Funny Stuff Rye …

I’ve made a lot of rye bread in my time but it still doesn’t feel as natural to me as wheat – I always feel I’m working against the grain (as you might say) even though the results are good. In fact I love the results, I just find the process awkward. On the other hand basic good rye is absolutely simple to make: no kneading to speak of, brief fermentation, about three and a half hours prove, bake.

But then there are the little complications that combine to make your day less than straightforward – like every type of rye seems to have its own starter. When it comes to wheat I have the confidence to adapt everything to a starter at 100% hydration without any loss of quality, part of developing my own style of bread. But Rye? I have a lurking suspicion that there has to be a reason for all these doughs to have individual starters beyond the fact that they come from different cultures and different bakers.

Example – last week I made two ryes, Nina Holm Jensen’s Simple Danish and Nils Schoener’s Guinness Vollkornbrot (the Entre-Deux-Mers of breads – between the Elbe and the Liffey).

Before I “retired” I baked rye once or twice a week from a repertoire of about twenty different doughs so my starter got a good regular work-out. Now it sits glum and rather neglected in the kitchen. During the recent warm and humid weather it has started to develop a thick white mould crust for its own protection after couple of days standing:
ryestart 001 smallryestart 004 smallThis had probably been sitting untouched for about a week. Sad but still active:
ryestart 002 smallAfter refreshing it took a good 48 hours to get back to this:
starter 002 smallBut eight hours after the next refreshment it had gone nicely berserk:
starter 001I’m baking on Thursday. I give my final rye starters 24 hours to ripen so I refresh them Wednesday morning. I say “them” because of course both doughs have a different starter. The Vollkornbrot just uses starter at 100% hydration so no problem there, I refresh at a ratio of 1:1:1, i.e. the starter in the refreshment is about 33% of the total weight. From there on it gets more complicated

For the Simple Danish, on the other hand, the starter in the refreshment is only about 6% (in this case it worked out at starter 217g, water 1550g, flour 1684g). The number of times I have made this bread I still can’t believe this will work!

Back to the Vollkornbrot. This also calls for a rye grain/sunflower seed soaker and a separate coarse rye meal soaker. For the first soaker rye grain has to be boiled in water until softened but still chewy, drained and then soaked in Guinness overnight together with a bunch of sunflower seed. As usual I don’t understand my own notes boil the rye in the Guinness and then have to make up the quantity of the liquid with water to the amount of stout in the recipe. Same difference.

For the coarse rye meal I bring my secret weapon into play – the mill attachment of my Kenwood:
mill 004 smallYes, I know Kitchenaids are more sexy but they’re under-powered – Kenwoods have more guts. I know also that these days you’re supposed to have a stone mill and you can’t possibly produce good bread with anything less than a Rofco oven with stone decks and steam injection. I know I’m just kidding myself my bread is any good …

Anyway, this little mill won’t produce anything very fine, but at its widest setting it will mangle rye grain to give you rye chops and at its finest coarse rye meal which is what we’re after:
mill 007 smallmill 009 smallYou could sieve the meal to produce a finer flour but you’d want some time on your hands.

The resulting meal is soaked in hot water overnight.

Thursday morning 6.00 a.m. Decide to start with the Simple Danish. Obviously not simple enough. Weigh out the water, add the starter. Shit. Only about one kilo where there should have been two. I’ve used the Vollkornbrot starter. Can’t do mornings like I used to. Well, we shall now do an impromptu experiment to see if rye starters are interchangeable. Add a second kilo of Simple Danish starter and continue.

Cram nearly 7 kilos of ingredients into the bowl and gently hand mix. There’s virtually no usable gluten in rye so there’s no point in doing much mixing. Let it sit in the bowl for an hour.

These heavy rye doughs are so wet and unmanageable that if you were working with them for the first time panic would be setting in. If they’re being baked in tins, like the Vollkornbrot, there’s no problem – you wet scale and shape them. That is, you have a bowl of water handy, wet your hands, the scale plate, the dough scrapers, the work surface so nothing sticks. Shaping is simply a case of squeezing the weighed dough to roughly the shape of the tin, dropping it in and smoothing the top.

But I’m weak about turning out those low-domed, cracked and cratered moon-like boules of Simple Danish. In these days of highly decorated and stencilled loaves they are random and naturally beautiful. So to start off I wet scale and pre-shape but then I don’t want to drop wet dough into my lined proving baskets or they might never come out again. So I use plenty of flour, roughly shape (if you can shape porridge) and plonk into the baskets with the aid of a scraper. It’s very messy and not very pretty – just doesn’t seem very satisfactory. But they rise OK – three and a half hours and they are ready for the oven.

Meanwhile, mix the Vollkornbrot. This is fun if you’re a mud pie sort of person. Most of the flour is already contained in the starter and the two soakers. So, after draining the grain soaker, these three are incorporated (what a clinical word for such a squelchy mess). Then the remaining rye and some wheat flour are added with splashes of the soaker liquid as you go. The water in the final dough isn’t specified – Nils says something like aim for the consistency of mashed potatoes. How do you like your mashed potatoes?

One hour fermentation, wet shape and into the tins. Tins are quite useful if you are new to this because you can see what’s happening. Rye’s a tease – it sits there looking you in the eye and does nothing until it sees you’re getting worried. When you are very worried it sort of stretches itself a little bit and before you know it you are panicking that you won’t have oven space before it starts to collapse.

The subject of baking ryes is as diverse as rye starters but the sort of global baking approach I’ve adapted for most doughs goes like this. Heat the oven to about 240C. Bake the breads for 15 minutes then reduce the temperature to 180C and bake for a further 35-45 minutes. Remove from tins (if in tins), return to the oven, turn off the heat, wedge the oven door open slightly (I find Ukip referendum literature very handy for this) and leave in the falling heat for about 20 minutes. This is how I treated the Simple Danish and the Vollkornbrot.

ryes 003 smallOf course, these types of heavy rye should be wrapped when they are totally cold and not used for at least 24 hours. Keep them wrapped and they will stay moist and continue to improve for days. A week later that Vollkornbrot is absolutely delicious (and the Simple Danish is improving in the freezer!).
ryecrumb 001 small
My little confusion over the two starters didn’t seem to make any difference – both breads are fabulous.

You can get a Kindle version of Nils Schoener – “Brot – Bread Notes from a Floury German Kitchen” and you can have the privilege of baking with Nina Holm Jensen if you sign up for Bethesdabakin’@Middlesex end of August.

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