Ask Casey: Why Try Rye Flour? For Chocolate Rye Cake!

Ask Casey: Cooking and Kitchen Questions Answered
Hey Casey, what’s up with all the rye flour being used in baked goods these days?

OK, no one has actually asked me this question. It’s something I’ve asked myself recently, as it’s a trend I’ve seen with increasing frequency while sifting through scads and scads of food writing online. (Yeah, I probably read a lot more food-related content than the average bear. But it’s all so I can pass the knowledge on to you, dear readers.)

Baking with whole grains is nothing new, of course: flours made from barley, oats, spelt, kamut, and more have been finding their way into baked goods more regularly over the past decade, and rye flour in particular has been used in traditional Scandinavian desserts like 101 Cookbooks’ version of Swedish rye cookies. Rye bread itself is used in rupjmaizes kārtojums, a Latvian trifle-style dessert that layers pumpernickel crumbs with fruit and whipped cream.

rye flour, via

Photo: Casey Barber

But lately, it feels like rye flour is stepping out in a new way, with a flurry of rye-infused goodies making the rounds in cookbooks and on the internet. Irvin Lin at Eat the Love did a double-take on Tartine Bakery’s salted chocolate-rye cookies (his cookies feature rye whiskey in the dough, naughty guy). Whole-Grain Mornings author Megan Gordon has been going to town with rye flour as well, baking up rye hazelnut brownies and chocolate-rye muffins inspired by the Dan Lepard cookbook Short & Sweet.

I know what you’re asking: what is rye flour anyway? The plant itself, like barley and wheat, is part of the grass family, but it’s the grain portion of all these grasses that we humans use for milling, baking, and—yep!—making rye whiskey. Depending on how much of the whole grain is removed during the milling process, you’ll end up with a different variety of rye flour:

  • Dark rye, or pumpernickel, retains all the bran and the germ, giving it the darkest color and strongest flavor when baked.
  • Medium rye doesn’t have the germ but keeps some of the bran; this is the stuff that makes the classic rye bread you’ll find holding Reuben sandwiches together.
  • Light or white rye has been stripped of both the bran and germ; it’s the rye equivalent of white whole wheat flour, giving you the taste without the deep color and dense texture.

Note that rye flour is not gluten-free, though its protein structure makes it trickier to bake bread with than regular wheat flour. According to PJ Hamel of King Arthur Flour, “rye is higher in protein than wheat, but its protein isn’t the gluten-forming kind.” This means that rye flour doesn’t create the crucial elastic strands that help yeast breads and baked goods rise and keep their shape. And this is why you’ll always see a wheat flour included as an ingredient for rye breads; it’s there, literally, for support!

malted chocolate rye cake, via

Photo: Casey Barber

For cookies and cakes, which don’t rely on yeast or kneading to bring out the gluten in flour, this isn’t so much of a problem. In fact, it’s kind of nice, because rye flour’s unique protein-and-starch combination imparts a moist and almost fudgey crumb to baked goods. And because it’s got a higher percentage of natural sugars than whole wheat flour, the bittersweet taste of rye pairs really well with comparable flavors like semisweet chocolate, candied citrus, and molasses-sweetened desserts.

In the recipe that follows, I’ve tested the waters by pairing rye flour with another funky baked good favorite: malted milk powder. The two team up to make a curiously tasty cake; it’s got hints of bitterness, a slight tang, and a delicate but dense brownie-ish texture. Paired with over-the-top frosting—Baked‘s famous whipped caramel chocolate ganache—the savory undertones of the cake meet their match.

Rye flour isn’t a flavor for everyone’s palate, but it’s a fun (and healthful!) ingredient to experiment with. Try substituting it for half the regular all-purpose flour in your favorite baked good recipes and see what you think of this new take on a classic whole grain.

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  1. says

    Loved learning more about rye flour and this cakes sounds amazing! I’ve never really thought to use rye outside the traditional bread application. This decadent cake seems like something I MUST try. Ya know, for science.

    • Casey BarberCasey Barber says

      Joan, there’s still half a batch of frosting left in our fridge if you’re feeling bake-y next week…