Stanley Ginsberg is bread blogger and author of the new bread book The Rye Baker. He talks with contributor David Leite about his fascination with rye and what he has learned over the years of baking with the ancient grain.

David Leite: What was the motivating passion behind a single-subject book all about rye bread?

Stanley Ginsberg: It really starts with my earlier book, Inside the Jewish Bakery. I grew up eating rye bread, or at least what I thought was rye bread. It was the typical Jewish deli rising pumpernickels. As I researched the other book, I discovered that there was a whole other layer of ryes that had come over with the great immigration in the early part of the twentieth century that had disappeared by the time of World War II. I discovered that, unlike the United States (which is primarily wheat-centric) or southern Europe (which is the source of most of the artisan baking), there is this incredibly vibrant tradition of rye bread all across northern, central and eastern Europe.

Stanley Ginsberg (Photo: Quentin Bacon)
Stanley Ginsberg (Photo: Quentin Bacon)

DL: In the book you call rye the “recalcitrant grain.” Can you talk a little bit about what that means?

SG: Without trying to get too technical, what it means is that rye chemistry is very different from wheat chemistry. Rye doughs are not based on gluten, which is that nice, stretchy, agreeable, easy-to-handle stuff. It’s based on gels made out of starches, complex carbohydrates. Those gels are unstable in the presence of certain enzymes. They're also very sticky and challenging to handle. The biggest thing that I had to learn was to forget most of what I knew about baking with wheat and start from scratch. I learned techniques that evolved over centuries in Europe, incredibly sophisticated techniques to unlock the flavor and to control the instability of the rye doughs.

DL: Do a little globe-hopping for us. Because in the book, one of the things that I love is that you have loaves and recipes from all over the world.

SG: What I find most interesting about these rye cultures is that people in a particular environment use what's available. Because environments differ – geographies, climates, agricultural practices, what grows, and what doesn't – the breads of a particular region have very specific and consistent characteristics. The terroir, if you will. What is most interesting about the rye breads of France, Spain, and Portugal, is that they tend to simply substitute rye for wheat, which is to say there are no sophisticated or very few sophisticated techniques that are merged.

Then you move farther north and, again, the thing that's important here is that rye grew where wheat could not grow. The farther north you went, the more dependent people were on rye and, to a lesser extent, barley and oats. We start getting these really interesting kinds of regional characteristics. In the north you got darker, heavier, more robust, and more sour breads. You might find some seeds and things like that in western Scandinavia – Sweden, primarily, and parts of Denmark. The breads tend to be sweet, and they used yeast rather than sourdough culture.

If you move eastward into Russia and the Baltics, the repertoire of ingredients is much more limited. It's typically limited to different kinds of rye flour, salt, caraway, and malted rye, which produces just an incredibly wide range of flavors, flavor notes, and accents. Central Germany and Poland, southern Poland, northern Ukraine, where there's a wheat/rye overlap, the breads are lighter and milder. They use more dairy products. They use lighter rye flours rather than the dark, dense, heavy whole grains. Same thing is true across central and southern Germany. Then you get into the Alps: Switzerland, Alpine Austria, Bavaria, northern Italy, South Tyrol, Alpine Italy. You find multiple sponges. A single bread will use a rye sourdough and a wheat sourdough, and then a wheat yeasted sponge.

DL: That must create great flavor.

SG: It’s fascinating stuff. The flavors are unbelievable.

DL: When someone picks up this book and they are a novice rye baker – maybe they've only made one or two loaves in their lives. What are some of the recipes in the book that they should go to and start with?

SG: The Swedish sweet limpa is a very good place to start. You can bake that bread in the space of a couple-to-three hours. There's the French apple cider rye from Normandy, which is just a marvelous bread. It's also yeast leavened and something that can be knocked off in a couple of hours. Some of the Swedish flat breads, the Scandinavian flat breads, are easy and accessible. There are some Bavarian rye rolls called schuastabuam from Munich, that are also yeast leavened. I have a recipe for rye biscuits from Sweden that are leavened with baking powder. One of the things that I try to do in the book is to indicate how long the total process takes because, for many of these things where sourdough sponges are involved, it might take 24-to-28 hours. But the actual hands-on time may only be 20-30 minutes.

David Leite

David Leite is the publisher of the website Leite's Culinaria, which has won two James Beard awards. He is the author Notes on a Banana: A Memoir of Food, Love, and Manic Depression, as well as The New Portuguese Table: Exciting Flavors from Europe's Western Coast, which won the 2010 IACP First Book/Julia Child Award. His writing has appeared in publications such as The New York Times, Martha Stewart Living, Saveur, Bon Appetit, Gourmet, Food & Wine, Pastry Art & Design, Food Arts, the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Sun-Times, The Washington Post and the Charlotte Observer. His awards include a 2008 James Beard award for Newspaper Feature Writing Without Recipes, a 2006 Bert Green Award for Food Journalism, and Association of Food Journalists awards in 2006 and 2007.