(Secale cereale – Family Gramineae)
Rye appears to have existed during the Bronze Age, but only came into cultivation after that of wheat, barley, and oats. The Egyptians and Sumerians did not include it in their range of crops, and the ancient Greeks and Turks labeled it as an intrusive weed – just like oats. It appeared in Europe about the time of the Middle Ages when, rather than separating it, rye was ground along with the wheat into a flour called “maslin (miscelin in French). It was occasionally mixed with pea flour and soon became a favourite all over Europe, and rose to be the star of the European bread world. Although rye is high in protein, it is low in gluten and needs to be combined with wheat to make a quality bread.
By the time of the Renaissance, rye was the basic bread of Britain, as well as other colder countries of the European continent: Scandinavia, Russia, Germany, and most of Eastern Europe. Once again, soil and climate conditions played a role in the proliferation of this grain. Rye is quite hardy, thriving not only in poor soil and wetter conditions that destroy other grains; but it also seems to prefer the near-freezing temperatures of the Arctic parts of Scandinavia and up to 14,000 feet in the Himalayas. Rye apparently arrived in America with the French, who planted it in the 17th century in Nova Scotia, Canada; but it was the Dutch and German settlers who took it to the US side. European rye tends to be darker than the American rye, causing a difference in the taste of the breads.
The original ancestor of rye was a perennial grass known as mountain rye,Secale montanum. It was common in North Africa and the mountainous regions of the Near and Middle East. About 3000 BCE, rye was taken to the harsh highlands of Turkey, Armenia, and Iran, where barley or wheat could not grow and where it was developed into a cultivated annual food crop. Because the rye seeds are a greyish-green, it is impossible to make pure white flour from the grain. Bread made from rye flour with all the bran removed is pale gray. Wholemeal rye flour produces “black bread”, which is a dark greyish-brown, unless a colouring agent has been added. Rye does have a natural gum in the grain which traps moisture and causes the characteristic “stickiness” of the bread. A distinguishing feature of nearly all rye breads is that they are often leavened with a starter containing some yeast and a lactic-acid bacteria which produces the characteristic delicious sour flavour. Pumpernickel is made with culture containing only bacteria, which is why it does not rise very much. In the highly-baked, unleavened Scandinavian crispbreads, the faintly bitter natural flavour of the rye comes through quite pleasantly.
Forms of rye include the following:
Whole grain rye berries or groats: They have only the outer hull removed. They can be sprouted and used in breads and salads or cooked whole for cereals.
Rye grits: They are the whole grain that has been cracked into several pieces. It is most often used as a cereal or mixed with other grains in making breads.
Rye meal: It is a pumpernickel-type of rye ground to the consistency of cornmeal and used in combination with other flours in baking.
Rye flour: It is the whole grain ground to a finer consistency than that of the meal, and generally sold as light (or white, which has most or all of the bran removed), medium, dark, or pumpernickel. When blended with other flours, rye flour adds an excellent flavour and quality to the baked goods.
Rye flakes or rolled rye: It is the result of groats being steamed and then pressed or rolled between high-pressure rollers, very much like rolled oats, but resulting in thicker flakes. It can be cooked and eaten in the same way as rolled oats.