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The richly flavoured seed of a common and widely grown grass, rye’s robustness in difficult climates has long made it an important source of protein in Northern, Central and Eastern Europe, much of Russia and the Near East.
Rye was once highly susceptible to infection by the ergot fungus, which causes very nasty symptoms in humans, including severe burning sensations in limbs, known as St Anthony’s Fire. Other symptoms include mental confusion, once thought to be signs of witchcraft. Epidemics could be widespread but the last outbreak is thought to have been in France in the 1950s because modern strains of rye are resistant to the fungus.
Related to wheat and to barley, rye can be boiled and eaten like any other cereal but many find it bitter like this. Rye is used in two forms; as a wholegrain it is known as dark rye and the refined, husked version is light rye.
Because it has a very low gluten content, rye flour alone cannot be used successfully to make a light, yeast-raised bread but will always give something heavy. Thus it is more often used to make solid breads such as pumpernickel and crisp flatbreads. From a dietary point, rye is high in recommended soluble fibre.
Leavened rye bread, the sort used for salt-beef sandwiches, is made from wheat with added rye, usually refined light rye flour. Variations based on greater and lesser amounts of rye flour and whether dark or rye flour is used results in hundreds of traditional rye loaves.
Food varieties of rye are not related to the rye grass used for pasture and lawns.
Dark and light rye flours are increasingly available in supermarkets and widely sold online.
As with all grains, rye grains and rye flour should be bought in small quantities and are always best bought sealed rather than scooped from bulk containers.
Store in a cool, dark place.
Regular bread makers will find dark and light rye flours are interesting and delicious additions to doughs, remembering that the more you use, the less the bread will rise.