Tips on baking with rye
After wondering what makes good rye bread, I came up with surprisingly few tips. The hints I can give are more like little tricks, that seem to make things a bit easier. There is no big theory behind it, it’s what I believe to be true from the couple of rye breads I have made so far.
I think a rye sourdough starter is best put into a warm place, 24-28°C so that acidity can develop quickly and the starter is ready after 16-24 hours. Letting the sourdough ferment longer than 24 hours is possible and sometimes necessary. This is in contrast to wheat sourdough (levain), if used as leavening, for example in a pain au levain. An over-acidic levain produces an excessively sour and rather unresponsive dough resulting in poor loaf volume and hard crust.
Readiness of the starter
A rye sourdough starter with a hydration of 80-100% is ready when it has risen and collapsed. A typical look at this stage is a rather liquid mass that has receded from the sides of the bowl. It should have a sharp and appetizingly fresh aroma (of ripe apples or slightly sweet and yeasty). Rye starters made with smaller hydrations should be inflated and show a network of holes. Do make the effort of waiting longer if these signs of fermentation are not yet visible.
Water absorption in rye flours varies. A fine grind yields stiffer and drier doughs. Recipes must be read with regard to a generic description of dough consistency (stiff, sticky, loose etc.). I would recommend this to a lot of authors of bread books: Describe how the dough feels, use a lot of analogies of known things from the kitchen (acts and feels like mashed potatoes, porridge, etc…)
The most common and unnverving problem in this bread seems to be the “flying top” aka “handbag”, i.e. when the top separates from the crumb forming an empty interior. Among experts (cf. Fachkunde Bäcker/Bäckerin: Praxis und Theorie by Albrecht, Ehrlinger, Welskop, Schild) the ruling opinion seems to be, that it is caused by lack of acidity. Cf. “Readiness of starter”. The “flying top” is very often accompanied by a gummy crumb, which seems to back up the above. Any way to increase acidity will help to prevent this pain-in-the-arse.
(Top hasn’t taken off completely in this loaf, but the effect of lack of sourness is quite visible in the crumb: Dense crumb towards bottom, ‘water line’ at the bottom, irregular tacky texture))
Update 23 March 2010: The pic above actually does not show the notorious “water line” caused by defective sourdough, but compression of the loaf when it was still hot.
Rye breads right after baking
Right after it comes out of the oven, the crumb of a bread made with 80% rye flour is a sticky soft mass that can be squished together irreversibly. Eating a piece of hot rye bread is almost as horrific as eating a heated mixture of water and flour. Resisting the urge to cut into the bread before 24 hours have passed, which stabilizes the crumb, is a last step in the fabrication of a delicious rye loaf.
Rye sourdough as leavening
Naturally, a mature rye starter can be used to make bread dough rise, calling upon the wild yeasts that are living in the starter. In breads made with less than 60% rye and more than 40% wheat I would not recommend it, though. It probably is because of the high acidity of rye sourdoughs, that a strong white flour in the presence of rye will lose some of its force. The resulting crumb of the bread often has a dry, “glass-like” texture. No doubt about it, what will still be called “acceptable” or even “good” is up to the reader.