Rye is closely related and very similar in appearance to wheat, save for the bluish-gray color of the grain itself. Rye likely originated in Asia, and spread westward as a weed. It was eventually recognized as a food plant and was first cultivated in Eastern Europe during the 4th century BCE.
Rye thrives where it is too wet and cold for other grains. It’s been widely consumed in Scandinavia, Eastern Europe, and Russia for hundreds of years. In the United States, rye was introduced by British and Dutch settlers in colonial New England. For years, New Englanders ate rye as a cereal grain, like rice or barley.
During the 1900s, rye production decreased considerably both here and abroad. Although still favored for bread making in Scandinavia and parts of Eastern Europe, today the grain ranks eighth among cereal crops in world production. In the United States, only a quarter of the annual crop is set aside for human food. Indeed, most Americans have never eaten rye except in commercial bread and crackers. The rest of the rye crop is used for the production of rye whiskey and other spirits, as well as for animal feed.
In addition to its hearty taste, rye is highly nutritious. Rye provides protein, lots of fiber, B vitamins, and high amounts of the antioxidant mineral selenium.
Types of rye
Whole-rye products have more nutrients than refined rye-flour. Here are common types of rye you may find in the stores.
- Cracked rye: This type of rye cooks more quickly than whole rye kernels. It can be added to soups, or cooked and eaten as a pilaf or hot cereal.
- Rye flakes: These resemble rolled oats and are made by the same process. The berries are heated and then pressed with steel rollers. Like oatmeal, rye flakes can be cooked as a hot breakfast cereal or mixed into yeast bread, quick bread, and muffin recipes.
- Rye flour: In combination with wheat flour, rye flour is most commonly used in rye bread. Light, medium, and dark varieties are available, with dark having the strongest flavor. Light rye flour may be labeled “bolted,” which means the flour has been sifted to remove the bran and germ. Dark rye flours are often “unbolted,” and so contain a good deal more fiber. When adding rye flour to bread recipes, use less of the dark flour than you would of the light flour, or the flavor will be too dominant. Rye does contain some gluten.
- Whole rye berries: Also called whole kernels or groats, rye berries resemble wheat berries, and can be cooked just like them.