We’ve been working on our rye bread for several months, and, while we might tweak it here and there in the future, we now think the recipe is ready for prime time. It’s a straightforward bread, and it’s pretty easy to make, with very little (almost none, actually) kneading. But, we will warn those people who’ve never tackled making a rye bread before that there are a few things to keep in mind.
First, rye dough does not behave like ordinary bread dough. It’s sticky. Always sticky. And, while we do some things to reduce the stickiness, it still sticks to our hands. Second, strictly speaking, this is not a rye bread, as the amount off rye flour is less than one-third of the total. To be a true rye bread, you’d have to have at least 51% rye flour. But, that doesn’t mean it isn’t good. It’s very good (but what home-scratched bread isn’t? We always say that even the worst scratched bread will beat the crust off store-bought). And, third, just because we label this as an easy bread doesn’t mean that it’s fast to make. Great bread takes time.
First, all those optional ingredients. The vitamin C is a dough conditioner; your dough will be a bit easier to work if you have it. If not, don’t worry; we’ve made great bread without it. The cocoa is to make a darker rye. It’s there mainly for color, so omit if you want a light rye bread. If you like caraway seeds, dill seeds, and/or onions in your rye, put them in; otherwise, even plain rye is good, too. Now, some people will say that you should use bottled water and sea salt in bread. We say, nah. Tap water is fine, and table salt is fine.
Now, the elephant in the ingredients list: sourdough starter. We use it for almost all breads. We’ve kept and fed our starter for years; it’s really no problem, and we talk about doing so in our basic bread recipe (we don’t talk about making a starter, though; you can find great instructions in Chad Robertson’s book, Tartine). So, here’s what do you do if you don’t have a sourdough starter: mix 180 grams of room temperature water with 180 grams of bread flour and a pinch of yeast. Let it sit, covered, until doubled in size. If it doubles in size before you’re ready to use it, keep pushing it down and deflating. If it’s slow, don’t worry; your flours can soak longer without harm.
Lastly, we list ingredients by weight; if you want, you can use volume: flours weigh 140 g per cup, so 250/140 = 1 3/4 cups flour. Water is 240 g per cup, so 680/240 = 2 2/3 cups + a bit more water. We still recommend using weight, if possible, as it’s more precise and a small change can make a surprising difference.
Procedure in detail:
Soak flour. Place the water in a large bowl; we use a four-quart bowl, which is just a perfect size. Tap water is fine, and the temperature doesn’t really matter, either. Stir in the rye flour, the white whole-wheat flour, the 100g of bread flour, and any optional flavorings: caraway seeds, cocoa, dill seeds, or onions. After stirring, you’ll have something that’s like a batter. Now, let it soak: place something over the top of the bowl (we use a large plate), and let the flour stand for anywhere between 2 and 12 hours. The timing isn’t critical, but, for the best flavor, lean towards longer. We generally let the flour soak for 3 to 4 hours.
Add starter. Your flour has soaked, adding flavor and developing the gluten somewhat, so stir in the starter. Make sure it’s all blended in and the batter is uniform in color. Cover it up and let it stand so the starter can work. We let it stand about 2 hours; by that time, the batter is bubbling, showing that the starter is active and working.
Add salt. Add the salt, and vitamin C, if using and mix thoroughly. We like to add the salt to the batter, as it’s easier to mix in, preventing little salt lumps. If you want, you can let the batter stand for a few minutes, then mix again, just to give the salt a chance to dissolve.
Add bread flour. This is where it starts to get difficult. Add the bread flour and mix until a dough forms. It’ll be sticky. You can try adding flour a bit at a time and mixing to make it easier, but we just add it all at one whack and start mixing. Keep mixing until all the flour is incorporated. Cover up the dough again .
Stretch and fold. You need to do this about every 15 minutes for the next 2 to 3 hours, but stretch and folds are easy. Don’t worry; the timing doesn’t matter too much, so if you forget and 30 minutes go by, that’s okay. Bread is rather forgiving. During a stretch and fold, you want to lift up part of the dough, then stretch it out and fold it over the remaining dough. We find a bowl scraper is perfect for helping. Do this stretch and fold about 25 times, working your way around the bowl. Place the cover back on the bowl and go about your business for the next 15 minutes.
Refrigerated rise. Okay, it’s getting late in the day, so let’s call it quits. Do one final series of stretch and folds, cover the dough, and place it in the refrigerator for the night. This will allow for a long, slow rise, which creates lots of flavor as the yeast (and other microorganisms) works away.
Second rise. Have a good night’s sleep? We bet the dough did, too. Get it out of the refrigerator and look at it. If it hasn’t doubled in size, leave it out on the counter until it does. (Our dough comes up to the top of the bowl). Once doubled, push down the dough, working from the edges of the bowl inward, tucking the dough underneath as it deflates. We’re trying to keep the gluten coat on the top surface intact. Keep working the dough, shaping it into a ball. Cover the dough and let it rise again until doubled in size, about 3 hours.
Divide and proof. Dust a work surface with flour. Line three baskets with clean dish towels and dust them with flour, too. Remember, this dough is pretty sticky, so use a liberal amount of flour on both the work surface and the baskets. Now, carefully turn out the dough onto your work surface. This time, you don’t want to deflate the dough. It will deflate some, and that’s okay, but don’t push it down into a ball. Now, cut the dough into three equal pieces. Take each piece, fold up the cut edges, and work the dough into a ball, trying to keep that gluten coat intact. Once shaped, place in a basket, dust with flour, and cover with another towel. Let rise until very soft and obviously doubled in size.
Preheat oven to 450°F. Here’s the secret of great bread: the baking technique. You’ve probably read about generating steam in your oven, and that’s important. We don’t like to add the water, or the ice cubes, or whatever, as it seems too dangerous, so we use a cast-iron Dutch oven. Ours has a lid that doubles as a skillet, so we can invert the Dutch oven and use the pan as a big lid, making it easier to add the bread. If you’re using a Dutch oven, place it in the oven to heat, too. Otherwise, place a large baking stone in the oven to preheat. Let everything preheat for about 30 to 45 minutes, so it’s nice and hot.
Slash and Bake. Carefully remove a ball of dough from a basket and place it in the Dutch oven. Use a razor or sharp knife to slash the top. This slashing will allow the bread to rise (oven spring) in a controlled manner, not just tearing the crust randomly. Place the lid on the Dutch oven, and bake for 20 minutes. Remove the lid and bake 20 minutes more. If you’re using a baking stone, place the dough on the stone and give it a decorative slash and bake for 40 minutes. When using a stone, try to load several of the loaves at one time, as they’ll release steam, which will create a great crust.
Cool. Once baked, cool completely, suppressing that desire to tear into a loaf of fresh, hot bread as long as you can.
It seems like a lot, doesn’t it? It isn’t, really. Just take it step by step and be patient — the yeast follows its own schedule, and you need to respect that to make great bread. Now, this is a very good bread, but, as we said above, the dough is sticky. It’s just the nature of rye dough, but it is more troublesome to make than the Easy Wheat bread. So, for the added effort, we’ll reduce this by a single star and say it’s worth four stars.