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In search of good rye bread

I’ve been attempting rye bread and kornbroyt (Jewish sourdough whole wheat bread) on and off since about last Chanukah–almost a whole year! You would think this was unnecessary, since I live close enough to North Hollywood/Valley Village, the eastern hub of LA for Jewish bakeries and delis (the older western hub is “the Fairfax” neighborhood and the Pico/Robertson area). The rye bread you can get at these places isn’t terrible; my synagogue orders it regularly along with 6-braid challahs for big events, and it’s okay. It just isn’t much better than Arnold’s or Sara Lee, the lightweight commercial supermarket versions I grew up with in the south when we couldn’t get the real thing from New York more than once or twice a year.

Last spring I bought the big crusty half-boule loaves of wholewheat sourdough from Trader Joe’s to sub in for kornbroyt at a big synagogue brunch and they were wonderful–and also not screamingly high in sodium as most hard-crust sourdoughs are (Whole Foods, most bakeries, certainly La Brea and friends). Certainly less per serving than the French loaves and ciabattas and other items on the gourmet bread stand at TJs. The Pain Mich’ demi-boule was a very good deal all the way around, and I’ve bought it weekly for years.

But shortly afterward, TJs switched bakers and the new ones produced something that only looked similar. The crust was flabby and the crumb was like the stuffing of old office chairs–crumbly and weak, lacking flavor, not springy and full of moxie like the real thing. What could have happened to my favorite shortcut to the good life? They still haven’t fixed the problem. Which is probably at least partly due to an inferior use of sour culture. Or CUL-choo-ah as my mom says (Brooklyn accent hard to miss).

So I was going to have to figure it out for myself if I didn’t want to remain a deprived child.

For the past 30-40 years, according to Stan Ginsberg and Norm Berg in their book Inside the Jewish Bakery, the flavor and texture of commercial rye bread  have really been watered down as companies went national and American-style with it. It became paler and lighter in texture, with less rye flour and more additives–oils, conditioners, salt. And they used commercial dry yeast instead of sourdough culture, which takes too long and for a long time wasn’t generally considered reliable or controlled enough a process for mass production–probably not for FDA and local health inspectors either. So most commercial rye bread lacks the true rye sour starter flavor, and is no longer really chewy or dark. Or crusty. Which is how I want mine.

All of those lost characteristics from my childhood memories of real New York rye bread and kornbroyt, made by local union bakers and brought down to Virginia once or twice a year by my grandparents, have now regained popularity in the US foodie arena. Well, not rye bread as such, but “old world” artisan wholegrain sourdough breads that seek to copy Poilâne’s legendarily crusty round loaf. Enthusiasts bring up a lot of sinister-sounding bakers’ terms: levain, cloak, slash, hydration percentage, etc. And they’ve come respectably close. But they’re still lacking the sign of authenticity: the union label pasted on the endpiece!

One major American bakery to achieve similar cult status to Poilâne is Tartine. Complete with three lengthy baking manuals so far on how to build a sour, incorporate all kinds of grains and let the sour culture digest them for the right number of days until they’re ready to set up as loaves.

The books are filled with gorgeous, crusty loaves that cost a fortune at gourmet bakeries if you can find them at all in your town. But it’s like looking through the bakery window, hungry, with your nose pressed up against the glass. Most people don’t have the singlemindedness to follow all the steps at home more than once, much less for more than one or two varieties of more-expensive, Whole-Foods-only, alternate grain breads.

The books are also filled with testimony as to just how many years it took each baker on the team to fulfill his or her apprenticeship and perfect the technique.

Years, though. That’s a lot of time to get yourself a decent home-baked loaf of rye bread that tastes like it could stand up to corned beef. Which makes me wonder whether a mere cookbook can really teach it.

So why bother (except for the perverse curiosity that drives me to mad-scientist-like experiments that probably won’t win the Nobel this year, or any year)? Because once in a while you want good rye bread even if you live on the West Coast.

