It is no secret to anyone accustomed to  Finnish culture that rye has a very special place in people’s heart. Ask any expat Finn what they usually smuggle back home after a trip to Finland, chances are that rye bread is at the top of the list, amongst sausages and Oltermanni cheese. Rye bread was even voted Finland’s national food for the country’s 100th year anniversary.


Because of its ability to grow in harsh conditions and poor soil, rye has been a staple grain in Finland. Ruis (rye in Finnish) is believed to be a 2000 year-old word possibly coming from its Prussian  counterpart “rugis”. (3)  In the 17th Century, Finland emerged as an important producer and exporter into the Nordic region, sending its rye to Sweden, Estonia, Lithuania and Russia. (2). Rye bread had been a symbol of agricultural prosperity in Finland for 1500 years until the 1880’s. The expression “Olla leivissä”, literally, “to be in bread” illustrates this perfectly. (1)

“Rye came to world suddenly, in the form of a revolt of the lowly. In Pontos, on the shore of the Black Sea, a city surrounded by excellent wheatland – grain ships were loaded to take seed to southern Russia. A few weeds that none regarded became mixed with the seed. But behold! When the time came for sowing, the soil proved too harsh for the wheat and the weed flourished mightily. Rye abruptly had become a cultivated plant” (3).

In Finland, mills were mostly powered by water and baking took place once or twice  a year, yielding loaves that would be loaded onto a poll for storage and rehydrated in water, beer or sour milk when needed. As a perfect example of Finnish pragmatism, the same dedicated wooden vessel (taikinaniitu) was used to refresh the starter, thus inoculating the new mix with the previous batch’s root.

I fell in love with rye within a day of having set foot onto Finnish soil for the very first time. The first breakfast, having reached Turku from Stockholm by boat, was composed of cherry tomatoes, cheese, smoked ham, boiled eggs and cucumber happily fighting for a piece of sourdough rye to lie on. Not that it  was the first time I sampled rye bread, but there was something different about it that I had not experienced elsewhere. It was the beginning of a journey that is to date is still going strong. A love and hate relationship was going to take shape for a grain that I had not given much thought to before. A passion for a crop that would make my Breton’s heart question the supremacy of buckwheat.

Rye in Finland is no compromise. It is 99% of the time sold as whole meal. Most of the mills don’t care for sifting gradients and why should they, as it’s been used in its purest form for ever and there is seldom  demand for a lighter and sifted product. In 2015, Finland produced 108 million kg of rye.

The Rye Challenge: Gluten

Gluten in flour does not exist. Instead flour contains two proteins: glutenin and gliadin, that when mixed in with water form gluten. Glutenin provides most of the strength (tenacity) while gliadin provides its stretchiness (extensibility). Rye has sufficient gliadin but is very low in glutenin. This results in a dough that does not retain gases very well. The earlier the gas evaporates in the baking process, the less it can rise.

The Rye Challenge: Pentosans

Since we cannot rely on gluten to build-up a cohesive dough, we need to find another helper, namely pentosans. Pentosans are long carbohydrate (sugar chain) gums. They absorb ten times their weight in water and therefore largely contribute in increasing the viscosity or consistency of dough, which in turns helps to hold in air and gas bubbles for leavening. We can use this to our advantage. Mixing in hot water will make the pentosan gums swell, which will provide some dough consistency. However, pentosans have to be broken down by pentosanaze enzymes before they are available to us. And guess what…pentosanazes are happier and more active at lower PH (more acidic environment).

The Rye Challenge: Amylase and PH

Amylase is an enzyme that breaks down starch into sugars and other products. This provides food for yeast fermentation, contributes to the Maillard reaction, softens the crumb and slows staling during shelf life.

Rye flour is typically high in amylase activity, much higher than wheat. If amylase is actively allowed to aggressively break down starches into sugars during fermentation, the dough thins out and the resulting loaf is dark, dense and soggy. It is therefore important to slows this process down to avoid ending up with pancakes.

Drawing conclusions from what we have discussed above, lowering the dough PH (increased acidity) has two benefits to the rye baker: First, it slows down the amylase activity. Second, it promotes pentosanaze activity. Increased acidity will therefore (up to some point) help us with the structure and cohesiveness of the dough. 

My Process, back to the roots.

There are a number of ways of baking rye bread bearing in mind the 3 challenges listed above. in France, for example, one common way of baking tourtes de seigle would be to use near-boiling water (80 degrees) during mixing. This technique swells-up the pentosan gums and provides consistency to the dough.

