Rye rises in popularity

Different rye loaves sold in New York. Rye bread is popular as it contains more fibre and less gluten than wheat.
Different rye loaves sold in New York. Rye bread is popular as it contains more fibre and less gluten than wheat.PHOTO: NYTIMES

Riding a wave of interest in ancient grains, rye is sprouting in many influential kitchens - in pasta, porridge, brownies and in bread.

"Rugbrod is like wine in France or olive oil in Italy," said Mr Claus Meyer, owner of Great Northern Food Hall and several new Nordic food enterprises in New York.

He is also a founder of Noma in Copenhagen, a chef and a bread evangelist. "It is more than food," he said. "It is history. It is culture and agriculture."

Rye, like barley and oats, is an ancient grain that thrives in cold and wet weather.

Before modern agriculture and transportation made wheat available everywhere, rye was the best option for baking bread in northern Europe.

Traditional breads were staples - dense, fragrant and satisfying.

Those qualities have also made rye bread popular among modern enthusiasts, who may also appreciate that it contains more fibre and less gluten than wheat.

Traditional all-rye breads, like pumpernickel, require a slow rise and a hot, steamy bake.

In Iceland, rye breads were sealed and baked underground, using steam from natural geothermal springs.

Rye bread is almost always sour, from the long fermentation it demands, while wheat bread can be neutral and sweet.

Rye bread is also dense and heavy.

Although rye is hardy and easy to grow, it was abandoned by many Scandinavian farmers, grown mostly for animal feed and as a crop to plow nutrients back into the soil.

By the 1970s and 1980s, soft white bread had become the ideal, Mr Meyer said.

But in Scandinavia, the smorrebrod tradition helped keep strong rye breads alive.

The open-faced sandwiches - with rich toppings like oily herring, cured salmon and smoked cheese - that serve as breakfast, snacks, lunch or all of the above cannot be built on limp, bland bread.

Mr Meyer said: "You want the bitterness from rye and the edgy taste of the caramelised crust."

In the last decade, many other Nordic bakers have taken on similar quests.

As in traditional Nordic kitchens, that bread is repurposed in multiple ways - thinly sliced and fried into crisp crackers, crumbled and simmered into the traditional morning porridge called ollebrod, and used as a starter for rye ale, at Brooklyn Brewery.

But many Americans are still hesitant about rye, along with other heritage grains like spelt and einkorn, that are acclaimed more for health than flavour.

Chefs like Kevin Adey, of Faro in Brooklyn, are out to change that.

Mr Adey makes fresh rye pasta for its nutty flavour. He mills the flour from whole grains himself.

"Fresh flour compared with the stuff in the bag is like night and day," he said.

"The taste and smell of freshly milled grains - humans are programmed to love that."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 17, 2017, with the headline 'Rye rises in popularity'. Print Edition | Subscribe