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.
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!
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.
Malted Chocolate Rye Cake
Prep time: 20 minutes for the cake
Total time: 1 hour for the cake plus cooling and frosting time
Makes 1 double-layer 9-inch cake
- 1 cup (120 grams) unbleached all-purpose flour
- 1 cup (120 grams) medium rye flour
- 1/2 cup (70 grams) malted milk powder
- 1/2 cup (42 grams) cocoa powder
- 1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1 1/2 cups milk
- 1/4 cup organic canola oil
- 8 tablespoons (1 stick; 113 grams) unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
- 1 1/2 cups (300 grams) granulated sugar
- 3 large eggs
- 1/2 batch of Baked’s caramel chocolate ganache frosting or your favorite chocolate frosting. (or cream cheese frosting!)
Preheat the oven to 350˚F. Grease two 9-inch round cake pans or spritz them with nonstick baking spray.
Whisk the all-purpose and rye flours, malted milk powder, cocoa powder, baking soda, and salt together in a medium bowl. Set aside.
Whisk the milk and canola oil together in a 2-cup liquid measuring cup and set aside.
With an electric hand mixer or stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the butter and sugar together on medium speed for 3-4 minutes. Reduce the speed to low and add the eggs one at a time, mixing until each is fully incorporated before adding the next.
Add a third of the reserved flour mixture, stirring just until it’s incorporated, then add half the milk mixture. Repeat with another third of the flour, the remaining milk, and finally the remaining flour.
Divide the batter evenly between the two prepared pans and bake for 40-45 minutes, until a cake tester or toothpick inserted into the center of each cake comes out clean.
Let the cakes cool in their pans on two wire racks for 15 minutes. Slide a knife or spatula around the perimeter of each cake and carefully invert to remove from the pans. (The cakes will be very delicate!)
Allow the cakes to cool completely before frosting.