How to make rye bread

Until recently, rye bread fell into the category of foods I loved but preferred to leave to the experts (see also croissants, yoghurt and proper chips). I’d written recipes in the past, but, in an effort to make them as quick and easy as possible, I’d sacrificed some of the dense darkness that had attracted me to rye in the first place. This updated version is lengthy, but stupidly simple – and much, much better.

Prep 15 min
Ferment 3 days
Prove 27 hr
Cook 3 hr
Cool 12-24 hr
Makes 2 small loaves

For the pre-ferment
3g dried active yeast (ie, just over ½ tsp – see step 2)
100ml buttermilk
75g coarse rye flour

For the first prove
500g coarse rye flour
2 tsp fine salt
250g rye kernels
1 tbsp treacle
200ml buttermilk

To finish
125g rye kernels
125g mixed seeds
Oil or butter, to grease the tins

1 A quick note
This is a recipe for a 100% rye bread; dark and dense and crumbly, and suited especially to Scandi-style open sandwiches. If you’d prefer something lighter that’s cut with wheat flour and pliable enough for a full sandwich, I’d recommend checking out Magnus Nilsson’s Nordic Baking Book, which inspired this particular loaf, tweaked to suit my own taste.

2 The need to pre-ferment
After reading endless recipes for 100% rye breads, I’ve realised there’s no getting around the need for a pre-ferment – that is, a dough that you ferment in advance, then stir into the bulk to get it going. In the absence of much in the way of gluten in the flour, the acidity that results from the fermentation process helps to strengthen the dough, and also improves its flavour.

3 Sourdough starter or yeast?

I don’t keep a sourdough starter (due to being unable to control myself around large amounts of bread), so I’ve used commercial yeast, but, again, Nilsson’s book provides guidelines on how to make a sourdough version, and there are plenty of other recipes online, if you prefer to go down that route. You can also substitute 2g quick yeast or 6g fresh yeast.

4 Add yeast to buttermilk and rye flour

Start by stirring the yeast into 100ml buttermilk, then add 75g coarse rye flour (I buy this and the rye kernels from ScandiKitchen in London, but you can also track them down in health food shops and specialist grocers). Ordinary rye flour will do, at a pinch, so long as you don’t mind a finer-textured loaf.

5 Leave to ferment

Once you have a stiff paste, cover (I use a damp tea towel) and leave at room temperature for about 72 hours, or until it smells sour, but not unpleasant, and looks a bit bubbly. It’s helpful to put the mix in a glass bowl, so you can see the consistency more easily.

6 Add flour, salt and rye kernels

Transfer the pre-ferment to a large bowl and add the remaining flour, salt and 250g rye kernels. (If you can’t find rye kernels, coarse oatmeal, which is available from larger supermarkets and health food shops, will work in their place.) Dissolve the treacle in 50ml warm water, then stir this into the remaining buttermilk.

7 Mix to combine, then prove
Add the buttermilk mix to the bowl with about 350ml more water.

Mix (I find hands are best) until you have a homogeneous, porridge-like dough – don’t worry about kneading, or indeed overworking it, because there’s not much gluten to develop here. Cover and leave for 24 hours.

8 Add the rye and seeds, and prove again
Pour 100ml boiling water over the remaining 125g rye kernels, leave to soak for 30 minutes.

Stir the soaked kernels into the dough, along with the mixed seeds.

Transfer to two greased 21cm x 11cm x 7cm loaf tins (ie, two 2lb loaf tins in old money).

Cover and leave until slightly risen (they won’t rise significantly, but should do so enough to fill the tins – mine take about three hours at ordinary temperatures).

9 Bake and leave to cool
Heat the oven to 170C (150C fan)/325F/gas 3, then bake the loaves for three hours, covering them with foil towards the end if they look as if they’re darkening too much.

Leave to cool completely in the tin, and preferably for 12-24 hours, before cutting, because they will be very soft and sticky when fresh out of the oven. This bread keeps and freezes well, and makes superlative toast.