Jewish Rye Bread

Week Seven: American Breads



It can hardly be said that there is a more closely-linked bread to any environment than a good rye bread is with the Jewish delicatessens of New York City.  What on earth else would you ever eat pastrami on?  So it is in this spirit that I bring you rye bread today.  But can this particular recipe be called a traditional Jewish Rye, though?  I guess that depends on your definition.


Jewish Rye generally refers to a light rye bread that contains caraway seeds.  Dark, unseeded rye bread is typically called pumpernickel, and you’ll often see the two marbled together.  These two breads are very similar in texture, and somewhat similar in flavor, though pumpernickel is darker.  These types of bread both have a firm tradition in the culinary history of Jews from Poland and nearby areas.  There is another kind of pumpernickel, but it is much more dense and heavy, and is usually called Westphalian pumpernickel.  This bread seems to have origins in Russia, where the milling practices were very different, and produced a far darker flour.  All of these breads, despite their variations, are made mainly with rye flour; so how can three breads made with the same grain turn out so differently?


(Fair warning: this is about to get technical.)  By far the most prevalent grain in Northeastern Europe and in Eastern Bloc countries, rye is genetically very similar to wheat (so similar that they can interbreed).  But unlike wheat, rye flour produces very little gluten on its own, which means that it will have very little structure.  Not only this, but rye has more powerful amylases (they turn starch into sugar) than does wheat, which turn the frail structure into sugars.  Think of it like a building: the weak gluten in rye will make very thin walls that don’t go very tall.  The powerful amylases in rye are like little bugs, munching away at the walls, until they just won’t hold the bread up anymore.  In wheat, however, the gluten makes very strong, thick walls.  The amylase bugs just aren’t able to break that structure down.


So if you make a bread with just rye flour, you’re not going to get much rise out of it, if any.  This is why Westphalian pumpernickel is so dense.  But if you mix rye flour and wheat flour, then you get the flavor of rye combined with the structure of wheat.  This is what your standard deli rye and pumpernickels are made with.  (Deli pumpernickel, though, to replicate the dark flavor of Westphalian pumpernickel, uses additional darkening agents, like molasses and unsweetened cocoa.  More on that later in the year!)


But what if you want your bread even lighter and fluffier?  Well, since the amylases can’t act in an acidic environment, one way to counteract them is to use a sourdough starter.  This will give the bread a fantastic tanginess that really complements the flavor of rye and the standard caraway seed.  What’s that?  You don’t want to wait a week for a sourdough starter?  No problem!  Just use another acid.  But you want it to taste good too, right?  And that’s where the secret ingredient in today’s recipe comes in: it’s pickle juice.


Wait, don’t leave!  Come back!  Yes, I know, this recipe calls for a considerable amount of pickle juice.  It sounds a little strange.  But it makes total sense if you think about it: it’s acidic, so it will keep the little amylase bugs from destroying the structure of your rye; it’s salty, so it will retard the yeast activity, making it have a longer rise and therefore a better bready flavor; and it’s got loads of flavor from the pickles that were soaking in it, which will go beautifully with the flavors of rye and caraway!  Think about it, what do you use rye bread for?  A Reuben Sandwich!  What goes on a Reuben?  Sauerkraut!  What is sauerkraut?  Pickled cabbage!  It all fits! 


This bread bakes up fluffy and full of texture.  The pickle juice is reduced to a very pleasant background tang, and the crust is just perfectly balanced between soft and crisp.  It’s ideal for sandwiches, as the crumb holds together gorgeously, which means you can slice it ultra-thin if you like.  Does the use of pickle juice (a decidedly unusual ingredient) disqualify this bread from being a textbook Jewish Rye?  I say it doesn’t, because it contains caraway seeds, which is usually the litmus test.  But if you’re a purist, then it’s certainly within your rights to disqualify it.  I’ll just be over here, enjoying my delicious corned beef sandwiches all week, while you’re waiting for your starter.  But you can come over and have some while you wait!



a reuben!



Jewish Rye Bread

From King Arthur Flour


1 tablespoon active dry yeast; or 2 1/2 teaspoons instant yeast

2/3 cup to 7/8 cup lukewarm water*

1/4 cup vegetable oil

3/4 cup dill pickle juice

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

1 tablespoon sugar

1 1/4 teaspoons caraway seeds

1 1/4 teaspoons dill seeds

1 tablespoon yellow mustard seeds; or 1 tablespoon prepared Dijon mustard

3/4 cup instant mashed potato flakes

2 1/2 cups King Arthur Unbleached Bread Flour (10 ½ ounces)

1 1/3 cups pumpernickel flour (or white or medium rye flour) (4 7/8 ounces)

*Use the lesser amount in summer (or in a humid environment), the greater amount in winter (or in a dry climate), and somewhere in between the rest of the year, or if your house is climate controlled.


1.  Dissolve the yeast in 2 tablespoons of the lukewarm water with a pinch of sugar. Allow it to rest for 15 minutes, till it becomes puffy. If you’re using instant yeast, you can skip this step.


