Rye flour is both a pleasure and a challenge. It's a pleasure because it produces breads like old-school Jewish deli rye, German, Alpine, Scandinavian, Baltic, Central European and Russian rye bread, as well as French pains de seigle and Italian pane di segale. It's a challenge because, when mixed with water, rye produces a dough that is both slippery and sticky, making it difficult to work with. That's because unlike gluten, which forms long, elastic chains, rye flour forms a viscous gel of complex starches called arabinoxylans.
Like gluten in wheat dough, this gel traps baking gases -- CO2 and steam. Unlike gluten, however, these complex carbohydrates also break down rapidly in the presence of the enzyme amylase, which occurs naturally in most flours, especially wholegrain. To counter this problem, bakers generally build their breads on a sourdough sponge (which inhibits the amylase activity), or, in the case of low-percentage (30% or less) rye breads, use high-gluten or first clear flour.
Nutritionally, rye is rich in fiber, vitamin E, riboflavin, folacin and pantothentic acid. And unusual for a cereal grain, rye contains twice as much of the amino acid lysine as wheat, giving it one of the most complete proteins of all grains. And equally important, rye does all of this with only 75% of the calories, ounce for ounce, of wheat.
If you can learn to love its stickiness, rye is well worth the trip.
Want to learn more about flours made from rye and other grains? Take a look at my blog, The Rye Baker, as well as my latest book of the same name.