Bread made from rye flour is a really important part of the diet of people in Northern and Eastern Europe. In Russia, Poland, Belarus and Ukraine the average annual consumption of rye is 35kg per person; in Finland, Denmark, Sweden and Germany it is somewhere between 10 -15kg per person compared with the rest of the world where average annual consumption is only 1 kg per person.
Where does rye grow?
Rye grows in areas inhospitable to wheat cultivation. It thrives in poor soils and yields a good crop in cool, humid climates. Rye has been the staple grain for poor people for centuries. The German speciality Lebkuchen, traditionally made with rye and honey and matured in wooden troughs translates as “life cake”. Rye was grown widely in Britain until the seventeenth century when wheat growing became easier and the population developed a taste for white bread.
How important is rye in the diet?
In Finland and Denmark, where rye is consumed mainly as bread, rye is an important source of dietary fibre. In these countries, almost 40% of dietary fibre comes from rye foods. Rye bread is often made using the sourdough process which influences nutritional quality, taste and keeping qualities of rye bread. Rye flour contains more dietary fibre than wheat flour.
Rye bread made with sourdough has more available minerals than rye bread made by other methods. This is because the low pH of sour dough allows the enzyme phytase to breakdown phytic acid, found in the bran. Phytic acid interferes with the body’s ability to absorb calcium, zinc, iron, magnesium and copper.
There is convincing evidence that the consumption of whole grain foods such as rye is associated with reduced incidences of chronic diseases, e.g. diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and certain cancers. In addition to dietary fibre, various phytochemicals contained in rye and other wholegrain foods have been suggested to contribute to the health effects .
Mediterranean vs Scandinavian diet
For years, the Mediterranean diet with plenty of olive oil and vegetables has been held up as the key to health and longevity. But it seems that Scandinavian cuisine could be as good for you and significantly reduce the risk of heart disease, certain cancer and type two diabetes. Wholegrains, such as rye, fresh berries, fish and game - foods that thrive in colder northern climates are the key features of the Scandinavian diet.
Can rye flour be eaten by everyone?
If you have celiac disease you cannot eat rye because it contains gluten. Rye flour also contains oligosaccharides which ferment in the gut and can upset people with a sensitive gut. If you have IBS you do not need to cut rye out completely, just eat don’t eat a lot of it.
Rye flour in cooking
Rye usually has to be mixed with other flours to make bread using yeast. This is because rye gluten is weaker than wheat gluten and does not rise well. You can end up with a brick if you are not careful. On the other hand rye breads made using the sourdough process ferment vigorously because rye contains more soluble sugars than wheat and can be much lighter.
Two recipes to try
There are three main types of rye flour used in baking. Light, dark and chopped rye grains used to make pumpernickel. In the recipes below I have used light and dark rye flour.
An exquisitely flavoured rye sourdough, based on a rye sourdough recipe by Emmanuel Hadjiandreou, the author of the award winning “How to make bread”. I was delighted with the result which was a softer, lighter loaf than I had been expecting. Perhaps one for the more experienced baker, the dough requires very little kneading but it does need a long period of fermentation.
These easy to make flat breads are brilliant for making neat, little sandwiches. They go really well with smoked salmon, mackerel and beetroot. Slithers of good hard cheese would also be lovely with chutney or pickles. They keep well and are great toasted.
So, why not give rye a try - it will add a new string to your baking bow, as well as being good for you.
This article was written by Dr Joan Ransley, an expert in nutrition.