Rye Rings

Week Fifteen: Scandinavian Breads


The bread for today is a very typical Scandinavian bread.  Recall that most Scandinavian fare was historically made with long-term storage in mind, rather than created for immediate consumption, which would have been considered wasteful in many cases.  (The concept of “first in, first out” wasn’t just a handy tip, it was a way of life.)

Rye flour is an important ingredient for such a lifestyle, in such a seasonably brutal climate.  As peasant farmers across Eastern Europe quickly discovered, rye grows well in poorer-quality soil that simply won’t support a healthy wheat crop.  Not only that, but rye flour retains moisture better than wheat flour, which means that rye bread will keep longer than will wheat bread.

Unfortunately, the proteins in rye produce a much weaker gluten structure than wheat.  Bread made exclusively with rye flour is therefore generally dense and tough, which is why you often see recipes for rye bread (such as the one below) that call for a significant amount of wheat flour mixed in with the rye flour.  In fact, for the best “rye” bread, you should use no more than about 33% of the total weight of flour as rye.  (I suppose if you want to be very historically accurate, you could make it with all rye flour; just be prepared for the brick you are about to receive.  These are the benefits of living in modern times: that we can get wheat flour easily and cheaply.)

As a side note, you can make a very good all-rye-flour bread if you make a sourdough starter with it, or use a wheat sourdough starter.  Long, technical story short, the acidic environment that method provides helps the rye proteins act more like wheat proteins, resulting in a more solid gluten structure, and therefore a fluffier, more palatable bread.  The vinegar in this recipe performs a slightly similar function: it provides an acidity that helps the rye flour out a bit.

Getting on with it: these loaves are shaped into rings, which, in the past, wasn’t an aesthetic choice like it is today; the shape allowed the bread to be hung on dowels, or threaded on ropes and hung between rafters.  Air would circulate more freely around the loaves, helping them stay fresh longer; not to mention that the height kept the bread away from many pests that would have otherwise made short work of such a feast.

While making this bread, during the “slashing” step right before baking, I deflated the bread a bit, perhaps with overzealous knife work, or perhaps I just popped the bread like a balloon.  If this happens to you, I suggest letting the bread rise again, for maybe 20 minutes or so.  I say this because my bread didn’t really have much oven spring (the amount it embiggens in the oven), and ended up a bit flat and dense.

I think it would have turned out much better if it hadn’t deflated, since the flavor was quite good.  It was nicely balanced, not too rye-tronic, or too sweet, or too sour.  It tasted hearty and nutty, and a healthy pinch of dill would not have been out of place.  They did turn out lovely, though, and were very easy to tear apart with the hands; so if you’re looking for an interesting and slightly unusual centerpiece bread (unless you or your guests happen to be Scandinavian), this would be a fine recipe to turn to.


Rye Rings
Adapted from Bo Friberg
Makes 2 loaves

2 cups warm milk (105º to 115º F)
2 tablespoons honey
1 tablespoon white vinegar
4 1/4 teaspoons active-dry yeast
1 tablespoon salt
7 ounces rye flour (about 2 cups), plus extra for dusting on loaves
5 ounces whole wheat flour (about 1 cup plus 1 tablespoon)
13 ounces unbleached bread flour (about 3 cups minus 1 tablespoon)
Water, in a spray bottle (see note 1 below)

1.  In the bowl of a stand mixer, whisk together the milk, honey, and vinegar until the honey is dissolved.  Sprinkle the yeast over, stir to combine, and let sit until puffy, about 3 to 5 minutes.

2.  Add the salt, rye, and whole wheat flour.  Mix at low speed using the dough hook.  Reserving a handful of the bread flour, add the remainder and knead for 4 to 5 minutes, or until you have a smooth, elastic dough.  Adjust the consistency of the dough if needed by adding the reserved flour a little at a time.

3.  Transfer the dough to a lightly-oiled bowl, turning to coat the dough.  Cover with plastic wrap, and let rise in a warm place until doubled in size, about 1 hour.

4. Punch down the dough, and turn out onto a lightly-floured surface.  Divide into two equal pieces, and form each into a round ball.  Flatten slightly.  Using the handle of a wooden spoon, a thick dowel, or even your (clean) elbow, make a hole in the center of each round, going all the way through the dough, to make a doughnut shape.   Cover and let the dough rest for 5 to 10 minutes.

5.  Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper.  Widen the holes in the loaves by stretching the dough with your fingers, or lifting and letting gravity help, until the holes are about 6 inches across.  Gently transfer the loaves to the prepared baking sheets, and spray or brush the tops with water.  Dust with enough rye flour to coat completely.  Cover loosely with plastic wrap, and let rise until doubled in volume, about 1 hour.

6.  Preheat the oven to 450º F.  Using a sharp serrated knife, or a clean razor blade, make at least 3 even slashes in the tops of the loaves.

7.  Quickly transfer the loaves to the oven, and spray the oven liberally with water.  Bake at 450º F for 10 minutes, opening the door to spray the oven with water every 2 minutes or so.  Reduce the heat to 425º F, spray one last time, and let bake an additional 20 minutes, or until brown and cooked through.  Remove to a rack to cool.


1.   If you don’t have a spray bottle, you can achieve the same sort of oven steam by heating a cast iron (or other sturdy) pan in the bottom of the oven.  When you put the loaves in, add a few ice cubes to the pan.  Every few minutes, or whenever they have totally melted away, toss a few more in.  Remove the pan after the initial 10 minutes of baking.

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