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Ray's Sourdough Rye Bread


Ray Shirvis

I was born and raised in Chicago Illinois. That was a long time ago, but some things get implanted in the head that are never really forgotten, and some of those fond memories actually grow with the passage of time. I remember a snow storm on my fourth birthday, May 5. I remember the wonderful pyrotechnic display at the Chicago Worlds Fair in 1933 the summer when I was five. I remember a Latvian baker, my parents both came from Lithuania and could recognize and even speak with him, (I think that they actually conversed in Russian) delivering a five pound loaf of rye bread on each Tuesday, and fighting a loosing battle with my older brothers for the chewy marvelous tasting heel of that loaf. I remember the little piece of paper that proclaimed that the bread was Union Made. The bread was so good that we ate the paper also and thought nothing of it. Gosh that was good bread. It took us a week to eat it all, Mom Dad and their three sons and it stayed moist and delicious to the last heel which I ate by default. A glass of milk, a slice of rye, nothing could beat that bedtime snack!

I wasn't a bad kid, just restless to find my own way. I hated cold weather and school, or was it school and cold weather; in any event I left home at 16, it was 1944, and 10 degrees below zero. My brothers enlisted in the Navy and became Chief Petty Officers, and I thumbed my way to Florida. I missed my parents and called them when I had the money, and I missed the rye bread.

I guess my quest for a good loaf of rye bread began when I left home. Oh sure, I have been back to Chicago many times but the Latvian baker was gone and my parents had retired to Florida. On one of the sales trips I made in Europe I ate some rye bread in Bremmerhaven Germany I think, that came close to what I remembered as a youth, but not quite. By now I was just about convinced that the flavor and keeping qualities of the rye bread of my youth had grown in my mind to such proportions that no such bread could exist in this World.

Time went on, I prospered in business and in life. My wife of forty-seven years and I have three sons and a daughter, and two grandsons of whom we are very proud. I finally retired at age sixty-three and decided to learn to bake bread; my quest had not totally died as of yet.

As a young man I learned to cook (cooks can always eat) and was a very good cook: working in hotels, country clubs and restaurants - many of national fame. I figured learning to bake bread would be a snap as I had observed the bakers while I was working as a cook.

First I couldn't find decent flour. I wanted to get away from the store bought highly refined flours. So much of the good stuff in grain has been taken out of white flour that the Government made the millers put some vitamins back in, and then said that flours were "enriched." I knew where I could purchase organic hard wheat berries so I purchased a mill. I made my own flour, and it pleased me. My first attempts at bread baking were miserable failures. The taste and flavor was reasonably good but not the yeasted rise. The squirrels in our back yard fared well and grew fat and nearly as big as cats eating my mistakes.

After much experimentation, I went on to build a wood-fired brick oven and bake bread for a healthfood store, and truly enjoyed it. I have never really figured it out, but I am probably earning minimum wage as a wood-fired brick oven baker, but it is challenging and once a week fun! Oh, the rye bread of my youth? No, my mind did not blow it out of proportion as to how good it was, because now I can bake the Sourdough Rye Bread of my youth!

Pure wheat bread in Northern Europe when my parents were growing up was unknown to the peasant class of which they were. Wheat bread, and especially White Wheat bread was reserved only for Royalty and the very rich. My parents belonged to neither of the aforementioned groups. My mother and father came to the United States in early 1900 - my mother to visit her brother, my father as a Russian Czarist Army draft dodger. I have many reasons to be pleased that they left Lithuania when they did.

Rye bread is the bread of Northern Europe. This fact is not by choice but one of necessity as the grain rye was once considered a weed and is virtually ineradicable; therefore it was incorporated into bread making - simple, irrevocable, delightful logic! Rye will thrive and produce amply in conditions of fertility and temperatures that wheat will not and cannot tolerate. When the summers in Lithuania and other Northern European countries were cool, the grain harvest was more heavily laden with rye, and when a rare warm summer was experienced the inverse was true. The bread bakers had to be versatile in their endeavors, as the bread doughs are handled very differently. Hard spring and hard winter wheats are preferred, in that order, for the baking of bread because or their high gluten content which is mandatory for a well risen bread. Rye berries milled into flour have a low gluten content and can also be difficult to work with, as the dough can be uncomfortably “sticky” requiring water-wet hands or flour (wheat) drenched hands to work the dough containing rye flour.

