And many North Americans believe that caraway seeds, often ground to a powder and added to rye bread, are what rye tastes like! It’s a delicious flavouring element, granted. Still, it has nothing to do with rye’s taste, which has an earthy, sour flavour. 2

Rustic loaves, but no rye bread

Several years ago, I discovered a new bakery near Vancouver’s Olympic Village. It was a modest space with a relaxed vibe and inviting feel to it. The shelves were loaded with rustic loaves, dark in colour, and beautifully scored. There were a purple barley loaf and a light porridge bread, the sight of which made my mouth water.

These were beautiful artisan loaves made with exotic heritage and ancient grains — a sure-fire formula for success in today’s artisan-obsessed bread market.

This was a full-service, sit-down bakery, with a fine selection of pastries and cookies as well as the bread. The proprietors seemed to take pride in the coffee they made, and you could sit a while at one of the counters and enjoy the warmth of the place against the grey drizzle of a Vancouver autumn day.

I struck up a conversation with one of the bakers.

“Do you make a rye bread?” I asked.

“It’s kind of boring to make.”

“Not really,” he said. “Not much of a market for rye bread. It’s kind of boring to make. Not the same challenge. There’s no relationship with the dough, for the baker, when you make rye bread. Not like the relationship the baker has with a good wheat loaf.”

Goodness! I was unprepared for an answer like that. I’m an unabashed rye enthusiast with a healthy respect for the grain and the challenges of baking with it. But this young baker was unimpressed. Or uninformed. And off he went to his fancy spiral mixers and deck ovens, unconvinced by my sputtering objections.

And I sat there, speechless, trying to make arguments in my mind about why he was wrong about rye.

Rye is a different beast, and it doesn’t behave at all like wheat bread. Unlike wheat dough, which softens and swells (“erotically,” it may as well be said) over a proof, rye dough feels and acts like muck when you mix it up.

A satisfying flavour, aroma and texture

But it does rise in a fashion and develops a delicate airiness of its own. It’s otherwise dense and heavy and does not seem to respond to the baker’s ministrations the way wheat does. But rye does result in a profoundly satisfying flavour, aroma, and texture when it comes out of the oven.

Had this fellow in the fancy Vancouver bakery not heard of the Detmolder Method of rye bread production? A three-stage procedure that takes several days to cultivate the perfect level of sourness and acidity for the bread. Or the use of different levels of flour extraction in the rye grain?

The accomplished American baker, Jeffrey Hamelman, called the Detmolder method “a fascinating and highly effective technique that represents the highest expression of the baker’s skill.” 3

“The highest expression of the baker’s skill”

Well, I’ve tried baking rye bread using Detmolder, and I felt humiliated, chastened. The method requires strict attention to mixing and proofing temperatures and pH measurements for acidity. My first and only attempt amounted to a 48-hour waste of time! The bread was awful!

Humiliated, but unbowed! The experience left me wanting more. I wanted to see how the dough behaved over the hours it took to make, how the crust developed a spider web of cracks, how the bread, out of the oven, smelled “dark and grainy … like fresh cheese … and subtle vinegar, with a hint of dark pipe tobacco.”

Someday, I hope to master the technique, which Hamelman says is “unlike anything else in bread production.” And I crave, at the ripe old age of 65 years, a bread mentor like Jeffrey Hamelman, someone who can instruct and guide me into a successful and fulfilling relationship with rye bread.

And then, maybe I can take a loaf of pungent Volkornbrot or Roggenmischteig back to that Vancouver bakery and present it to the young whipper-snapper who thinks there’s nothing much interesting about rye bread!


Also see the earlier Happy Monk blog post: That Rye Flavour: Reaching for Something From The Past.


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  1. MacGuire is a co-author of one of the most influential books about bread, The Taste of Bread. The primary author was Raymond Calvel a French professor of culinary arts.

  2. Or see James MacGuire’s description above.

  3. See Jeffrey Hamelman, Bread. A Baker’s Book of Techniques and Recipes, 2nd Edition, 2013, p. 216.

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