I’ve translated an excerpt from a classic Finnish cookbook - and it has given me incredible insights into rye bread.
If you’ve been following my activities lately, you’ll know I’ve been working hard on my rye bread recipes. During the Christmas holidays especially I was inundated with requests from friends and family to try samples of my rye bread. Naturally, I took this as an opportunity to improve my recipes by making incremental changes and taking notes of the results. What I found in the process, though, was that the biggest improvements were not usually the result of my own whimsical experimentation. No, it was more often the case that significant improvements were simply the result of adopting the sound advice of others - specifically experts. It might sound obvious, but I would argue this is the single biggest difference between baking and cooking; the latter is much more forgiving of idiosyncrasy and last minute substitutions.
One of the best resources I have encountered for rye bread was the classic Finnish cookbook Kotiruoka. My translation of the Finnish sourdough rye bread recipe is found below. Kotiruoka was first published in 1908 and sauce-splattered copies of it sit in kitchens across Finland. Imagine an older, Nordic version of The Joy of Cooking. This is it.
My translation from Kotiruoka, 93rd edition.
In Finland it's the tradition to bake rye bread using sourdough leavening, which provides good nutrition and a taste that improves during the bread’s storage. It’s the lactic acid bacteria that develop at room temperature in dough that causes fermentation in rye flour. The dough rises and that’s where the classic sourdough taste is born. Into the dough you can add yeast, but it’s not required.
The preparation of sourdough rye requires a “starter” (also known as a “root”), which is simply a piece of the dough that was put aside and saved during the previous time the dough had been prepared. The bread’s aroma gets better every time this is done. The oldest sourdough starters in Finland are hundreds of years old. If you don’t have a starter handy, you can prepare the first dough using rye bread slices soaked into the bread’s sponge (see recipe below).
The traditional Finnish sourdough was prepared in a special dough trough. The trough was not washed after use; it was just scraped clean and dusted with flour. And this was how new dough soured well - and no yeast was needed. The dough souring time was often several days, depending on how sour people wanted the bread to be.
Hint: Leftover rye bread can be dried and made into breadcrumbs. These breadcrumbs are nice when spread on fish. The breadcrumbs can also be sautéed in butter, flavoured with sugar, and sprinkled for example on lingonberry ["partridgeberry" in Newfoundland] or apple kissel [a type of Nordic fruit or berry dish]. Dried bread pieces were, in old times, served in leipäressu [a type of bread pudding], in which they are stewed in melted butter and milk.
The bread traditionally gets sweetness by absorbing a small portion of previously prepared dough. This piece is mixed in a flour-water mixture and warmed to 50-60 degree Celsius and is given several hours in a warm place to uniformly consolidate. Instead of consolidating old dough into the bread, an alternative is to sweeten the dough with syrup, honey, or sugar. Consolidated bread dough can be subsequently soured by adding sourdough starter or yeast.
Sourdough rye bread [hapanleipä] recipe
½ - 1 ½ dl sourdough starter (or 3-4 slices of rye bread or sour rye crackers soaked in water)
1 L water
1 L rye flour
100 mL water
2-3 tl salt
About 1 ½ L rye flour
In lukewarm water (25 C), soak frozen or dried sourdough starter. If using bread slices for souring, remove their crusts. Add rye flour while mixing with a fork. If you’re using sourdough starter as leaven, let the sponge sit at room temperature overnight. If you’re preparing the sponge using pieces of bread, set aside 1-2 days for fermentation. Mix the sponge once in awhile. The bread will become more sour the longer you leave it. The sponge is ready when it has a fresh sour aroma and is clearly bubbling. Recover the sponge by adding 2-3 dL [200-300 mL] of the dough’s rye flour a few hours prior to the dough’s preparation.
Soak the yeast in warm water and add the mixture to the sponge. If the sponge is bubbling well, a little bit of yeast is enough. Add the salt. Add the rye flour and knead the dough by hand (or by mixer), until it begins to “creak” and separate from your hands or the sides of the mixing bowl. You can replace a portion of the rye flour with wheat flour so that the dough gets a gluten structure and is easier to handle (if you wish).
Let the dough rise until it doubles in size. The time required for this is anywhere between 2-6 hours, depending on how sour the sponge is, on how much yeast was added, and on the temperature of the dough. At this point take a small piece of the dough for the next time you bake this bread. Freeze the dough piece (this your sourdough leavening for next time) in plastic wrap or dry it. Knead the dough well on a baking table and divide into four portions for baking. Use as little flour as possible during baking but rub a little flour onto the surface of the loaf.
Cover the dough with a linen cloth and let it rise well. During the rising the bread surface might tear a little bit. Prior to baking, poke some holes into the loaf from the surface all the way to the bottom using a knife or fork.
Bake the loaf in the oven on the bottom rack at 200 C for 45-60 minutes. The bread is ready when knocking on the bottom produces a hollow sound. Cool the bread on a wire rack covered with a linen cloth.
Hint: Rye bread keeps well at room temperature. But if you’re freezing it, do so the day after baking.
And so concludes my translation of the sourdough rye bread recipe from the classic Finnish cookbook Kotiruoka. I hope you found it insightful. I sure did! Check out my recipe for Finnish sourdough rye bread here.
I'm Erik, the Burnt Chef. I'm a Finnish-born Newfoundlander living in Norway. I have a passion for cooking and a deep fascination for the culinary history of the North. Simplicity guides my cooking. Time, place, and history guide my storytelling. This is my personal blog about food.