Simplicity is part of the reason home-baked dark rye breads are so good. Traditionally, black breads and pumpernickels were baked overnight, using the residual heat of the oven, and get their distinctive color from a long, slow caramelization of the bread itself in the oven.
Short-cut commercial ryes get their hue from caramel colorings and are laden with fillers that mask the true flavor of the breads. These badly made breads can put you off the real thing for good.
But done well, with balance and proportion, baking a simple rye bread at home — such as this black Russian rye — can be revelatory.
Black Russian rye bread
2 hours, 15 minutes
2 loaves, about 16 servings
Adapted from "The Bread Bible" by Beth Hensperger. Specialty flours are available at select well-stocked markets, health food, cooking and baking supply stores, as well as online.
2 packages (1/4 ounce each) active dry yeast
2 1/2 cups warm water (105 to 115 degrees)
1/2 cup dark molasses (not blackstrap)
1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
1/2 stick (1/4 cup) butter
1 ounce unsweetened chocolate
1/2 cup (2.25 ounces) whole-wheat flour
3 cups (12 ounces) rye flour
3 cups (12.75 ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour, plus 1 tablespoon
1 cup wheat bran
2 tablespoons caraway seeds, plus 1 optional teaspoon
1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds
1 tablespoon each: salt, instant espresso powder, minced shallots
1/4 cup cornmeal
1. Sprinkle the yeast and sugar over 1/2 cup of the warm water in a small bowl. Stir to dissolve; let stand at room temperature until foamy, about 10 minutes. Combine remaining 2 cups water, molasses, vinegar, butter and chocolate in a small saucepan; heat over low heat, stirring often, until the butter and chocolate are melted, about 5 minutes. Cool to lukewarm.
2. Whisk together the whole-wheat, rye and 3 cups of the all-purpose flour in a large bowl. Set aside. Combine 2 cups of the mixed flours, the bran, 2 tablespoons of the caraway seeds, fennel seeds, salt, espresso powder and shallots in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment. Mix in the yeast and chocolate mixtures on low speed until smooth; beat at medium speed 3 minutes. Add 1/2 cup of the remaining mixed flours at a time at low speed, just until the dough clears the sides of the bowl, begins to work its way up the paddle and springs back when pressed.
3. Scrape the dough off the paddle; place on a floured counter. Knead by hand to make a smooth and springy yet dense dough. Form into a ball; place in a greased deep bowl. Turn once to grease the top. Cover with plastic wrap; set aside to rise in a warm area until doubled, 1 1/2-2 hours. Meanwhile, combine the cornmeal, remaining 1 tablespoon of the flour and remaining 1 teaspoon of the caraway in a bowl. Sprinkle the cornmeal mixture on a parchment-lined baking sheet.
4. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Gently deflate the dough. Turn out the dough onto a lightly floured counter. Divide the dough into two portions. Stretch each portion into a ball, pulling the edges and pinching to form a seam. Place the formed rounds, seam side down, on the baking sheet. Cover loosely with plastic wrap. Set aside to rise until puffy and almost doubled in bulk, 45 minutes-1 hour. With a serrated knife, gently slash a 1/4-inch deep X into the top of each round. Bake the loaves until they are crusty and sound hollow when tapped on the bottom, 45-50 minutes. Cool completely on a rack.