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Reclaiming rye

Is sourdough goyish? A personal essay.

Published onOct 07, 2021
Reclaiming rye
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Is sourdough goyish?

It’s a question that has plagued at least one person other than me. Yes, says Helen Goldrein, author of the top search result for the query. Reflecting on the early-pandemic baking craze, she notes that while gentiles posted Instagrams of sourdough, Jews stuck to challah. Challah, she argues, “has all the charm and artisanal delight of a sourdough boule, while also being inextricably of our heritage.”

On an emotional level, I can’t help but agree. The thought that sourdough, delicious as it is, is simply not Jewish, has grown into something of an identity crisis for me. I grew up cooking with my mother and sister, and particularly cherish memories preparing holiday staples like latkes, matzo ball soup, and brisket. That fondness did not extend to baking. In fact, scarred by youthful misadventures involving soupy pies, giant paper-thin cookies, and even a series of demotions from roller to hole-puncher to scrap-collector at the local Chabad’s shmura matzo-making party, I long identified as Not A Baker. The precision and fine artistry of baked goods and pastry belonged squarely to my sister and her legendary weekly challah.

Then I decided to change my life out of spite. A few years ago, a friend graciously brought me as his date to a baking class in Bushwick. In response to a question about sourdough, the instructor sighed and told the class that he did not and would not teach it to amateur bakers. Sourdough was, he declared while absentmindedly rolling freshly milled flour around the tips of his fingers, simply too hard to learn. Challenge accepted!

Five years later, sourdough has become an inextricable part of my life (ask me about my bread-themed birthday party). It has also provided me with a hobby that gets me up out of my office chair at regular intervals several times a day, and a living thing to nurture that, unlike plants, pets, or children, can be safely shoved in the fridge and neglected for weeks at a time.

As I’ve reclaimed my baking identity, I’ve been grappling with the destabilization of another one. I’m not a religious person. In fact, I’m more or less an atheist, belief-wise. But when it comes to food and culture, I’m unavoidably Jewish. And from challah to the bagel, bialy, babka, and Jewish rye — it’s right in the name! — we have more than a thing or two to say about bread. But none of those breads, as Goldrein rightly notes, are, traditionally, sourdoughs.

Of course, there are plenty of Jewish sourdough bakers. And there’s nothing wrong with sourdough challah, bagels, or babkas, all of which I’ve made. Still, baking with sourdough feels a bit like belonging to a country club: sure, anyone can be a member these days, but the lunch cart only serves ham and cheese on a baguette.

The sourdough estrangement hit me powerfully last weekend when our friend Marc, the best friend of my wife’s late zaida, came to town and gave us a fish. Marc isn’t Jewish, but he grew up in Brooklyn and loves Jewish food so much that he might as well be. Case in point: the whole smoked whitefish he gifted us from ACME’s legendary Fish Fridays, despite the fact that he has yet to forgive me for missing the last Russ & Daughters herring festival for a work trip.

When you give a sourdough baker smoked fish, they’re going to bake a rye bread. But not a light rye, or a deli rye, or a Jewish rye. Those are not, in the eyes of the bread world, serious ryes.

In Jeffrey Hamelman’s Bread, the textbook of most professional baking classes, you’ll find a multi-page rant glorifying European “true pumpernickels” and excoriating North American ryes that basically boils down to “your bread doesn’t belong here.” The way the man who wrote the canonical book on bread describes his hatred for the bread most associated with my people borders on comical.

Despite being full of folks whose poor, peasant ancestors immigrated from the Eastern and Northern European rye belts, Hamelman laments, North American ryes are “bland and insipid,” made with “no clear understanding of the special requirements of rye bread,” which often results in an “assault of excessive sourness.” Don’t get him started on the practice of adding caraway to deli rye (“lamentable”), color-enhancing additives to American pumpernickel (an “egregious insult”), and worst of all, the “baffling idea of braiding together a couple of strands of this tasteless black dough with a couple of strands of equally bland white dough” that is the marble rye.

The real stuff is cooked slowly at low temperatures to produce a rich, aromatic, easy to digest loaf whose dark color is the product of the natural caramelization of the grain’s sugars, not additives. This rye, Hamelman says, “became the grain of life for many of the poor folk there,” and he makes a special reference to “the German Christmas specialty Lebkuchen,” which translates as “life cake.”

Though I cannot confirm it, I suspect that Jeffrey Hamelman is not Jewish.

And still, I love the man. Like so many other bakers, his book is my bread bible — er, talmud? — and it’s hard to deny his main point, which is that what we call “rye bread" here usually contains small amounts of actual rye flour and derives most of its characteristic flavor from caraway seeds, not the grain it’s named for. There’s a deeper message for bakers embedded in his rant, too. Although Hamelman’s book contains recipes that use both commercial yeast and sourdough, the exalted “true Pumpernickels” that contain high percentages of rye flour require the lactic acid produced by sourdough cultures to rise properly.

For the Jewish baker, then, the message isn’t just that your version of rye is bad, it’s that your traditional recipes are fundamentally incompatible with the ideal version of the very bread that bears your name. For the Jewish sourdough baker feeling a tad verklempt at abandoning those traditions in pursuit of better bread? Welcome to the country club.

Over the years, I’ve dutifully tried several European-style rye recipes from Bread. Each attempt has yielded a disaster on the scale of my youthful baking misadventures. A gloopy, wet porridge. A sticky, gummy caramel. A charred, crumbly brick. I began to suspect that perhaps I was the problem.

When you seek the Internet’s help making these breads, you find that they are German, they are Russian, they are Danish, they are European or Scandinavian ryes. They have names like rugbrød and volkornbrot, although pumpernickel was definitely a German-Jewish comedian’s joke name that stuck, because it literally means “devil’s fart.” The people who make the instructional YouTube videos about these breads tend to have blond hair and blue eyes and just a little trouble pronouncing the word “whole.” Serving and eating these breads properly requires adhering to a complex set of rules. These breads are not, as Goldrein would say, of our heritage.

