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Old-world breads boast layers of taste

Home-baked rye loaves, packed with whole grains, seeds and nuts, are dense and flavorful enough to carry a meal.

January 13, 2011|By Amy Scattergood, Special to the Los Angeles Times

Unless you're reading this story in your grandmother's Brooklyn or Minnesota kitchen, a loaf of dark bread just out of the oven, you may be part of the vast majority of people for whom dense rye breads are a bit out of the comfort zone. You may run across old-world loaves like these, on your table if you're lucky or maybe at a Vermont bakery, the loaves stacked in a dark mosaic, but in this country it's mostly the more familiar baguettes and country whites that we buy and bake at home.

But if your experience of rye bread has been limited to grocery store loaves, then you're missing out on something extraordinary. And if you've never baked breads like these — chewy ryes, dark breads studded with nuts and seeds, black pumpernickels layered with as many intricate flavors as a great ale or stout — then it's not just a good loaf you've been missing, but a whole new world of baking. Or, more exactly, an old one rediscovered.

Loaded with flavor from whole grains, often from nuts or seeds, and sometimes from long hours on the oven floor, loaves of rye bread built the bakeries of northern and eastern Europe and migrated to this country with the bakers that created them. And although they can sometimes require a bit more technique than a loaf of white, and often a few more ingredients, they're surprisingly easy to make at home.

The payoff? Loaves with stunning flavor, texture and depth. Breads that have complexity and staying power and the ability to pair with strong ingredients instead of fading into the background of a meal. Breads that can form the centerpiece of meals, almost the meal itself.

"When you get hooked" on rye breads, says master baker Peter Reinhart, "you really get hooked, just like when somebody falls for a strong IPA beer. Then all of a sudden nothing else satisfies you."

The cornerstone of old-world breads like these is, of course, the flour. Instead of wheat, these are breads built with rye flour, as that grain could grow in the less hospitable climate. Rye is a hardier grain, and the flour is also more mercurial than wheat flour, with less gluten and more bran and fiber, which means the doughs absorb more water and have a tendency to become dense and gummy. For this reason, most rye breads are not made with 100% rye, but with a combination of wheat and rye. In fact, they can contain as little as 20% rye, depending on what else is in the dough.

The exception to this loose rule is sourdough rye bread, which is what most bakers who fall in love with rye bread usually end up baking, and which, of course, is a whole other story. By using sourdough, the acidity of which creates a small chemistry experiment in your bread bowl and oven, you can make loaves using all rye flour — beautiful, complex loaves that bear as much similarity to store-bought ryes as artisan-made baguettes do to Wonder Bread.

Sourdough starter, an active culture of yeast and flour and bacteria, controls the enzymatic activity of the rye flour with its natural acidity, preventing the crumb from getting gummy while adding a beautiful complex flavor to the bread. And since baking with sourdough isn't any more difficult than baking without it — the hard part is making and achieving a strong starter — it's worth considering as the logical next step in old-world baking.

"The real thing," says certified master baker Jeffrey Hamelman, who started baking German breads 34 years ago and has represented the U.S. at the Coupe du Monde de la Boulangerie, "puts you on your knees."

Sourcing good flour, always important in baking, becomes even more so, as rye flour — not as popular in this country as wheat — can quickly grow rancid if left too long on a store (or a home) shelf. Buy flour from a reliable source and store it in the freezer.

A good loaf of rye, like Rose Levy Beranbaum's Real Jewish Rye, requires very little more than a percentage of rye flour, a bit of malt syrup (you can use honey or even table sugar), yeast, flour, salt and water. Throw in a handful of caraway seeds, as Beranbaum does, or omit the seeds entirely. Caraway is wonderful, with a lovely anise flavor, but it can easily overwhelm the subtle milky notes of the rye flour.

Indeed, this simplicity is part of the reason home-baked rye is so good. Traditionally, black breads and pumpernickels were baked overnight, using the residual heat of the oven, and get their distinctive color from a long, slow caramelization of the bread itself in the oven. Short-cut commercial ryes get their hue from caramel colorings and are laden with fillers that mask the true flavor of the breads.

These badly made breads can put you off the real thing for good. "My relatives in Russia used to tell me that black bread was used to plug door holes," said Beranbaum recently from her New York apartment (a faint symphony of sirens and snowplows in the background).

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