FINALLY... the end of a busy semester - which means I have time to focus on what really matters: food!
But first, a disclaimer: I'm a little bit partial to the rye grain. I blame my Nordic roots. Yes, having having been born and raised in Finland has left lasting effects when it comes to my taste in certain foods, and rye bread is no exception. Let me explain: growing up, my mother, when describing someone strong and stoic, would announce he or she “had rye in his wrists” (“ruista ranteessa”). A generation before her, my grandmother at her farmhouse in South Karelia would bake a fresh loaf from rye and potato flour in the hearth oven before supper (see image). I suppose if the baguette is symbolic of France then the rye loaf is symbolic of Northern Europe. Both tell a story. So consider this a rye story.
The sourdough hype
Today sourdough is riding a wave of popularity. You’ve seen it sitting on shelves of your cozy local bakery. You know people like it. You baulk at its price (“twice the price of a normal loaf!?”). And you half expect a round of applause every time someone utters the words “avocado on toasted sourdough.” But what the hell is sourdough?
Sourdough is really just a way to leaven bread based on the natural process of fermentation. Functionally, it serves the same purpose as a packet of Fleishmann’s yeast or jar of baking powder you'd pick up from the grocery store: it just makes dough rise. Bakers call the inside part of bread the “crumb” and if it wasn’t for leavens then we’d all be eating hard tack with precisely zero crumb. But not all leavening agents are made equal. In fact, I’m going to go as far as to say that sourdough is the best leaven of the lot - bar none. Bread leavened with sourdough is healthier and more delicious and doesn’t stale as fast as non-sourdough based bread. And what’s cool about rye is that to produce a decent loaf it’s essentially required to use a sourdough leaven. Oh, and sourdough leaven is free!
An unplanned trip to Copenhagen
My love affair with rye was sparked during a trip to Copenhagen this summer. Booked on a whim, I found myself emerging from my hostel on a cold and windy June morning onto the streets of that wonderful city of beautiful humans on bicycles. While renting a bike I met a chatty group of Swedes and joined them at a nearby cafe for lunch. And it was in line at that cafe that I was confronted with something extraordinary: a dazzling array of open-faced rye sandwiches - smørrebrød. Bite-sized foodie rye sandwich concoctions with toppings like cold smoked salmon and watercress. Fantastic. Later, back at the hostel bar, I met a local and asked about what made the bread so good in Denmark. She laughed, and explained that rugbrød is a point of pride among the Danes. Music started up, some crazy Dane playing flamenco tunes on an acoustic guitar. People we dancing. Above the commotion I implored my new friend about rugbrød. “She’s got a boyfriend,” her friend was told me with a sideways glance. “I don’t care I just want to know about rugbrød!” I thought. She told me all about rye bread and about what special baking mold I should buy and where to buy it and then we even danced for a while to that crazy Danish flamenco music. The next morning before catching my flight to Helsinki I went straight to the store to buy my special new baking mold: the EVA rugbrød form. I got some odd looks walking around the airport with that thing. But it was worth it!
My first day in Helsinki I started my sourdough starter and soon I was making rugbrød. Check out the recipe here.
How to make a rye sourdough starter
All it takes to create a healthy and robust sourdough starter is some rye flour and water - that’s it. Oh, and one last thing: time.
But despite its simplicity there’s a lot of mythology surrounding the sourdough starter. Some just plain crazy stuff. My Colombian friend said his grandmother had a living starter for a whole generation - with a depth of flavour unparalleled. Legendary baker and surfer Chad Robertson admitted to obsessing over his first sourdough starter, going so far as to take it to the movie theatres with him one night for supervision. And even respected authors fall for the mythology of sourdough. Michael Pollan, famous foodie journalist and creator of the popular Netflix series Cooked, even wrote in his seminal whole foods anthem Omnivore's Dilemma that,“The Bay Area has a reputation for its sourdough bread, so I figured the air outside my house would be an excellent hunting ground for wild yeast." Come on, Pollan. First of all, you don’t need to “hunt” for wild yeast. It’s already in the flour whether you’re looking for it or not and floating around all over your kitchen. And secondly, while it’s true that San Francisco has some damn good sourdough, it’s also the case that many other places do, too. (Although scientists did go as far as naming a particular yeast strain commonly found in sourdough, Lactobacillus sanfranciscensis, after the city… even though it has been found in bakeries across the world.)
Although, for what it’s worth I shouldn’t discount the element of magic in creating a sourdough starter. You’ll witness for yourself if you try it - the seemingly inert mixture of flour and water starts to bubble and froth… and comes alive!
Day 1: Combine 80g of organic whole rye flour and 80g lukewarm water in a glass jar. Mix with your hands until it forms a stodgy paste. Cover with plastic wrap and set aside for 24 hours at room temperature.
Day 2: Your starter should’ve begun to bubble. Take a whiff. Should smell clean, floral, slightly sour. Beautiful! But don’t get too attached: toss out all but 80g of this mixture. Now combine this with another 80g of flour and 80g of lukewarm water. Mix it with your hands till it forms a stodgy paste, just like before. Cover and set aside for 24 hours at room temperature.
Day 3-7: Repeat! Every day you need to refresh your starter. What’s happening is the naturally occurring yeasts are feasting on the sugars present. This is called fermentation. But the active bacteria will soon starve if you don’t give them more flour to eat.
Compared to bread leavened with commercial yeast or baking powder, sourdough is healthier. It’s easier to digest, too, and has more flavour; plus it will not stale nearly as quickly, nor will it spoil due to mould nearly as easily. Oh, and it yields comparatively more volume from the same batch of dough AND has superior texture in the finished loaf, too. And did I mention it's free?
Don’t believe me? I consulted the Oxford Handbook of Food Fermentations to fact-check these claims. And it stands up to them. The book features authoritative accounts from many experts on a diversity of fermentation products. The volume on bread making was written by a group from the School of Food and Nutritional Sciences at the University College Cork in Ireland and includes a list of over a hundred academic references. I won’t go into scientific details but here’s a little summary of their main points which back up claims I’ve made in my article:
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.