Except that everywhere you look at the history and culture of rye — even in Hamelman’s diatribe — you find coded evidence of Jews. We were, of course, often peasants who lived in areas inhospitable to wheat cultivation but friendly to rye. Our ancestors were among those who came to America’s shores from the rye belts of Russia, Poland, Germany, Austria, and yes, Scandinavia too, most famously Denmark. And the volkornbrot, the “true Pumpernickel” that is featured in no fewer than three recipes in Hamelman’s Bread? You’ll have to forgive me: I read the first four letters, thought of Hitler like one does, and flipped the page. Not so fast. The name is a slightly unfortunate portmanteau of voll, German for “full,” and korn, the Yiddish word for rye.

A YIVO Encyclopedia entry confirms my suspicions that, far from being goyish, sourdough was part of the daily lives of my Ashkenazi ancestors. The Yiddish word for their sourdough starter is roshtshine, and they subsisted in part on “their own coarse black rye bread,” baked for hours at low temperatures. Hamelman would, no doubt, approve of this Jewish rye.

Sourdough, it seems, is unmistakably, unimpeachably of our heritage. So why do we feel so disconnected from it? Stanley Ginsberg, the author of several Jewish bread tomes, including The Rye Baker: Classic Breads from Europe and America, gave a compelling answer in a 2016 interview:

But there’s also a more complex and nuanced answer as to what makes a rye bread “Jewish.” As a matter of historical fact, wherever in Europe Jews established communities they adopted the local breads – perhaps modified slightly to reflect the strictures of kashrut. And so the dark, sweet-sour ryes of Lithuania are really every bit as Jewish as the light caraway ryes of southern Poland and Ukraine. The rye breads that managed to survive the journey to America were those that best lent themselves to American conditions, namely, low-percentage ryes that took advantage of the low cost and easy handling of the abundant wheat the European Jewish bakers found when they arrived here. The high-percentage ryes that represented the taste of home for Jews from Lithuania, Belarus and northern Poland all but disappeared from American bakeries by the end of World War Two.

It seems we lost touch with traditional sourdough ryes out of necessity on our way out of Europe. Or perhaps, like so much of our legacy, our contributions to sourdough were conveniently forgotten. It’s not the first time we’ve left yeast behind to save ourselves. Just ask Moses.

Sourdough is Jewish. Which is a relief, because I’ve got to do something about this fish. So, yesterday, after years of experimentation and failure, after consulting and combining recipes, tips and techniques from an amalgamation of cookbooks, recipe sites, YouTube videos, and online forums, I finally turned out my own dark, subtly sweet and slightly sour, moist but not gummy (ever-so-slightly-overproofed if I’m being honest), beautiful loaf of fully rye sourdough bread. Though it shares plenty of characteristics with rogbrød and pumpernickel, it is, respectfully, neither of those delicious breads. It’s a fulkornbroyt. A Jewish full rye.


Jewish Fulkornbroyt

  • Yield: 2 standard loaves (8-1/2 x 4-1/2 x 2-1/2 inches)

  • Prep time (active): 1 hour

  • Prep time (passive): ~24 hours

  • Bake time: 6+ hours

Ingredients

655 grams Whole rye flour or meal

655 grams Water (BP: 100%)

90 grams Sourdough starter at 100% hydration (BP: 13%)

330 grams Rye berries, soaked (BP: 47%)

21 grams salt (BP: 3%)

90 grams golden or maple syrup (BP: 13%)

70-140 grams Sunflower seeds or seed mix, optional (BP: 10-20%)

Directions

  1. Mix half of the rye flour and water with the starter to form a levain.

  2. Pour 330 grams of boiling water over the cracked rye berries.

  3. Let the levain and soaker sit overnight.

  4. Add the salt, syrup, and remaining water and rye flour into the levain and mix until the flour is dissolved.

  5. Drain any excess water from the soaked rye berries and then add them to the mix.

  6. Add Sunflower seeds at this point if desired, up to 20% of the flour weight, or about 140 grams.

  7. Mix well, with a mixer or spoon. The dough will be quite sticky, almost a paste.

  8. Cover to avoid water loss and let the dough rest for 1-3 hours or until it rises about a third in volume.

  9. Grease two standard loaf pans (8-1/2 x 4-1/2 x 2-1/2 inches) with butter or oil, then dust with a small amount of rye flour.

  10. Put dough into loaf pan with a spatula or spoon. It should fill about 2/3 of the pan.

  11. Let the dough rise for 2-3 hours at room temp, or overnight in the fridge, until the dough is just at the top of the pan and 6-8 small holes have formed in the top of the dough. Under-proofing will result in cracked bread, over-proofing will result in sunken bread.

  12. Wrap the loaf pans tightly in tin foil to avoid water loss.

  13. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F and bake for 1 hour.

  14. Turn the oven down and bake for 4-7 more hours until the air is extremely, deliciously fragrant.

  15. Turn off the oven and let the bread sit in the residual heat of the oven overnight, or until the oven is cool.

  16. Remove the foil and extricate the bread from the tins.

  17. Allow the bread to cool completely on a rack for 30 minutes or so.

  18. Do not cut into the loaves! Rye needs time for water to spread throughout the loaf. If you don’t give it that time, the bread will be unpleasantly gummy. So:

  19. Wrap the loaves in foil, a baker’s linen, or put in a plastic bag to keep moisture in and let them rest for 24-48 hours before slicing. As Hamelman says, a 72 hours “is not excessive.”

  20. Slice thinly and enjoy with whatever you want, in any way you want, rules be damned.

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