Looking at the pictures and even reading the instructions can’t give you the exact right sour or air temp or humidity or other conditions that make Tartine’s bread award-winning. Your yeast may vary. You may not have the same sensitivity in your hands or know exactly how moist or elastic or heavy or whatever the dough needs to feel like at each stage. You have to be willing to experiment and fail a couple of times and pay attention to how it looks, feels, smells, and be willing to fiddle around and adjust the next time.

That’s okay. Perfection is not a Jewish ideal, so much, and rye bread is not so hard to improve with practice. Our great-(great-etc.) grandmothers were making rye bread pretty often in the shtetls with whatever starters they had and could keep going throughout some pretty challenging winters. And every spring they’d have to get rid of their sour cultures right before Passover and start over from scratch as soon as it was over. In Russian-Polish spring weather. (My grandfather always said you knew it was spring when the first oxcart got stuck in the mud. It meant the ground had finally thawed.)

So you could probably figure that the women in the shtetls weren’t always overjoyed to have to throw away their sour cultures every spring, and the first loaves of bread in the shtetls after Passover ended might not have been a lot of good for a week or so extra. Or they could have turned out like my first one, especially if it took an extra week for the miller to supply new rye and wheat flour.

To tell you the truth: getting a rye sour started is no big deal–I seem to have done it on the first try, even while taking the onion shortcut (see the bottom of the post) and being much too casual with the flour and water proportions in Ginsberg and Berg’s rye bread instructions from Inside the Jewish Bakery. It’s just that getting the sour ready for baking takes a while–like 3 to 5 days. And then it gets more refined and hopefully consistent as you feed it sequentially over time. Professional bakers guard their established sours like gold.

Rye sour getting started with raw onion

Rye sour getting started with raw onion

What went wrong on my first try, right before New Year’s, was that I didn’t put in quite enough wheat flour for the final dough. I was still thinking loose, elastic, relatively wet dough like my usual pizza dough or challah dough, and this needed to be stiffer to match the picture in the book, which showed an actual spherical ball of dough. I figured my usual dough would be a little moister and give nice, big ragged holes–however…

Rye flour doesn’t have the same kind of proteins in it as wheat and doesn’t act elastic on its own–it’s the sour-digested sugars and starches that form the elastic paste for rising. It’s pretty sticky and makes a rather different-feeling dough of just water-flour-yeast-and-salt than wheat does. Even whole wheat. So I wasn’t sure what to expect. But it seemed to be going about right.

The sour seemed to go very well with the extra water, and the final dough rose beautifully, encouragingly…deceptively. When I went to bake it, even in a very hot oven, it rose no further and didn’t maintain its risen structure either–it collapsed into an inch-and-a-half thick disk. Which we sawed into very thin slices and toasted and liked for bruschetta–waste not, want not–but it wasn’t rye bread.

flattish loaves of rye bread

My first attempt. Flat loaves, pretty disappointing but still tasty.

So, at least for me, the message was, try again and fiddle with it to look more like the pictures–more wheat flour, and this time add a little wheat gluten too.

Only it was suddenly New Year’s eve, then day, and the more careful sour I’d made and fed I had to store in the fridge. Two days went by, a third, then the rest of the week. Would it still work? Would it have morphed unpleasantly in my fridge over the week? Would it take over and start oozing down the I-10 toward the Fairfax and Pico-Robertson to kvetch about me to its brethren on the West Side?

Actually, the stored sour behaved okay and still smelled fine. I poured off the liquid that had risen to the top, wondering if I was being stupid, but it smelled clean–a bit like vinegar crossed with apple juice. So I scooped out most of the sour starter into a bowl, added more rye flour and water for a larger batch of sour and let it ferment, then added wheat flour, some gluten, salt, water, caraway and all the rest of it for a slightly stiffer dough than before.

