With the grain: rye

Categories: Expert guidance

In a new series, chef and demo kitchen regular Jenny Chandler explores cereal grains and offers tips and recipes to get the best of them. This month: rye

Why, tell me why, did we forget rye?

This dark and rugged member of the triticeae family is a close relative of wheat and barley. It’s a true survivor; a grain that can put up with extraordinarily wet conditions, germinate and grow at little above freezing point, and even lie dormant for months in sub-zero temperatures. Back in the Middle Ages growing wheat was quite a gamble in our cold, damp climes and hardier rye was the more common cereal. But with the arrival of the modern, sturdier strains of wheat in the 1700s, rye’s popularity diminished and in Britain, it became known as the black wheat of the peasants, and even considered a weed.

Thankfully we Brits seem to be getting more adventurous and excited about the huge selection of grains available, particularly when it comes to bread. For centuries we’ve obsessed over white wheat bread, once the preserve of the rich and now the classic supermarket loss-leader, in the form of tasteless sliced pap. Along with a new passion for artisan sourdoughs and wholemeal breads has come an interest in the darker, denser loaves of Scandinavia and Eastern Europe, and here, rye is king.

A visit to Karaway Bakery in the Market is an eye-opener, when it comes to the variety of rye breads available: from the classic Russian borodinsky, flavoured with caraway and coriander, to lighter blended rye and wheat breads.

Earthy and assertive
Baking successfully at home with rye flour takes some practice—it’s all too easy to end up with a sticky brick. Rye has a higher water-binding capacity and less gluten than wheat, meaning a wetter, denser dough which benefits from long fermentation and sometimes a very long, slow bake (as in the case of German pumpernickel). On the plus side, the lower gluten levels make it perfect for some cases of gluten intolerance (but not celiacs) and then there’s the fabulous flavour: tangy, slightly sour, earthy and assertive. You know when you’re eating rye.

Scandi-inspired open sandwiches or ‘smørrebrød’ shout for chewy rye. Top with creamy cheese, smoked or pickled fish, hard boiled eggs, beetroot, dill—all those treats that feel so welcome at this time of year. For a quicker, easier bake and equally delicious results, you could go for crisp bread or crackers instead. These are fabulous with cured fish or pâté, and the traditional plate-sized knäckebröd do look wonderful piled up next to a festive cheeseboard.

But it’s not all about flour and baking. Rye ‘berries’, the whole grain (bran and all) are absolutely fabulous in salads, soups and stews. The raw berries have a curiously blue-green hue but turn an appetising rusty-brown once cooked. I’d recommend roasting the seeds in a dry pan for a few minutes for a bit of extra, toasty depth of flavour and then soaking them as you would a pulse.

Packed with goodness
The soaking isn’t so much about reducing the cooking time but removing some of the naturally-occurring phytic acid, which prevents full absorption of the plentiful vitamins and minerals found in rye. Strain and then simmer until just tender, but still nutty (about 45 minutes). Rye berry, smoked mackerel, blood orange, watercress and horseradish or soured cream salad is a winner, and packed with goodness—do give it a whirl.

You may like to mix rye flakes into your oats for morning porridge or granola, but don’t expect them to blend quietly with the oats—the rye will be dominant in both texture and taste. Rye is high in fibre and extremely filling, making it a particularly popular breakfast choice with those trying to drop the mid-morning snacking habit.

Do try this seeded crisp-bread recipe or, if you’re pressed for time, head along to the Karaway Bakery for some rye bread to accompany your smoked salmon this Christmas.