Grain Brains Challenge
A recipe challenge to help you get whole grains into your mouth, not just your kitchen.
I grew rye this year.
My son and I planted it in the fall, in a much smaller plot than we’d planted wheat the year before.
That year, we had new land that we’d scraped of urban rubble and filled with a mixture of compost and soil. My kids used a Scott’s lawn seeder to broadcast plant wheat over about 800 square feet. We had beginners luck and harvested about 30 pounds the following July.
I knew that these 80 square feet would not yield anywhere near the amount. I still don’t know how much rye I grew, because the crop, such as it is, sits in a bag in my friend Howard’s shed, waiting till we have time to thresh it.
We have a half an urban acre, and much of it is on a hill. The soils are of varying types: the lovely bed of half-shredded shale. The beds that push up glass each year around the seeds we plant. Some terraced areas have been amended more than others over the years, but this ground I gave the rye fit the challenge farmers give this grain: Soil that is too poor to grow rye should not be worked.
The soil in this area is sandy, because the previous owner of these lots had used sand as a cheap fill.
Rye is a beautiful plant. Felix and I planted the seeds in rows. I felt an affinity for the variety, because Danko is Polish, like me. I also feel an affinity for the grain because it is an underdog. Since rye grows in much less finicky conditions than wheat, it is the food for peasants, the food for hard times.
Rye is also gaining some notoriety as a grain that helps control blood sugar, and since I have a tendency to burn through food on the faster side, I like that. Plus I like The Catcher in the Rye, and the Robert Burns poem that inspired the title. I am not alone in my admiration.
“People are definitely talking about rye,” baker Barak Olins
He told a crowd of serious home and professional bakers told at The Kneading Conference in Maine. It was the end of July, and people were gathered on folding chairs under the grandstand at the Skowhegan fairgrounds.
“We might as well learn how to make rye because when the zombies take over that’s the only grain that’s going to grow,” he said, and listed the grain’s other strengths. “Rye can be earthy, nutty, tangy and sour in a way that wheat breads are not. Its keeping qualities are much longer.”
The long fermentation of rye, he said, gives more feedback about flavor than wheat breads during the process of baking. Some rye sourdoughs have honey notes, or might smell like red wine that sat in a bowl for a couple of weeks: a little acerbic and harsh.
“When my rye’s gone that far, it’s really hard to get the final bread to get the bread back to the mellow malty flavor,” he said. “The transformation is remarkable.”
He discussed the different formulas he used for three ryes he shaped and baked in a wood fired oven, and at lunch we got to taste these breads. The partial rye breads were great, but his 100% rye is an absolute wonder.
Anyone who has ever gambled with how much rye flour to add to a wheat bread dough knows that anywhere near all rye is tough to handle. Quick breads can take rye easily. Read the ingredients on buckwheat pancake mixes and rye might be the only non-buckwheat flour included. But when you try to build a yeast or sourdough bread on rye’s very different gluten, you are playing a very different game.
Olins has mastered that game, and sells his bread at farmers markets in Brunswick, Maine. He doesn’t have a shop, but his bakery is named Zu Bakery. He grinds his own flour and uses an Alan Scott oven — artisan bread shorthand for a very particular kind of wood fired oven well described in The Bread Builders. This 1992 book launched a lot of small bakeries, and is worth a look if you have any kind of a love affair with bread or fire. Those affections should send you to The Kneading Conference next summer. There is no better way to dive into grains, fire and bread.
I’m headed to its sister workshop, The Kneading Conference West in Mount Vernon, Washington, and hope to amp up my bread skills, which are pretty abysmal compared to my pancake devotions. Still, when I make bread I use Ellen Jackson’s amazing Multigrain No-Knead Bread with half rye and half whole wheat flour. I don’t use any of the seeds listed.
RECIPE: RYE CORNBREAD
Quick breads are more to my pacing, and one of my favorite things to make this time of year is cornbread with corn. A little rye makes this recipe sing.
- ½ cup rye flour
- 2 tsp baking powder
- ½ tsp soda
- ½ tsp salt
- 1 cup milk
- 3 TBSP yogurt
- 2 eggs
- 1 cup cooked corn kernels
- 3 TBSP butter, to melt in pan
- Preheat oven to 425 Fahrenheit. Put 9 inch skillet in oven to heat, too.
- Whisk together the dry ingredients and wet ingredients separately. Combine with corn kernels. Let sit 10 minutes. If the batter is too thick, add a little more milk. Melt 3 TBSP in pan before pouring in the batter.
- Bake for about 20-25 minutes, until the bread is firm.
- Butter each slice thoroughly.
PS: Some people think I grow all my own grains, but that is not the case! Farmers and millers do great work – who knows when my rye will become flour. Threshing and winnowing takes a long time. Find the flour you love and keep it very handy.