Mixing the rye starter into a bowl with wheat flour and water

Mixing the rye starter into a bowl with wheat flour and water

Somehow I missed adding any active dry yeast, but I didn’t need to worry about it; luckily, the starter alone was plenty active.

rye bread, just a little higher

Rye bread round II rose a little higher

After a couple of comparatively low-rise but at least tasty tries, I can say for sure that time is of the essence with sourdoughs, particularly for rye bread, which relies on gluten from the wheat flour and a little added vital wheat gluten mixed in.

Once you’ve got your rye sour mixed with water and high-gluten wheat flour for the final dough, you can’t let it hang around or leave it in the fridge overnight, or all week, the way I do with my usual handy bowl of dough for pita and calzone. The acid will tear through the gluten and leave your dough flopping and falling apart most disgracefully  if you don’t get it in a very hot oven pretty much as soon as it’s doubled. A couple of hours can make a difference, so do it on a day when you’re going to be ready to bake–if your sour’s pretty active and riseworthy, and you keep the dough warm, figure it’ll take 2-3 hours from mixing it together to getting it onto a tray for the oven (or a pizza stone, or whatever works best for you…)

Try, try again…

My latest attempt rose surprisingly fast, 2 hours to double, and needed cloaking with extra flour to be able to pour it out onto a cornmeal-dusted pizza pan and shape it a bit without deflating too much.  Even though it wasn’t very solid, this time I got it on the rise, not the fall, the glutens were still stretchy, and it took only about 30 minutes to bake and brown at 450°F with a pan of water boiling away in the bottom of the oven. And it rose, dammit. It rose beautifully.

Rye bread baked as soon as it's risen

We have lift off! we hope…

It looked like something much lighter and airier than what I’d intended, maybe ciabatta–but it was actually pretty heavy when I hefted it, and when I cut into it the reason was apparent–a big ragged cavern had opened up under the domed crust–which will no doubt prove inconvenient for sandwiches, but looks fantastic and impressive.


The inside story.

It’s no Tartine, not in my oven, not without a fancy pizza stone or preheated Le Creuset dutch oven or something to do a Jim Lahey “no-knead” style loaf. But it’s pretty good anyhow.

A Couple of Notes on Getting Starter-ed

Meanwhile, I’ve been reading another couple of artisan bread books, notably Ken Forkish’s Flour Water Salt Yeast. For whatever reason, including brevity and lack of coffee-table-book syndrome, I’m finding FWSY a lot more readable and practical than the Tartine books.

Forkish, who trained as a professional baker after a 20-year career in the corporate world, is pretty down-to-earth and demystifies the process of making a sour. He explains how you can manipulate the balance of acetic to lactic acid in the sour by changing the amount of water you use–it turns out that a dryish, doughlike sour will give more acetic flavor and a wetter sour like mine, which is more like thick paste to start or pancake batter once it’s developed, will tend more toward the lactic, buttery/cheesy flavors. The water and culturing temperature also make a difference, and Forkish says these factors are what professional bakers vary to end up with the distinctive flavors and textures they like best. So play around.

The only thing I have against his instructions is the thing I have against all standard instructions about using sours–that when you culture a sour, you start with a large amount of rye or whole wheat flour. A whole pound, 500 grams or so, and the same of water, then for the next several days of development, discard 3/4 of the culture at every stage and bring up the last quarter with yet another pound of flour and half-liter of water. That seems very wasteful for a home baker. Rye flour’s kind of expensive, and you can only get it easily at Whole Foods where I live, and only in small 1-lb. bags at Whole Foods kinds of prices. So I’m sparing with it.

The occasional home baker’s cheaper rye sour starter version:

  • 1-2 oz rye or whole wheat flour (1/4-1/2 c, or 30-60 g.) per day for 2-3 rounds of “feeding”
  • about the same amount of warm (not hot) water as flour
  • 1/4 onion–big pieces; try not to let it fall apart too much in the mixture; you’re going to fish it back out after fermenting.
  • No salt! No yeast! No light!
  • warm place to ferment
  • tin foil or other covering to block out light

An ounce or two of flour (1/4-1/2 c.) will make a perfectly good starter culture with the same amount of warm water (no salt at this stage! and no added yeast!), plus letting a quarter-onion sit in the mixture during the first ferment, which takes at least 5 hours or overnight. I don’t throw any of the starter away. I just pick out all the onion pieces, and dilute the culture with a bit of water before mixing in another small amount of fresh flour. A couple of rounds of this will still take two or three days to establish the first sour. The sour should smell fresh, acidic, something between vinegar and apple juice. If you can’t use it right away you can stick it in a lidded container in the back of the fridge for about a week–maybe even longer–as long as you don’t forget about it.

