Bread is on the decline among those concerned with nutrition. After decades of eating super white, yeast-leavened loaves this isn’t too surprising. Failing to provide us with necessary nutrients and fiber, and instead sparking blood sugar levels, this kind of bread may indeed have been making us sick. But the industrial product from the grocery store is pretty far from the bread that has followed human civilization through millennia and that is made of nothing but three ingredients: flour, salt and water. I recently overcame my bread scare and discovered how easy it is to make a healthy whole grain sourdough bread. It can be quite empowering to rediscover this age-old craft in your own home.
People have been growing rye for millennia. There is evidence that the grain was consumed in the Danube region during the Roman era, but it wasn’t until the Middle Ages that the crop really took off in Central and Northern Europe. It thrived particularly well in those regions and to this day Germany, Russia and Poland are by far the largest producers of rye.
Historically, baking with rye is closely linked to the use of sourdough. Pure yeast as we know it today has only been in use since the 19th century. Of course, yeast bacteria are an important component of sourdough, but it is their co-occurrence with Lactobacillus that provides the characteristic flavor. More importantly, it also makes the bread more digestible and more nutritious by unlocking a lot of the minerals in the grains. If you’re interested in these processes, I recommend the bread episode of Michael Pollan’s documentary series “Cooked” on Netflix.
But let’s get the baking started. I recently discovered this recipe on my favorite German bread blog. If you know German, I cannot recommend this blog enough. If not – here’s one super easy and good recipe, slightly adapted for the American kitchen. Sadly, there’s no way around working with a kitchen scale. I understand many American households don’t have one, but it’s worth the $15 investment. It will change the way you bake.
Other than that, this recipe not too much of a hassle, but it does take some planning ahead. The dough needs its time to rest and rise and you want to make sure you’re not rushing (or staying up late) to see your whole baking project through. But with a little planning, baking this bread totally fits into most people’s schedule. And once you’ve figured it out, I’m pretty sure you’ll keep on doing it.
Whole grain rye bread. One loaf that, stays fresh for about a week, but will most likely be gone long before that.
- 9 oz whole grain rye flour, such as Hodgson Mill or Bob’s Red Mill.
- 10 oz warm water, around 120 Fahrenheit. (Unless you have a thermometer, mix 6 oz cold water and 4 oz of boiling water.)
- 2 oz rye sourdough starter. If you don’t have any yet, start your own.
- 1 tsp salt.
Mix all the ingredients in a bowl, cover with saran wrap and let ferment at room temperature for 12-16 hours. Don’t expect it to rise like a yeast dough, but it should smell sour and have the texture of a sponge once you cut into it.
- 2 oz of old bread. Really any bread you may have around, but ideally something that’s not full of preservatives.
- 5.5 oz boiling water.
- 1 tsp salt.
Grate the old bread with a grater or throw it into the food processor until you have bread crumbs. Mix the ingredients, cover with saran wrap right on the surface. Let it stand for at least one hour or up to 24 h in the fridge. I suggest making it at the same time as the sourdough from step one.
Why do this? The bread crumbs hold a lot of water and will keep your bread moist.
- The products of step one and step two.
- 8 oz whole grain rye flour.
- 2 oz boiling water.
Mix the boiling water and the product of step two (the soaked bread crumbs). Then add the rest and blend everything, using the dough hook of your mixer. Depending on your flour, you might have to add a little more water for the dough to come together. It will be pretty sticky – nothing like a pizza dough or such, since it lacks the massive amounts of gluten that give a wheat bread its structure. Let it sit for 15 minutes.
Now shape the bread. Don’t be intimidated by the sticky dough. If you’ve never formed a bread loaf before, watch the first minute of this video and copy the moves as much as you can. Your dough is going to be stickier than in the video, so you’ll need a lot of flour on your workbench. That’s fine, you can dust off the bread before baking. Don’t obsess over it. Once it’s shaped reasonably well, dust the bread with flour (if necessary) and transfer to a bread rising basket or simply to a bowl the size of your future bread.
Let the bread rest for an hour and preheat the oven to 450 Fahrenheit. If you have a bread or pizza baking stone – perfect! Put it in there and let it heat up to temperature. Carefully take the bread out of the basket and put it in the oven – with the smooth side up. Close the oven and turn the temperature down to 400 Fahrenheit.
After 60 minutes, take the bread out of the oven. Admire your sourdough loaf and feel empowered because you made your first own bread. Keep on baking – with time your skills will improve and it will feel easier and easier.