My Goals

  • More rye flavor

  • Balanced structure and tenderness

  • Shaped for sandwiches

  • Well-risen loaf

  • Soft, pliable crust with sheen

Ask people what they think is the epitome of a deli sandwich, and I’d bet most would say pastrami on rye. I’d agree that it’s one of the best uses of rye out there, but deli rye is also great for grilled cheese or even just spread with butter and sprinkled with flaky salt. But a good loaf isn’t always easy to come by.

Unlike German and Scandinavian rye breads, which are dark, crumbly, and dense, American deli rye relies on the addition of wheat flour to make a loaf that is lighter in both color and texture. A great loaf should have a fine, even crumb and a tender-yet-sturdy texture that will hold up under sandwich fillings. It’s usually a torpedo-shaped free-form loaf, but unlike the crust on a rustic loaf, this loaf’s crust should be soft and pliable. And what about the flavor? Caraway seed’s anise-like flavor is strongly associated with deli rye, but try a loaf without caraway and you’ll notice that rye’s flavor is actually fairly similar to that of very fresh wheat flour, but it’s sweeter and lacks the bitter edge.

I tried a handful of recipes, most of which produced bread that was either too dense, dry, or crumbly, or too light on rye flavor and more like regular white or wheat bread. Some loaves were also far too small for sandwich-making.

Many of the recipes we tried produced breads that were either too dense or too light and ate more like packaged sandwich bread. What we wanted was a tender crumb and slices big and sturdy enough to hold a pile of fixings.

Flour Power

To fashion my own recipe, I combined 2 cups of bread flour, 1 cup of medium rye flour, yeast, water, and molasses in a stand mixer. I kneaded this until a loose dough formed, and then I let it sit for 20 minutes. This resting stage, known as an autolyse, helps a dough build structure. I figured I needed the insurance since the test loaves I had made were in need of more. I then added the salt and continued kneading until a smooth dough formed. I took it out, gave it a few more kneads, shaped it into a ball, and transferred it to a bowl to proof for a couple of hours, until it had doubled in size. I shaped it into a log, covered it, and allowed it to proof again until it had nearly doubled. I scored it with a sharp knife every inch or so across the top and baked it in a 375-degree oven for about an hour.

Rye flour contains less protein and more carbohydrates than wheat flour, which alters the way it handles and bakes. Perfecting our loaf’s flavor and texture would take some careful calculation of ingredient ratios and hydration levels.

This loaf wasn’t horrible, but it was a bit light on rye flavor, the slashes were too deep, and the crumb was a bit tight. In addition, the crust lacked an appealing sheen and was somewhat tough, and the loaf was too narrow.

My first change was increasing the proportion of rye flour to wheat flour. But as the percentage of rye flour increased, the density and dryness of the loaf did, too. Here’s the thing about working with rye flour: It doesn’t contain the proteins that exist in wheat flour that form gluten, the elastic network that gives bread structure and allows it to hold the carbon dioxide produced during fermentation. On top of that, rye does contain carbohydrates called arabinoxylans, which you don’t find in wheat flour. They allow rye flour to absorb four times as much water as wheat flour. You might think this would make a loaf more moist, but in reality more water gets bound up by the flour, producing a loaf that tastes drier. This explains why German- and Scandinavian-style rye breads, made with 100 percent rye flour, are so dense and why wheat flour is key in deli rye.

For a moister loaf, the fix is obvious: Add more water. But there’s a limit; you can add only so much water before the gluten is too dilute and the loaf lacks structure. After tinkering with the amounts, I hit the limit: 13⅓ ounces of water and 8¼ ounces of rye flour (at least 10 percent more than most recipes call for) with 12½ ounces of bread flour.

Now my bread was moist and had nice rye flavor, but the crumb was a bit too chewy. In many breads, this can be attributed to the formation of too much gluten. Bread flour is comparatively high in gluten, and I didn’t want to change my proportion of wheat flour to rye flour, so I tried swapping an equal amount of lower-protein all-purpose flour for the bread flour. This was too far in the other direction—now the loaf didn’t have enough structure. King Arthur all-purpose flour, which lands midway between most all-purpose flours and bread flours in terms of gluten, was just right. To further tenderize the loaf, I also added a little vegetable oil.

Shaping Up

A technique for shaping the loaf evenly ensures that the bread bakes up into a classic torpedo shape suitable for sandwich slices.

To fix the narrow width of my loaf, I reevaluated the shaping process. Instead of rolling the dough up like a carpet to form a log, which produced small tapered ends, I came up with an approach that relied on a series of folds to produce a loaf of even size from end to end.

Slashing a loaf before baking allows it to expand evenly in the oven, so the fact that the slashes remained as gouges in the finished bread meant the crumb wasn’t expanding much. I looked at factors that might affect oven spring, the rapid rise in volume that yeast breads experience when they enter a hot oven. First, I added steam by pouring boiling water into a preheated pan at the bottom of the oven. The steam, which transfers heat to the loaf more quickly than dry air does, keeps the loaf’s exterior soft during the initial stages of baking so that it can expand easily.

Second, I looked at the oven temperature; I decided to increase it from 375 to 450. With these changes, the slashes smoothed out considerably and the crumb opened up, giving me a less dense interior. Adding the extra oomph of a preheated baking stone was all it took to finish the job.

A simple cornstarch wash brushed on the loaf after baking gives it a pleasing sheen and keeps the crust supple.

As for the dull, tough crust, many recipes call for brushing the loaf with an egg wash before baking. This produces an attractive sheen, but the crust will still be tough. I used an alternative approach: a cooked cornstarch wash brushed on after baking. The starch produced a good sheen, and because it was brushed on after baking, the moisture helped soften the crust.

With a top-notch deli rye at the ready, I just needed to find some worthy pastrami.

More Heat = Better Spring

For a well-risen loaf with an open crumb and a smooth crust, it’s crucial to maximize oven spring, the rapid rise in volume that yeast breads experience when they first go into a hot oven. We found that three adjustments made all the difference.

Keys to Success

  • More rye flavor

    Since rye flour sucks up moisture and creates a drier loaf, we add more water than most recipes call for so that we can also add more rye flour. A little vegetable oil also helps keep the crumb tender.
  • Balanced structure and tenderness

    The addition of some wheat flour is key to deli rye recipes. Many recipes call for bread flour, but we found that it made for a too-chewy crumb. King Arthur all-purpose flour, which has fewer gluten-forming proteins than bread flour does, provides sufficient structure and a tender crumb.
  • Shaped for sandwiches

    To make a hefty, rounded loaf that works well for sandwiches, we use 4 cups of flour and shape the loaf using a series of folds rather than by rolling it up log-style.
  • Well-risen loaf

    For a tall loaf with an open crumb and a smooth crust, we give the loaf a burst of heat at the start of baking using steam, a preheated baking stone, and a very hot 450-degree oven.
  • Soft, pliable crust with sheen

    Instead of the typical prebake egg wash, which gives the crust sheen but leaves it tough, we brush the loaf with a cooked cornstarch wash after it is baked, which makes it glossy and soft.