Updated: May 21
Rye bread is a revered basic staple in the Baltic Republics. Enter a bakery or supermarket and you are met with an almost overwhelming choice of styles, brands, sizes and consistency. It’s a gastronomical dream! The popularity stems from the fact that rye has grown in abundance in the Baltic Republics for more than 1200 years and is available all year round. Needless to say that’s a long time in which to perfect the process!
The fact the Rye Bread is such an ancient staple means history has also served upon it folkloric and sacrosanct traditions. Good bread has been, and remains to be, the pride and joy of every hostess and baker. In historic times, each family would grow its own rye and bake its own bread. During harvest, the sower of the rye would be offered the first bite of bread to celebrate their work. It was only AFTER the sower had eaten, that the baker and their family would eat.
Other traditions paying respect and homage to the bread:
If bread is accidentally dropped, it must be immediately picked up and kissed
Do not sweep breadcrumbs to the floor, otherwise God will not provide more
Do not place the bread bottom side up, otherwise your family will experience hunger.
While rye bread is also eaten throughout the Scandinavian and Slavic countries, it varies in taste between each country (not to mention within the country itself!) Sometimes it’s yeast based, other times its baked from leavened dough. Sometimes oats or bran are added, other times it’s caraway seeds are added, other times it’s cumin seeds. Whichever it is, you can be assured that the recipe has been developed, honed and treasured over generations.
A good starter is essential for your rye bread. You might be lucky enough to be gifted some from a friend, or have it passed it down from generations, or maybe you need to create your own. Whichever it is, it can be fed and maintained for the next time and kept in the fridge when not in use. Just ‘revive' it by removing it from the fridge about 24 hours before using it, feeding it with some flour and tepid water and leaving covered on the kitchen bench to start bubbling away again.
Flours (and rye) differ considerably between countries. A classic recipe from Europe will require some adaptation for local flours. Enjoy the testing process and don’t be afraid to turn any ‘rejects’ into a delicious garlic based snack or rye based ‘trifle’ (contact us for more information!).
We’ve included a couple of recipes below, but for those who don’t feel like baking, the Latvian Association of South Australia in Wayville and the Gift Shop RĪGA at Sydney Latvian Hall in Strathfield regularly sell homemade and imported traditional rye bread and other goodies.
A classic recipe for Rye Bread is available in Zuza Zak’s Amber and Rye (Murdoch Books):
80 ml molasses
1 tbsp. unsalted butter
500 gram wholemeal rye flour
1 tbsp. salt
2 tbsp. red malt powder (optional)
3 tbsp. oat or flax bran
300 ml tepid water
Caraway seeds for sprinkling
200 g wholemeal rye flour
300 ml milk kefir
½ tsp caster sugar
1. Mix all starter ingredients together in a large jar. Cover with a clean cloth and leave at room temperature for 3-4 days until the mix starts to bubble. Give it a good stir each day
2. Once the starter is ready, combine the molasses and butter in a small saucepan and heat, stirring regularly, until the butter has melted and the mixture is runny. Allow to cool until it’s lukewarm.
3. Put the dry ingredients into a large bowl, add the tepid water and three quarters of the starter mixture. Mix well with a wooden spoon and add the molasses mixture, stirring to a rough dough. Turn out onto a flour dusted surface and knead for a few minutes until it comes together into a ball.
4. Place dough into a lightly greased 900 gram loaf tin, cover with a tea towel and leave in a warm place for 10-12 hours. It won’t double in size during this time, but it should grow considerably.
5. Preheat the oven to 180 degrees Celsius and half fill a roasting tin with water and place in the bottom of the oven. Sprinkle the loaf with caraway seeds and slide it onto the middle shelf. Bake for about an hour, or until it sounds hollow when tapped on the bottom.
For Australian bakers, the following recipe comes from Latvian Flavours, a generational cookbook of home cooking compiled by the Latvian Association of South Australia. While wheat flour is a not traditionally used in Latvian cooking, this is a classic example of adapting a traditional recipe to utilize the ingredients readily available in Australia:
The previous evening:
1.2 kg rye flour
1.5 litres warm water
Starter dough kept from previous baking or gifted from a friend or 7g sachet of dry yeast
Combine the above ingredients and leave overnight
The next morning:
To the previous evening’s mix add
30 g sugar
1.5 tsp salt
1/3 cup treacle
1 tbsp caraway seeds
750g plain flour
1. Combine all the ingredients and knead for approximately 15 minutes. The mixture will be sticky, this is normal.
2. Keep approximately 1 cup of the dough as a starter for next time. Store it in a sealed container in the fridge and allow it to come to room temperature before using it.
3. Divide the remaining dough into four and place into four oiled loaf tins.
4. Bake at 200 degrees Celsius for 15-20 minutes, reduce the temperature to 180 degrees and bake for approximately one hour.