Both Mom and Dad told me how their mothers baked bread and of the onerous task of milling grain by the light of one notched candle used as a time piece to inform the miller when time was gratefully up. The mill used is known as a “Quern” - two stones, a base stone and an upper stone with two holes, one in the center into which handfuls of grain were inserted, and the other offset into which a stick was inserted and the stone turned for excellent upper body exercise - all this after a dawn-to-dark day of work in the fields and gardens. Milling was not a popular task and was reserved for the youngsters in the family.

After enough grain was milled from their precious store, the lady of the house would commence her weekly bake. A large wooden bowl, reserved for bread baking only, never ever washed, was taken from its linen bag and the product of much labor - wheat and rye grain made into flour - placed in said bowl after which very warm water was poured into a hollow made in the coarse milled flour. The flour and water were mixed together and kneaded in the bowl, then placed back into the linen bag to rest overnight. Then, the father of the household would fire up the brick oven well before the normal time of rising and the mother would knead the dough and shape the loaves.

The rest of how the Lithuanian peasants baked bread gets a little hazy here, as Mom left the “Old Country” at sixteen and doesn't remember what really happened next, or how things went, but she does remember how nice it was to sleep on top of the oven with her sisters - using a straw filled mattress during the interminable cold winters. Some winters were so cold that the milk cow, a few goats perhaps and other farm animals were invited in to help keep the whole “family” warm. Cleaning up the next day made one wonder if the comforting animal heat was worth it, I’ve been told.

I have kept the stories of my parents in mind and the remembrance of a delicious rye bread delivered weekly to our home in Chicago by a Ukrainian baker who baked ”Old World” bread during my pre teen years.

As mentioned before, rye dough can be difficult to work with as the dough can be uncomfortably “sticky”. The “sticky” dough using rye flour can be avoided by only using a “rye leaven” which produces a delightful rye bread - with or without caraway seeds. It takes little rye flour to obtain the moisture retentive, long keeping earthy qualities of the bread.

Rye flour has a proclivity for fermentation. The wonderful flora that lives on organically grown grain are there waiting to do “their thing”. There are two types of fermentation that can take place, homo and hetero. Homofermentation, or a single fermentation, produces, aside from alcohol and carbon dioxide, lactic acid resulting in an almost sweet tasting bread having the taste of the whole grain. Heterofermentation produces the same components with the addition of acetic acid yielding more hearty, sour, and better keeping breads. The San Francisco type leaven is an excellent example of a heterofermentive leaven and is known and respected world wide.

Flour: The taste imparted to the bread from the leaven is truly wonderful. This is especially true with refined white bread flour, as white flour has little discernible taste of its own and any flavor is worth noting which the hetero leaven amply provides. Whole grain flour, if fresh milled, has a delightful indescribable flavor but it can mask the sensitive flavor that the leaven would provide. Neither flour takes away the chewy crumb and crust and wonderful keeping qualities that the hetero-leaven gives the delicious rye bread. I believe the solution is to use both flours. My solution pleases me, and I hope it will you!

To obtain fresh coarse-milled rye flour, go to a healthfood store and purchase some organic rye berries (the shelf life of whole berries is years while the shelf life of fresh milled whole grain flour is but a few months) and take them home; place one cup, 6 ounces, in a blender and mix until all of the berries are broken into small pieces. This should take about 5 to 7 minutes of mixing on medium speed, the result will not be the flour that you are used to but the coarse, life sustaining flour of our ancestors very many generations removed.

The Recipe

Reconstituting The Leaven (starter):

While my original leaven (starter) was home made, you can use the San Francisco style starter available from Armchair World. This will make a delicious rye bread.

In a plastic, glass or ceramic bowl, add this dry starter, some fresh coarse-milled rye flour, one cup of rye flour and one and a half cups of chlorine-free warm water, 80 to 85 F and mix. It will mix quite easily with no lumps. Place the mixture in a clean container such as a crock with a loose fitting lid in a warm place at approximately 80 F. In less than 24 hours the mixture - which is the leaven - will be bubbling. Stir the leaven that you have made to equally distribute the wild yeast and lactobacillus into the rye flour and water. Place your bubbly leaven in the refrigerator. Follow the directions for feeding the leaven (starter) supplied by Armchair World but always use rye flour instead of white flour.

