What makes our Jewish Rye Bread so great?
Excerpted from the new Zingerman’s Bakehouse Book
In order to open Zingerman’s Bakehouse, we had to be able to bake great Jewish Rye Bread for Zingerman’s Delicatessen, which was our first (and at the beginning our only) customer. It’s not possible to have a superb Reuben sandwich without authentic Jewish rye bread. We wanted our Jewish rye to be an essential part of the sandwich, not just a structural element that didn’t really add to the flavor. So right from the beginning, we used and further evolved the excellent recipe and techniques we learned from our first teacher, Michael London.
First, we use a sour starter, which is unusual these days.
It adds a little bit of leavening to the recipe, but mainly it provides depth and complexity of flavor. We created the starter in the fall of 1992, and we’ve been feeding it every day since to keep it healthy, with just the right amount of tang. This version of rye bread was the one made most often by the Polish Jewish bakers in New York and was called sour rye. It later became known as Jewish rye.
Second, we use “old” rye bread from the previous day’s bake.
We slice and soak it in water and then add it to the dough. It adds a layer of texture, flavor, moisture, and color to the bread. It’s also a tradition for Jewish bakers to take something from yesterday and put it in today’s recipes, representing the continuity and interconnectedness of life.
Third, there’s actually some rye in the recipe.
Many rye breads are made from white-wheat flour with a touch of rye added. We use lots of medium rye (rye flour that has some of its bran) in our sour starter.
Finally, we create a real crackly crust.
We brush each loaf with water before it goes into the oven and then again when it comes out. The contrast of the cool water on the hot loaf causes the crust to crack in a distinctive way that is characteristic of Jewish rye.
What to expect when you’re expecting bread
We ship our breads using two business day service. Each of our breads comes wrapped in a paper bread bag. If you’ll be eating it within a few days, store it on the counter. You can also wrap it in plastic and freeze it for longer storage (up to three months).
Do not be alarmed if the bread seems hard or dry… our crust is the best (and only!) preservative in our bread. It’s almost magical how well it returns to that “fresh-baked” status with a little time in the oven. Crispy, thick crust; soft, chewy crumb inside.
The “bread revival” instructions are written on that paper bread bag for the best and most flavorful results. We suggest putting in a 350 degree oven for approximately 15 minutes. When it’s ready it tastes like it just came out of our Bakehouse oven!
Four do’s and don’ts for storing bread
1. Do keep it on the counter for short term storage
Paper bag, wax bag, a bread box (remember those?), all are good. Doesn’t the bread dry out a little when you leave it exposed?. Yeah, a little. But just a little. Because Zingerman’s breads are made with so much less yeast than most you’ll find that they hold up much, much longer in their natural state.
Now, I’m not saying that your loaf will be exactly the same after three days of sitting on your counter. Bread made without the addition of preservatives is going to get drier as it ages. Certainly, the crust gets harder. But that’s what crust is there for. To protect the bread. Inside that exposed surface you’ll find that the bread itself is fine. Still pretty soft, just as flavorful as ever.
2. Don’t put it in plastic
What’s wrong with bread in plastic? Real bread needs to breathe. Sealed in a plastic bag, bread breathes about as well as you or I would if we were sealed in plastic. In other words, it doesn’t. While the bread continues to exhale, it can’t inhale. Moisture is trapped in the bag. Moisture which will turn even the crispest crust soft. Crust is meant to protect the bread. Just like the rind on a natural cheese, real bread has very real crust to protect the inside of the loaf from drying out. But when it’s been sealed in plastic the crust is losing it’s magic, losing it’s texture.
Some folks put it in plastic, they’ve come to like it, and that’s OK. (If you do put it in plastic, a bit of heat can bring it back to life, toasting it or putting it in the oven.) There are two more exceptions to the plastic rule: sliced bread and to-be-frozen bread. We recommend you slice loaves as you go. It keeps the mother loaf solid which protects it from drying. If you get on a roll and slice the whole loaf—or more than your guests eat—store slices in a plastic bag at room temperature. Without protection from the crust, the slices will dry out faster if they are not stored in plastic.
3. Do put it in the freezer for longer storage
If you want to keep a loaf of Zingerman’s bread for more than a few days your best bet is to freeze it. Double bag the loaf—or part of it—in plastic and freeze for up to three months.
4. Don’t put it in the refrigerator
The only thing worse than putting bread in plastic is putting it in plastic first and then putting it in the refrigerator. Everything that’s bad about plastic in the first place is still true in the refrigerator. Except that the cold, moist environment of the fridge is bound to create even more moisture inside the plastic, and… well, it’s just not a good place to store good bread.
How to heat your bread
Our breads are completely baked, heating is not necessary. But you might want to. It makes magic happen, like they just came out of the Bakehouse oven.
Starting with frozen bread? Let it defrost on the counter for 30 minutes then follow these instructions.
1. Heat your oven to 350 degrees
2. Take the bread out of the bag
3. Throw the whole, half, or part of the loaf on the oven rack naked
4. Leave it until it’s hot the whole way through — about 15-20 minutes
5. Take time to smell the roses, or, better, the amazing aroma coming out of your oven