When I was a kid, growing up in Teaneck, N.J., my favorite bread was the sour rye with caraway seeds from Gratzel’s, the German bakery on Cedar Lane. To paraphrase Levy’s line about its own rye bread, you didn’t have to be German to love that loaf. The Jewish bakery a little further down the block, Butterflake, was great for cookies, pies, and cakes, but their bread could not touch Gratzel’s.
A few years ago I read about the slow-rise bread recipe by Jim Lahey of New York’s Sullivan Street Bakery, and soon I was hooked on bread baking. It wasn’t long before I started having fantasies of reproducing that rye bread of my childhood. It took some experimenting to get just the right texture and flavor, but the results were worth it.
The most exciting thing about Lahey’s no-knead, slow-rise method is his ingenious way of baking the bread at high heat in a cast-iron Dutch oven. Covered, the dough gives off a little steam, the secret to the perfect crust. If you don’t own one of these Le Creuset or similar beauties, holding 7 quarts or more, you should think about putting it on your Christmas list.
The “sour” in sour rye comes, of course, from using sourdough starter, which I’ve been doing now for several years. It’s quite easy to keep your starter going as long as you make bread at least once a week or so. (You’ll want to. Believe me, it disappears fast.) Where do you get sourdough starter if you don’t already have it? Ask around and a dedicated bread baker might give you some, with instructions for keeping it happy. Or you can order fresh starter online from kingarthurflour.com.
If you don’t care about the sourdough flavor you can make a reasonable facsimile with yeast. You will need to substitute for the sourdough starter in the recipe by increasing the amounts of bread flour and water. See alternate instructions below.
Slow-Rise Crusty Sour Rye Bread with Caraway
1 cup sourdough starter
1 cup whole dark rye flour
2 1/3 cups unbleached bread flour
1 1/2 tsp. kosher salt
2 Tbsp. caraway seeds
1 Tbsp. barley malt syrup
9 oz. water
extra virgin olive oil
coarsely ground corn meal
In a large mixing bowl, combine the starter, rye flour, bread flour, salt, caraway, malt syrup, and water. (You can find barley malt syrup in specialty stores like Orleans Whole Food Store, or just substitute 1 tbsp. of honey. The syrup will give you a darker, richer tasting bread.)
Mix thoroughly until you can shape the dough into a ball. You may need to work in a little more bread flour, if the dough is very sticky. It should be soft and pliable, and just a little bit sticky.
Coat the dough ball with olive oil and cover the bowl tightly with plastic wrap or a dish towel, then set the bowl aside in a warm, draft-free spot to rise overnight, or for at least 8 hours. The dough should double in size. If your kitchen is cool, it may take longer.
When the dough has risen, punch it down gently, cover it again, and let it rise for another 1 to 1.5 hours. This can be done in the same bowl, or for an extra pretty loaf, transfer it gently to a floured dough-rising basket, or brotform, made of cane. (These, also, can be ordered from King Arthur Flour.)
Meanwhile, preheat the Dutch oven, with the cover on, to 450 degrees F for at least half an hour. Handling the hot pot is the only tricky thing about this whole recipe: be careful. Take the pot out of the oven and sprinkle the bottom with coarse corn meal (also sold as polenta) to keep the bread from sticking. Transfer the dough to the pot, score the top with a sharp knife, put the cover back on the pot, and bake at 450 for 30 minutes.
Then remove the cover and bake for another 10 minutes. Let the bread cool on a rack for an hour or more before slicing.
To make the bread with yeast instead of sourdough starter, use 1 1/2 cups of warm water to proof 1/2 tsp. of active dry yeast, then add all the other ingredients, increasing the amount of bread flour to 3 cups.
This rye is great for sandwiches of all kinds (but especially egg salad, pastrami, and, of course, chopped liver.)
Do your friends keep suggesting dinner at your place? If you’re that kind of cook, maybe you ought to invite the rest of us to your table. Send a favorite recipe. If it’s made with ingredients that are in season here, all the better. Something not too complicated, something with a story to it. Send it to [email protected].