2.  Combine the dissolved yeast (or instant yeast) with the remaining ingredients, and mix till clumps form; the dough may seem dry at this point. Let it rest for 20 minutes, for the flour to start to absorb the liquid.


3.  Knead the dough—by mixer or bread machine set on the dough cycle—to make a stiff, but fairly smooth dough. It’ll take about 7 minutes in a stand mixer at second speed, using the dough hook. The dough should clean the sides of the bowl; if it doesn’t sprinkle in a bit more all-purpose flour. We don’t recommend kneading this dough by hand, as it’s hard to develop the gluten sufficiently. If you DO knead by hand, realize that the dough will take longer to rise, and won’t rise as high.


4.  Place the dough in a lightly greased bowl, cover the bowl, and let the dough rise till it’s puffy, about 1 to 2 hours. It may or may not have doubled in bulk, but it definitely will have expanded.


5.  Gently deflate the dough, and shape it into a log. Place the log in a lightly greased 8 1/2″ x 4 1/2″ loaf pan (for a stiffer dough), or 9″ x 5″ loaf pan (for a slacker dough). Press it to the edges of the pan, and flatten the top.


6.  Tent the pan with greased plastic wrap, and allow the loaf to rise till it’s crowned about 1″ to 1 1/2″ over the edge of the pan, about 1 to 1 1/2 hours. Towards the end of the rising time, preheat the oven to 350°F.


7.  Bake the bread for 20 minutes. Tent it lightly with foil, and bake for an additional 20 minutes. When done the bread will be golden brown, and its internal temperature will register 190°F on an instant-read thermometer.


8.  Remove the bread from the oven, wait 5 minutes, remove it from the pan, and allow it to cool completely on a rack before slicing. Store for up to a week at cool room temperature.



1.  (From KA Flour) This bread has a sensitive liquid-flour ratio. The finished dough should be smooth and easy to handle; it shouldn’t be sticky. If it’s sticky, understand that the rising times may be shorter; a slacker (stickier) dough usually rises faster than one that’s stiffer.


2.  I used an 8 1/2″ x 4 1/2″ loaf pan, and it worked just fine.  KA Flour recommends a 9″ x 5″ loaf pan if your dough is at all sticky, but either should work just as well as the other.


3.  This recipe calls for dill and mustard seeds, which are just fabulous in with the caraway seeds.  I love seeds in bread, though; if you’re not into the whole “getting tiny bits caught in the teeth” thing, feel free to use dill weed and prepared mustard.  You can also certainly omit the caraway seeds, but then it wouldn’t technically be Jewish rye, an you wouldn’t get that wonderful flavor!  (Oh yeah, I didn’t have any dill seeds.  I used dill weed, and liked it very much.)

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7 Responses to Jewish Rye Bread

  1. Yarmulkes says:

    It’s always good to find like-minded people. Thanx and I’m going to add you to my RSS feed.

  2. Luis Villa says:

    Great post. Indeed, pastrami demands rye bread to make a great sandwich, but shouldn’t Jewish rye bread be made into free formed loaves? I’ve tried rye bread formed both ways, but I like the more rustic look and the all-around light crust of the free form bread. I also put a pan with 1/4 cup of water with three ice cubes at the bottom of the oven to generate steam which makes the nice crust mentioned before.

    Finally, what is the purpose of using potato flakes in your recipe?

  3. Beth says:

    Luis: If you prefer free-formed bread, by all means go for it! Many delis use pan-shaped loaves for consistency and portion control, but I don’t think there’s any hard and fast rules. As for the potato flakes, they provide a little extra tenderness and moisture in the final loaf. Thanks for the comment, and happy baking!

  4. Jack Lorzing says:

    Growing up in the 1931-1940’2, we bought jewish Rye Bread in NY usually at a deli from a basket. Not wrapped but usually bagged after selection. It had a stick on label I believe.
    Looked football shaped, very hard, shiny crust. It was sliced thin and was delicious with just butter or any sandwich meat, cheese etc. Pref was swiss cheese and ham.
    I’ve been told that “we can’t get that anymore” but bet we can if we go to the right bakery! That’s you!
    Thank you. I’m 78 and would like to share this with my kids/grandkids!

  5. Beth says:

    Jack: Thanks so much for your comment; what a wonderful story! I do hate to mention it, but this recipe will produce a fairly soft-crusted loaf of bread. The bread you’re describing sounds just fantastic; I may have to try to replicate it soon. Perhaps this recipe could be modified to have a harder crust, maybe by eliminating the oil and some of the potato flakes? I’m intrigued now; I’ll let you know if I succeed.

  6. Does anyone have a recipe for Jewish “Corn Rye”? This is the very heavy and dense bread that is sold by the pound. The original Jewish Bakery in Paterson. NJ and another in Spring Valley, NY used to either make it or bring it in from Brooklyn. I recall that it doesn’t really have any corn flour in it, but it’s a high gluten, spongy texture that I would almost describe as gelatinous….or “rubbery”? I guess “high gluten” says it better. The Rockland Bakery has a very poor version of this.


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