29 March 2010

Rye? Because.

Rye flour can be difficult to work with.  When flour is hydrated, gluten forms.  Scientifically speaking, gluten is made up of glutenin and gliadin.  Rye flour is grossly lacking in glutenin.  It also contains alpha and beta amylases which are also present in saliva.  Amylase breaks down starch into sugar.  What does this mean in practice?  It means that rye flour, on it's own, can not create a gluten structure that will trap steam.  If you've ever seen a traditional German, 100% rye loaf you'll understand.  These loaves are more like doorstops.  I love them but they are not exactly what you think of when you think of bread.  The Jewish ryes that you find in the grocery store are not 100% rye.  They all contain some percentage of white or wheat flour.

The 2nd practical problem with the rye stems from the amylase.  If the dough is over-mixed, it starts breaking down and becomes incredibly sticky.  This becomes even more so when caraway seeds are added.  The sharp, pointy seeds cut through the, already lacking, gluten structure.  This brings me to the 3rd, totally unscientifically related, problem with rye.  People tend to associate rye with caraway.  I hear people claim to not like rye bread all the time.  Dollars to doughnuts, it's the caraway they don't like.  When you take the seeds out, rye has a very mild, earthy flavor.  Rye also has a high ash content which, I think, gives it the earthiness.  Ash is a byproduct of the milling process and it is what makes rye flour ferment like crazy, problem #4.  If rye flour is present in a sour, it ferments more rapidly than any other flour.  Whole wheat has a higher ash content than white flour so it too ferments fast but not as quick as rye.

Enough with the science.  What does it all mean and why am I concerned?  Rye is one of the products I have been working to improve in the last couple weeks.  When I arrived at my current job, the rye loaves were flat (over fermented, over mixed, improper gluten structure...the science is unavoidable) and long.  Most often, customers buy bread for sandwiches.  They are looking for the most sandwichable slices possible.  This means the center of the loaf should be bulbous and the ends should be pudgy, not pointy.

First, we changed the flour from a light, fine rye to a medium, coarse rye.  If you've seen regular ground flour against stone ground flour, you'll know what I'm talking about.  Then, I paid careful attention to the mixing process and educated my team on the variables....don't over mix and incorporate the seeds gently and quickly.  Next we worked on shaping.  Instead of pre-shaping the dough into logs as one normally would for a final batard shape, we shaped them into rounds.  This, in an effort to get the nice bulbous center.  We focused on shaping short, fat loaves for at least a week before we got it right.  It's hard to make your hands change what they do automatically day in and day out.  We still weren't getting exactly what we wanted so we started looking at the bake.  Often rye breads are cut with several short lines going side to side across the loaf.  This helps loaves maintain their structures.  We decided to change the way our rye loaves were scored.  Several cuts call for more handling which is not really a good thing when there are thousands of loaves to be handled.  We moved to one cut, end to end for the non-seeded and two cuts for the seeded.  This change was like finding the Holy Grail.  Our rye went from grocery store blunder to artisan beauties over night.


  1. Ash is not a by-product from milling. It is technically in-organic non-combustible material that is left over when a product is incinerated. This is usually measured in a muffle furnace and crucible. In the case of flour, most of the ash content is going to come from the bran layer. The ash content is important because it will tell you how much bran is in your flour. The ash content can also imply the amount of protein in the flour through its correlation to the extraction rate.

  2. Thanks for your detailed description about ash. I have only recently begin to understand all the details of the milling process, how it affects the flour I use and how the final product is influenced by minor fluctuations in protein, absorption, tolerance, ash, etc. I did find a good description of how ash content is tested...