BMB: New York-style Light Rye Breads

My new year’s resolution to bake bread at home has continued apace (Bake More Bread: BMB). From Anadama to Oatmeal to fruity Banana Yeast, finally we get to the sourdoughs. These are New York style sourdough rye loaves.

On the first day of the new year, I began a wild sourdough starter and attempted to follow directions from Sue, an accomplished bread baker and cheesemaker, at Know Whey. I began running into trouble early on. Sue’s directions called for removing a quantity of the starter each day by weight. That sounds logical, and on sight it seems easy. It was not. At least not for me.

The starter batter is very sticky. Could-be-used-to-set-wallpaper sticky. And equally gloppy. In the end I was just not talented enough to weigh and remove the required amount of starter each day without creating a huge mess. Goop on my clothes. Streaky smears on the counters. And paste coating all the utensils, bowls and kitchen scale. It was getting discouraging, so rather than give up on my starter, I gave up on the weighing the starter. Instead I eye-balled what looked like 50% of the starter to use or dump, but still weighed the flour and water going in. And I kept my fingers crossed.

After the requisite one week development period, I was happy to see that the starter looked healthy and active. I gave her a couple more days to really settle in and develop some “sour” before putting her to work. Yes, her. We know sourdoughs are live, active cultures — they must be fed and changed on a regular basis, right? Well, meet “Katharine” or Kate for short — she’s bubbly and energetic, with a stern backbone (of whole wheat) despite her soft appearance. Kinda like the actress after whom she’s named. This photo was taken today.

My first attempt to make an all sourdough bread (i.e., no yeast) was a potato sourdough that I made into a braid and into rolls. This recipe cautioned that raising and proofing times could be quite extended. The first rise took 8 hours, and the proofing sometime less than 6. In fact, I miscalculated the proofing time based on that first rise, and by the time I checked the breads at 6 hours, the braid had collapsed. The rolls came out all right — a bit dense and light-colored.

For the second sourdough I chose a light rye recipe from “Secrets of a Jewish Baker” by George Greenstein since I had made a Jewish recipe called Schmalz & Gribenes that is often served with rye breads. This is a very involved bread recipe. You begin well over 48 hours before you want to bake by first making a caraway-seasoned rye-based starter. After the first 24 hours, the starter is fed more rye flour in 3 additional stages. After another 18 hours, you’re ready to start the dough.

Instead of starting from scratch, I used Kate as the beginning starter and added crushed caraway seeds along with the first measure of rye flour and water for Stage One. The seeds completely disintegrate by the time the starter is ready to be made into a dough, so if you don’t want seeds in the final bread, you can still add them at Stage One for the flavor boost they will give your starter. After each feeding, the starter is allowed to double, though the time required for doubling shortens with each stage. Maybe because I did not start from scratch with Mr. Greenstein’s recipe, the Stage One rise took 10 hours. Stage Two took about 5, while Stage Three took about 4 hours.

After Stage Three, I removed about a half-cup of the rye sourdough to use for our next loaf — his name is George, of course. Per Mr. Greenstein’s recommendation, he’s covered with a film of water and lives in the fridge. Kate sits on the sideboard at room temperature.

When making the dough, I again had to depart from Mr. Greenstein’s meticulous directions because I had neither clear flour nor left-over rye bread to make something called the Altus, basically a wet mash of left-over rye bread that provides that je ne sais quoi of real rye breads. Clear flour, also called first clear, is a specialty bakery flour — it is traditionally what’s left after the first sifting of milled wheat to create white flour. So clear flour has some quantity of wheat bran and germ that are considered undesirable for white flour purposes. Evidently one doesn’t find clear flour on market shelves(super-, co-op, specialty or otherwise). You either have to chat up an artisan baker into selling you some, or order it online. Online sources can charge twice as much for shipping as they charge for the flour itself, so you might want to plan accordingly and put all your specialty baking needs in one order. Alternatively, one bread baker’s forum suggested a ratio of 3:1 all-purpose flour to whole wheat as a passable substitute for clear flour. I used 3:1 bread flour to whole wheat flour. This bread uses yeast as a leavener in addition to the sourdough, and I also included vital wheat gluten to increase the bread’s lift and keeping ability.

The bread is painted with cornstarch solution before it is slashed, then again as soon as it comes out of the oven. I had not used this glaze before — it adds an interesting powdered shine to the finished loaf, don’t you think? During baking, the sides of the oven are sprayed with water to create steam that for that distinctive chewy thick crust.

These are the final loaves we got: 2 plain, free-form loaves and one stuffed bread (a la Reuben). I am tickled at how chewy and tasty these breads were — pleasantly sour and redolent of rye. I doubled the amount of caraway seeds called for in the recipe, and I think it could hold up to even more. The rye and sour develop beautifully and taste even better on the second and third days. It was kind of hard but I portioned out a couple of slices to dry and keep for the Altus next time.

I refer any interested bakers to Mr. Greenstein’s recipe for the directions for this wonderful bread — they reflect a lifetime of learning and a close understanding of the bread baker’s art. Don’t be put off by the long lead times — the starter itself is very simple, and most of the work is done by Mother Nature. I am looking forward to baking this again with the Altus and clear flour to see just what the difference will be, but I would not hesitate to bake this with the substituted flours again if I didn’t have time to sweet talk a baker.

As I hoped, the light rye was the perfect foil for the Schmalz and Gribenes (GRIB-buh-nuhs).
Translation: Seasoned chicken fat and crispy chicken skin.
Mmmm, chicken skin… Look for that soon.