Make the full sour

  • 3 more cups rye flour (or whole wheat) + warm water as needed

After the sour starts smelling vinegary and clean, not funky and floury, you want to use it to make actual bread. When I go to use it for bread, I pour off any accumulated liquids, maybe scrape a little of the top graying surface off (it’s an iodine reaction, not mold), and put the rest in a mixing bowl. I add 3 or so cups of rye or whole wheat flour and enough water for a loose doughy texture, culture that several hours to overnight and save maybe 2-3 tablespoons for some other time in a covered cup in the cold part of the fridge.

Using the sour to make bread

  • The ~3 cups of fermented and risen sour
  • 4 additional cups of whole wheat flour plus a little extra for kneading and rolling
  • ~2 t. wheat gluten, well mixed into the dry wheat flour before adding to the sour (otherwise if it gets wet it’ll clump and make very rubbery strands)
  • 1 t. salt
  • 2 T ground caraway and 2 T whole caraway seeds for rye bread
  • 1/4 t. commercial active dry yeast, optional
  • 1-2 c. warm water just as needed
  • optional seeds for the crust: caraway or lightly-toasted sesame

When the sour’s risen considerably, double or so in volume, add it to 4 cups of wheat flour in a large mixing bowl with a bit less than a tablespoon of vital wheat gluten (well mixed into the dry flour first!), salt, ground and whole caraway seeds for rye (none for whole wheat bread) and if you think it could use a bit of extra lift, a quarter-teaspoon or so of additional commercial yeast for the final bread. You can slip a plastic sandwich bag over your hand to make it a little neater to mix and knead the dough. Add just enough warm water to the flour and starter, a drizzle at a time as you mix, to make bread dough. It should be substantial and elastic in texture, not stiff and lifeless like clay and not too wet and sticky to hold together–you don’t want to have to keep dumping in extra flour to fix it.  Knead the dough a couple of minutes until it starts smoothing out and getting elastic. Form it into a ball and drizzle olive oil over it. Let it rise covered with plastic wrap in a warm place–I usually stick the covered workbowl in a stock pot filled 2/3 of the way with very hot water. The workbowl is big enough to seal the pot and keep the water hot longer underneath it.

You need to keep an eye on the dough and bake as soon as the dough has doubled in volume, 2-3 hours later, so it doesn’t exhaust the gluten and flop. When it looks about double, put a stainless steel pan with a couple of cups of water on the floor of your oven and preheat your oven to 450°F. Meanwhile line a big baking sheet with foil and drizzle on some olive oil. Remove the plastic wrap gently from the workbowl, sprinkle on a small handful of flour and very gently rub it over the surface of the dough (this is what the bread fanatics mean by “cloak”). Without deflating any more than you can help, get a knife around the edges and just kind of pour or ease the dough out onto the foil with the floured side out as far as possible. Shake or rub a little more flour onto the dough’s top surface without pressing down, and gently tuck the edges under the mass so the top is domed. It’ll still sprawl a bit but try and get it shaped either as a big round or a longish oval.

If you’re coating the top with seeds, wet your hands and run them very lightly over the floured surface of the loaf, then sprinkle on the seeds. Cut a few 1/2″ deep slashes in the floured top of the dough.

As soon as the oven’s heated, slide the pan into the oven. The bread is done when it’s risen, brown, smells good, and the loaf has a hollow sound when tapped on the crust. Should be 30-50 minutes. Let it cool all the way–a couple of hours–on a rack  before wrapping up.

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