Issue No. 91: Jewish Rye Bread

Excerpted from the new Zingerman’s Bakehouse Book

In order to open Zingerman’s Bakehouse, we had to be able to bake great Jewish Rye Bread for Zingerman’s Delicates­sen, which was our first (and at the beginning our only) customer. It’s not possible to have a superb Reuben sandwich without authentic Jewish rye bread. We wanted our Jewish rye to be an essential part of the sand­wich, not just a structural element that didn’t really add to the flavor. So right from the beginning, we used and further evolved the excellent recipe and techniques we learned from our first teacher, Michael London.

What makes this a great Jewish rye?

First, we use a sour starter, which is unusual these days. It adds a little bit of leavening to the recipe, but mainly it provides depth and complexity of flavor. We created the starter in the fall of 1992, and we’ve been feeding it every day since to keep it healthy, with just the right amount of tang. This version of rye bread was the one made most often by the Polish Jewish bakers in New York and was called sour rye. It later became known as Jewish rye.

Second, we use “old” rye bread from the previous day’s bake that we slice and soak in water and then add to the dough. It adds a layer of texture, flavor, moisture, and color to the bread. It’s also a tradition for Jewish bakers to take something from yesterday and put it in today’s recipes, representing the continuity and interconnectedness of life.

Third, there’s actually some rye in the recipe. Many rye breads are made from white-wheat flour with a touch of rye added. We use lots of medium rye (rye flour that has some of its bran) in our sour starter.

Finally, we create a real crackly crust. We brush each loaf with water before it goes into the oven and then again when it comes out. The contrast of the cool water on the hot loaf causes the crust to crack in a distinctive way that is characteristic of Jewish rye.

But how does it taste?

Jane and Michael Stern, in their March 2011 Saveur article “Bread Alone: In Search of the Best Rye Bread in America,” sing its praises:

“America’s very best deli rye? No contest. We found it in Ann Arbor, Michigan, when we noticed that the bread that Zingerman’s Deli used to construct our Diana’s Different Drummer sandwich (brisket, Russian dressing, coleslaw, and horseradish) was sensational. It comes from Zingerman’s Bakehouse, which makes loaves of rugged rye that are dense and springy, laced with the taste of hearth smoke.”

Want to make your own Jewish rye?

Now you can! The recipe is included in the Zingerman’s Bakehouse book. It takes some planning because you need to prepare the sour the day before. Nothing is hard, other than it not being instantaneous. The inconvenient aspects of many recipes are the steps that take a food from good to great. The rye sour is an example of this.