When you are ready to bake, remove the leaven (starter) from the refrigerator and feed it one cup of rye flour and one and half cups of warm water and let this leaven sit out in an area where the temperature is 70-75 degrees-F for 8 to 12 hours.

Needed:: 1) A 4 quart round bowl or woven basket, such as a mixing bowl, colander, casserole dish or whatever in plastic, glass, ceramic or stainless steel , 2) a piece of cloth at least 18 inches square drenched in white flour, and 3) a spray bottle filled with water. Also 4) a large pizza stone or enough quarry tiles laid onto the oven rack to cover and a pizza peel or a large stiff piece of cardboard to transfer the dough to the oven.

2 cups whole grain wheat flour.
2 cups refined bread flour (it states “Bread Flour” in the grocery store).
1 cup Very Active San Francisco style rye leaven (the rye starter). Stir down the leaven to reduce its frothiness and to reduce the volume of the leaven by stirring. This will break down the bubbles. Note that there will always be rye leaven remaining in your crock. Place this back in the refrigerator for next time.
1 1/2 teaspoons salt.
2 teaspoons caraway seeds, optional.
1 2/3 cups water, chlorine free*.

* Note: The amount of water used can vary due to the water in the leaven, how carefully it was measured and the amount of water in the flours. Slightly more or less water may be required for a firm dough.

Except for 1/3 cup of water to be held in reserve, place all of the ingredients into a large bowl and knead with one hand. This will take at least seven to ten minutes. When the ingredients have all come together, place on a clean, slightly moist surface to knead. Knead the dough about 300 strokes with moist hands until the dough is smooth and elastic. Add water with the hands until the dough is firm but workable. The dough will soften after the first rise, and a firm dough will also rise in the oven while baking, while a soft dough will make a loaf similar to an enlarged pancake - still tasty, but not as pretty.

Place the dough in a clean bowl, cover with a cloth which shouldn't touch the dough and place in a warm, draft-free place at 80 F for two hours, or until the dough is almost doubled in volume.

Preheat the oven to 400 F. This will take at least an hour for the pizza stone or tiles to get hot.

Place dough on the work table and knead for a few minutes. Cover with the cloth and let it rest for ten minutes; then shape the dough into a round loaf.

Place the rounded dough ball in the center of the well floured cloth, dough seam side up. Gather the corners of the cloth and lift the dough into the bowl or basket. Place in a warm place, 70-80 F, covered with a dry cloth for about two hours, or until the dough almost doubles in volume. When a moist finger indentation is made in the dough and it does not fill in, the second rise is complete.

Dust the pizza peel or cardboard peel with corn meal, take hold of the cloth, tilt the dough bowl and roll the dough onto the corn-meal-dusted peel. Score the dough with a sharp serrated knife, spray well with water and then slide the dough onto the oven tiles or pizza stone. In doing this, place the edge of the peel on the inside edge of the stone(s) and the dough will slide off after lifting the peel and pulling at the same time. Piece of cake!

After five minutes of baking, open the oven and spray the baking bread with the water mister. This will give an enviable crust to the bread. Bake for about 30 minutes until the loaf, when tapped, sounds “hollow”. As an alternative, if you have a stem thermometer, insert into the center of the loaf. If it reads 180 F, the bread is done. Remove the loaf with the peel or mittened hands and let cool on a wire rack.

Resist the temptation to cut the warm loaf and slather a slice with butter, as Sourdough Bread does not reach its full flavor until it has cooled and the lactic and acetic acids have really “kicked in!”

If you have problems, the next loaf will be better, or you can email me as I like baking good bread and I’m sure you will too!

May all your loaves be as perfectly formed as their flavor~

©2001 Ray Shirvis

About the Author

Ray Shirvis spent his career in the marine electronics industry. After retirement his remembrance of the rye bread of his childhood led him to build a brick oven on his property in Florida where he bakes over 75 loaves of sourdough bread a week for a local healthfood store. Although his favorite is rye (with or without caraway seeds) he also bakes wheat breads and sweet breads including dry fruit and cinnamon varieties. All of his breads are sourdough risen and bakers yeast is NEVER used. He mills his whole grain flour on his premises using a not very large mill with a capacity of about 7 pounds an hour. The breads he bakes are about 60% whole grain and 40% refined bread flour and the leavens he uses are fed whole grain, wheat or rye flour, exclusively. So you see he's not your everyday home baker! Can retirement ever be so sweet?

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