All About Rye Flour, Rye Nutritional Benefits and Rye Production and Uses
Most people will be familiar with rye flour as it is found in rye crackers. Ryvita, for example, have cornered themselves a big slice of the UK market, pitching their product as a slimming food. And most countries have a similar product available on supermarket shelves.
But there's much more to rye than as an ingredient for weight-loss diets. It can be a wholesome, nutritious and attractive part of our meals. Rye breads are delicious and quite easy to make and there are a good many other uses for this versatile ingredient.
It is also a good food to consider from a green living perspective, especially if you are close to the major growing regions, because it is easier to grow than wheat in some climates and therefore requires fewer inputs.
This page gives some nutritional information on rye and looks at its history and cultivation.
Rye flour - what it is
Rye is a grass (Secale cereale) which is quite closely related to wheat and barley. It grows wild in Turkey and was largely unknown in most of Europe until after the Roman era.
One Roman writer (Pliny the Elder) dismissed it as
"a very poor food (which) only serves to avert starvation".
Nevertheless, it has gradually become a staple food for many European peoples. This is partly because it grows reliably in relatively cold conditions and on poor soils. It is doubtless also because rye breads have a subtle natural sweetness and flavour.
Rye was a popular grain with the Saxons and Vikings. Early methods included sowing both wheat and rye together. Depending upon the weather, one crop would dominate. The mixed flour was known as "maslin" flour.
Russia and Poland remain the world's largest rye grain producers. Organic rye is now being grown in many places, including Finland, Lithuania and North Dakota, USA (where it is used to make vodka).
Germany is noted for its diverse breads and bread-making techniques. Rye bread is one of their favourites (schwarzbrot). In Denmark, too, rye bread (rugbrød) holds an especially esteemed position.
As a flour it has far less gluten than wheat but it has other properties which make it a desirable bread ingredient. Most rye breads are made from a mixture of wheat flour and rye flour, as pure rye bread can be rather heavy and chewy.
It is also difficult to get a good texture with pure rye bread because of the low gluten content. Rye flour is especially well suited to use with a sourdough starter; some of the very best breads are made this way.
Rye is packed with good nutrition. It contains high levels of proteins and fibre. It contains good amounts of iron, calcium and zinc and a whole slew of B vitamins. There's also vitamin E aplenty. Unfortunately by the time it has been refined to "light rye" and mixed with wheat flour, the resultant bread may not hold its own against wheat wholemeal bread. The best rye breads for nutritional value are made from dark rye.
Rye has been the focus of recent research by the Finnish company Fazer which hopes to promote rye more widely as a health food, even for children. They have found rye to be a good source of "prebiotics" and fibre, making it a valuable food for cancer prevention. It is also recommended as having a role in preventing type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
Rye contains a lot of soluble fibre which slows down the release of carbohydrates and sugars, so that you feel satisfied for longer after eating it compared to wheat bread. The sugars in rye are largely "fructans" - a type of fructose, which accounts for the slightly sweet taste. Fructans allow this plant to thrive in relatively cool conditions.
Many of the benefits of eating rye come from the fact that it ferments in the gut to produce valuable nutrients such as short-chain fatty acids and arabinoxylan. Short-chain fatty acids help the immune system by promoting lymphocyte production and they also lower cholesterol production and stabilise blood sugar levels. Arabinoxylan is thought to act much like beta-glucan from oats. Beta-glucans are responsible for some of the heart-healthy attributes of oats and have a whole bundle of health benefits credited to them.
Ways to use rye flour
Rye flour can be used in a host of products. Rye bread needs no introduction to most people but it's perhaps worth noting that there are many different types of rye bread, from traditional Jewish rye bread with caraway seed flavouring, to the tasty black bread of Russia and Poland.
Rye flour can be used for pancakes, blinnies, muffins and drop scones. Use it just as you would use wheat flour - or mix it 50:50 with wheat flour for a lighter result.
You can also bake your own homemade crackers using rye flour.
Rye is also making a bit of a come back - as beer! Small breweries and home brewers are brewing up delicious new beers using rye as the principal grain ingredient.