The use of old dough or sourdough, in different proportions, is also fairly typical.

The way I do it is slightly different and more in line with Finnish practices.  The total amount of water for the recipe is mixed with a small amount of starter and half of the total flour amount to create a soupy batter that will ferment overnight. The following day, more flour is added to build the mix up to the required consistency. That process could be extended to 3 or 4 days when working with large amounts of dough, each time doubling the amount of flour.

That very process was used  in the old days, starting with a dedicated wooden bucket (taikinaniitu, picture 1) coated with dried old dough from the previous batch. Filling that bucket with water and a bit of flour would in effect bring back to life the dried pieces of ferment stuck to the inside of the container.

Picture 1: A Sami girl mixing dough in a taikinaniitu. (Eljas Aslak Ensio Outakosken arkisto Fa:1-Fa:3 ja Henrik Wilhelm Claudelinin arkisto Ad:34.)

Recipe, for 3 loaves of 730g.

Step One, Build-Up

In the evening, or 12 hours before mixing, build-up the amount of sourdough needed. At this stage you should already have a healthy starter ready to go:

  1. Water: 1000g @ 30-35 degrees Celsius (86-95 degrees Fahrenheit)
  2. Starter, ripe: 20g
  3. Whole meal organic rye flour: 400g

Mix all ingredients, cover and set aside in a warm place for 12 hours.

Step Two, Mix

12 hours later, add in the following:

  1. 750g whole meal organic rye flour
  2. 25g sea salt. 

Mix in everything in a shaggy mess by hand for one minute and set aside for 30 minutes. This resting time will ensure the flour has time to absorb the water. It is a common error for beginners to adjust the hydration of the recipe too early without waiting for that 30 minute rest. So let it be for 30minutes before adjusting anything. It is especially true with freshly ground flour.

30 minutes later, check the consistency. This should look and feel like in this video:  Rye Dough Consistency (Loose enough so that you can scoop it, but cohesive enough so that you can shape it). If too stiff, the resulting loaves will be really dense. Generously flour your work bench and dump the mass onto it. For this recipe I like to use tins, as it suits our purpose to have tin-shaped loaves at home. I butter and dust them slightly before loading them.

Time for shaping

Step Three, Divide

Divide the mass into 730g pieces, quickly shape each piece into a rough bâtard and put it into a tin. Working fast makes shaping easier as the dough is rather sticky.

At this stage, the proofing time will largely depends on the ambiant temperature. For rye bread, I like to keep it warm and would proof them in the sauna (the sauna is off, of course, but it is usually the warmest place in the house with an average temperature of 30 degrees Celsius). You do not necessarily have to follow this guideline and can proof colder, it will just take longer. at 30 degrees, it takes 2-2.5 hours to be ready for the oven. You will know when it is ready when the dough will be perforated with small holes and teared apart. If you wait for too long and overproof, you’re running the risk of promoting too much enzymatic activity (remember our amylase friends from earlier on in this post?).  Too much enzymatic activity will destroy the internal structure of the loaf and the resulting bread will be pancake-liked, gummy and dense. Be careful as with rye dough this can happen very fast.

Step Four, Bake.

Bake hot (250 degrees) , with steam, for 20 minutes, and cooler (210-220) for 20-25 minutes. If not dark enough for your liking, bake longer. Baking longer also means that the crust will be thicker, so it depends entirely on your taste preferences. These are only rough guidelines as each oven is different.

Step Five, Wait.

Remove the loaves from the tins and let them cool completely on a rack. Once cooled, wrap in cling film and let it rest for a few days.

I personally prefer it to go stale a little bit and would happily wait 3-4 days before digging in.

Spice it up!

Working with the same process, I like to add grains and seeds. One of my favorite combos is toasted pumpkin and  coriander seeds. For this I make a soaker. The evening before, at the same time as when you start building-up your dough (Step 1 in the earlier recipe), make a soaker by pouring hot water (not boiling water as it will extract unwanted tannins) over your seeds. Cover and let it be for 12 hours. Then strain and add to the dough during stage 2. Working with seeds and grains opens up an entire new world of flavours and is very rewarding. It also requires different techniques that I hope to discuss in a future article.

100% rye with pumpkin seeds and coriander

(1) Ulla Rauramo: Ruis, Suomalaisten salaisten ase

(2) Stanley Ginsberg: The Rye Baker: Classic breads from Europe and America.

(3) H.E Jacob: 6000 years of bread. It's holy and unholy history

(4) Paula Figoni: How Baking Works

The root of Finnish rye bread