Rye Bread (Ražný Chlieb)

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Ingredients: (these are just estimates) 3 cups all-purpose flour, 2 cups rye flour, teaspoon of caraway seeds, teaspoon of basil leaves, plenty of salt, sugar, milk, oil
Prep time: about 30 minutes to get the dough ready, some hour or two to let it rise, another hour for baking

Is there anything more delicious than freshly baked bread, still warm to melt the butter, sprinkled with bit of salt?

I don’t think so. And the Slavs of the past shared this view, since bread and salt (chlieb a soľ) became the universal gift offered to visitors through out all Slavic lands. Bread symbolizes life, while salt stands for health (from a Slovak blog). One really famous Slovak fairy tales even tells a story of a king who destroyed all salt in his kingdom, and salt became more precious than gold. Bread and salt, two simple staples, yet so full of meaning, are offered to all foreign dignitaries visiting the land.

Bread can be made of variety of flour. The most common is white or all-purpose flour consisting of milled wheat (pšenica). But many other cereals besides wheat are used in making of bread. These include barley (jačmeň) and my favorite grain, rye (raž). I was very happy to find a bag of rye flour (ražná múka) in my local Giant (grocery chain). Then, when I found myself without bread about a week later, I figured I’ll give it a shot. I combined the flour, yeast, worked the dough and … disaster! I realized, post-fact, that rye bread is actually not made primarily of rye flour. The resulting bread was extremely dense. It felt like a brick. But, it actually tasted quite good (and healthy) and kept for a while. It never became hard, I finally had to dispose of it when it started getting moldy.

Few days later I decided to try again. This time I used about equal amounts of rye and white flour. Not knowing how the bread will turn out (this was just my second time ever baking bread, not counting the one time I helped my grandma), I decided against taking photos. Too bad, because it was great! The loaf was gone in about a day, and hence came another opportunity to bake more bread. Here are the steps again. This bread was prepared without any specific recipe, I instead just followed my grandma’s lesson and added spices I like, such as caraway seeds, basil and olive oil.

ingredients for rye bread
Here is what you will need. I used just a half packet of yeast. I wanted to save some money, since each packet costs about a buck – and I was making just one loaf.

Prepare the yeast culture

yeast mixed with milk and sugar aerating yeast culture with a fork
Add the yeast (kvások) to lukewarm milk (mlieko) and also add some two spoons of sugar (cukor). Whisk well to give the yeast plenty of air (vzduch).

warming up yeast by placing the bowl on top of a pot containing hot water
So what if the yeast is slow to rise? You can give it a little nudge by placing the bowl over a pot containing hot water. Just make sure to turn the heat off so you don’t end up accidentally cooking the little critters.

Mix the ingredients

bowl with flour and spices mixing all ingredients by hand
In the meantime, in a large bowl combine about equal amounts of rye and all-purpose flour. I was making just a single loaf so I used about two cups each – but this is just an estimate. I made everything “by eye”. Add in some caraway seeds (rasca) and basil (bazalka, or any other spices you like, rosemary would probably work great). I added about a teaspoon each, but again this was done by eye only. Finally, add plenty of salt (soľ). Pour in the yeast mixture. Use your hands to mix everything together.

stiff flour block
You will most likely end up with individual flour globules, since there won’t be enough liquid. Add bit of lukewarm water (voda), and mix in until you get a single solid block. You may be amazed by just how little water is actually needed. This is where I started kneading the dough. But, the consistency will very likely still be quite granular, so add bit more water…

keep adding water gooey dough resolved by adding flour
… or slightly more than a bit. I had a little accident as I overestimated the amount needed. My nice block turned into mud! Disaster? No, not at all. If this happens, simply keep mixing the “mud” until most of the water is absorbed. It’s quite amazing just how much water flour can take in. Still, in the end, my dough was still too gooey so I added more all-purpose flour. Again, form everything into a single block and continue kneading. Here I found it helpful to line the sides of the bowl with flour. This way the dough picked up more flour as it needed. It also keeps the dough from sticking.

Knead the dough

kneading rye bread dough, push out kneading bread, fold over
The purpose of kneading the bread is two fold. First, kneading assures that all the ingredients are evenly distributed. Secondly, this mechanical process helps unfold the protein chains contained in the flour, called gluten. These proteins give the dough the stiffness and the elasticity needed to prevent it from collapsing during rising. To knead bread, take the back of your wrist and push out. Then fold the dough over, turn 90o, and repeat.

Or just watch the video… Do this until you get tired of it, but at least for 10 minutes. You will see the dough become elastic and you should start seeing it rise. You will notice little puffed up air pockets under your wrist.

Prove, form and bake

dough formed into a ball before rising bread dough proving
Once you are happy with it (or tired of kneading), form the dough into a ball. Dust the sides of your bowl with flour. Also sprinkle some flour on the dough ball. Cover, to keep draft away, and let rise for an hour or two (I let it sit for almost 2 hours). Yeast likes it warm. You can help it by placing the dough on top of a pot of hot water, similar to what was done to get the yeast culture going. Again, make sure the stove is not on.

I waited until the dough felt quite puffy. Note, since rye flour is rather dense, this dough will not rise as much as one consisting of only white flour.

forming dough into a loaf bread loaf in baking pan
Scoop out the dough onto a flour-dusted board. Here I kneaded the dough few more times to make sure that no large air pockets lurked inside. I then started forming it into a loaf by grabbing it on both sides and turning over. I couldn’t completely capture this as I needed one hand to operate the camera, but you can still see the indentation left by my right hand. What you are trying to do here is to work out any non-uniformities and work the dough into a single unit with no non-sticky flour folds in it. These folds tend to open up during baking – as also happened in my case. But it’s not really a big deal. A trick I learned after the fact is to stretch the dough out and fold it over like an envelope. You then form it into the loaf and bake it the folded side down. Place the loaf into a baking pan. Brush on some oil (olej, I used olive oil) and sprinkle on little flour to give the bread the rustic look.

baking bread on bottom rack
Let rest for about 15 minutes. This is important as it gives the bread a chance to regain some of the puffiness lost during shaping. Use this time to preheat the oven to 375F. Bake on the bottom rack, otherwise the bottom crust will be too soft. Bake for about an hour, until the crust looks crunchy. Do not open the stove until the crust sets. You can test if the bread is done by testing if it sounds hollow when you tap on it – it should. Finally, turn the oven off and let the bread cool on the wire rack. If you want, you can brush on water on the baked crust to soften it. I didn’t do this as I like my bread crunchy. Wait for the bread to cool before cutting. This will take a while, maybe even an hour.

And enjoy freshly home-baked bread…

home-baked rye bread with salt
And that’s it. It’s actually quite easy to bake your own bread. It turned out great, although my previous attempt (picture on the right) had a little nicer look to it, I think. I coated the bread with slightly too much flour, plus the crust cracked more than I would have liked. Still, the taste was amazing. Enjoy!