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What Is Rye Bread?
Rye is a true cereal grain from the Poaceae family. It likely originated in southwest Asia around 6,500 BCE and reached Europe around 2,000 BCE, where it was domesticated about a thousand years later. One of the most hardy grains, rye thrived in the cool, wet climate of northern Europe, where it was a staple grain for peasants during Medieval times.
Rye flour is low in gluten and high in carbohydrates called pentosans (aka arabinoxylans), which readily absorb water to produce a very sticky dough. Pentosans, unlike starch, remain moist after baking, yielding a dense loaf. Whole-grain rye is so dark that 100 percent rye loaves are sometimes called black bread— meaning, golden brown loaves are typically made from refined rye or a mixture of wheat and rye.
Is Rye Bread Good For You?
Rye is generally considered healthier than whole wheat flour because its bran and endosperm are high in fiber, giving even refined rye a lower glycemic index. The lignans (micronutrients) found in rye are anti-inflammatory, while the special carbohydrates (pentosans) in rye enlarge in the stomach during digestion, giving a feeling of fullness that can be helpful for regulating appetite.
Whole-grain/pumpernickel rye flour, which includes the entire rye berry (bran, germ, and endosperm), is the most nutritious of available rye flours because it includes protein, potassium, and B vitamins. White/light rye flour has been milled to contain only the endosperm, and medium/dark rye flour also has the nutritious germ and bran removed from the grain, but includes the part of the endosperm closest to the bran.
8 Different Types of Rye Bread and How to Use Each One
- Boston brown bread is made from rye, wheat, cornmeal, buttermilk, molasses, and baking soda and steamed (rather than baked) in empty coffee canisters. It’s typically sliced and served with butter or cream cheese.
- Pumpernickel is made from 100 percent unsifted rye flour and has been a staple in Central and Eastern Europe for hundreds of years. It was first eaten in sixteenth-century Westphalia and was originally made from whole-grain rye flour and sourdough starter. (The acidity from the sourdough starter helps make the dough more elastic.) The dough is baked or steamed for 16 to 24 hours. It has a thin crust, dark brown color, and strong flavor from the long fermentation process. Today, it’s popular for sandwiches.
- Jewish rye bread, also known as light rye (because it contains wheat flour) is popular in delis where it’s served with pastrami, corned beef, egg salad, fish salad, and reuben sandwiches. Seeded sourdough rye breads were brought to the US in the mid-nineteenth century from Polish Jewish immigrants. Usually contains caraway seeds.
- Marble rye: A marbled loaf that is half light rye and half pumpernickel. Good for sandwiches.
- Fruit-and-nut rye breads: Build upon rye-based breads’ sweetness with the addition of pecans, raisins, and hazelnuts.
- Vollkorn-brot: Literally “full-grain bread” in German, this dense bread is made with at least 90 percent whole-grain rye flour, sourdough starter, and (typically) sunflower seeds, hazelnuts, or oats. It’s sliced very thinly and served with cured ham or spread with butter and jam. Also known as schwarzbrot (“black bread”), it’s traditionally baked in a low oven for 24 hours, which allows the sugars in the bread to caramelize, yielding a very sweet bread. Russia also has a tradition of black bread, called chyorniy khleb.
- Scandinavian crispbread: Rye flatbreads can be fermented with active dry yeast or a sourdough starter, or they can be unleavened and aerated. These unleavened cracker-like breads are topped with cheese and cucumbers, cream cheese and smoked salmon, or hard-boiled eggs.
- Maslin was a dense mixed rye-wheat bread popular in Europe from medieval times until the eighteenth century. It could be used as a trencher, or plate made of bread, on which other foods would be served.
6 Tips for Making Rye Bread
If you’re used to making bread with wheat flour, get familiar with the unique characteristics of rye flour so you know what to expect:
- Breads made from rye flour won’t rise as much as those made from wheat flour. Bread made with 100 percent rye flour will be very dense, which is why many recipes add wheat flour to get a better rise. High-protein bread flour will help as well.
- Be very gentle when kneading rye bread to avoid damaging the pentosans; if they break down it can make the dough very sticky. It's better to use your hands than a stand mixer with a dough hook attachment.
- You can also add a tablespoon or two of vital wheat gluten, a powdered form of the wheat gluten protein, to improve rise.
- Many traditional German rye breads rely on a soaker, or a piece of old bread that has been soaked, mashed, and added to the new bread dough for flavor. If you have some extra rye bread that you like the flavor of, consider adding it to your dough.
- Adding acidity—in the form of a sourdough starter, vinegar, or pickle juice—can help prevent rye bread from becoming overly gummy.
- If your dough becomes very sticky during kneading, try wetting your hands rather than adding more flour.
Simple Homemade Rye Bread Recipe
Makes 1 large loaf
- 1 cup lukewarm (about 90°F) water (or substitute sauerkraut brine or pickle juice for some of the water)
- 1 cup whole-grain (pumpernickel) rye flour
- 4 teaspoons molasses
- 2 ¼ teaspoons instant yeast
- ½ cup plain full-fat yogurt
- 1 tablespoon whole caraway seeds
- 1 tablespoon ground caraway seeds
- 1 ½ teaspoons salt
- 2 ⅓ unbleached all-purpose flour
- Neutral oil, as needed
- In a large bowl, combine the warm water, sugar, rye flour, and yeast and mix to combine. Let rest until flour has absorbed all of the liquid, about 20 minutes.
- Add sour cream, caraway, salt, and all-purpose flour and knead together until dough is somewhat smooth, but still pretty sticky.
- Transfer the dough to a large, lightly oiled bowl, cover with a clean kitchen towel or plastic wrap, and let dough rise at room temperature, or in a warm place if your kitchen runs cool, until puffed up, about 45–90 minutes.
- Briefly knead dough. Shape into a rectangle with the short side slightly shorter than a 9” x 5” loaf pan. With the short side of the rectangle facing you, fold the end farthest away from you to the center of the loaf and press to seal. Bring the two top corners farthest away from you in to meet. Pull the end farthest away from you to the center of the loaf and press with the heel of your hand to seal. Repeat two more times, transfer seam side down to a 9” x 5” loaf pan and gently press into pan.
- Transfer shaped loaf to a parchment-lined baking sheet, cover with a clean kitchen towel or plastic wrap, and let dough rise at room temperature until puffed up, about 30–90 minutes.
- Meanwhile, preheat oven to 350°F. When you’re ready to bake, use a spray bottle filled with water to mist your loaf.
- Bake until an instant-read thermometer inserted into the center of the loaf registers 205–210°F, about 40–50 minutes. If bread is browning before it reaches desired internal temperature, tent with foil. Transfer loaves to a wire rack to cool.
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