German Sourdough Rye Bread

Preparation info

  • Difficulty


  • Makes


    large loaves

Appears in

Making Bread at Home

Making Bread at Home

By Tom Jaine

Published 2005

  • About

This is a combination bread, using the rising-power of two forms of fermentation: lactic, from the spontaneous fermentation of flour and water with help from wild yeasts - this gives the sour flavour; and alcoholic, from the compressed yeast that we use every day to raise conventional yeasted doughs.

The sourness complements the flavour of rye: one reason for using a sour culture when making rye breads. Rye does not have as much gluten as wheat, hence it benefits from being combined with wheat to make a lighter loaf. There are certain pentosans in rye which make it seem sticky or gluey when being worked. One solution is to knead the dough with wetted hands. The cleaner you keep hands and work surface, the easier kneading will be.

The natural composition of rye flour also means that rye bread is best a day or two old. If you slice it too fresh, the knife glues up and drags across the cut surface. It is wrong to expect rye to make a very airy, light loaf, so slices should be as thin as possible to enhance the bread’s tenderness. ‘Doorsteps’ of rye are all wrong.

I have always followed the advice of my friend Rolf Peter Weichhold, who grinds his own flour in a windmill built on the medieval town walls of Xanten in northern Germany and then bakes it in an oven deep in the fortifications below, that you should start from scratch with this recipe. There is no need to carry over starters or ferments from one batch to the next, although you can set up a routine to do this if you want. This is a three-day recipe, starting from scratch.


Days 1-2: the starter

  • 60 g/2 oz stoneground wholemeal rye flour
  • 60 ml/2 fl oz warm water at 43°C/110°F
  • pinch of caraway seeds

Day 3, 9.00 am: the leaven

  • 300 ml/10 fl oz warm water at 43°C/110°F
  • 2 tablespoons of the starter
  • 300 g/10 oz stoneground wholemeal rye flour

Day 3, 5.00 pm: The Dough

  • 500 g/1 lb 2 oz finely ground wholemeal wheat flour
  • 300 g/10 oz stoneground wholemeal rye flour, plus extra rye flour or rye flakes for rolling
  • 15 g/½ oz fresh yeast
  • 400 ml/14 oz warm water at 43°C/110°F
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • the ripe leaven


  1. To make the starter, mix the 60 g/2 oz rye flour and the 60 ml/2 fl oz water in a bowl, add the caraway seeds and knead with the fingertips to make a dough. Place it in a glass jar and cover with a piece of greaseproof paper. Leave it in a warm place (26°C/80°F) for 2 days, stirring with a teaspoon twice a day. As it begins to ferment, it will rise and form a domed top. Then the top will flatten, then sink to leave a shallow crater. It is ripe when the top is risen, but flat. It can be refrigerated at this point, and will hold for several days.
  2. On day 3 in the morning, prepare the leaven. Mix the warm water and 2 tablespoons of the starter to a soup. Add the flour handful by handful, mixing all the while. Leave it in a bowl covered with a cloth for about 8 hours, at about 29°C/85°F. When it is ripe, it should taste pleasantly sour.
  3. After 8 hours, make the dough. Warm a mixing bowl and warm the flours. Cream the yeast in a small amount of the warm water. Mix the flours and the salt and make a well in the centre, then add the leaven, the creamed yeast and most of the remaining water. Mix to a dough and leave for 10 minutes in a warm spot, covered. Mix again, adding the last of the water, if necessary. The dough should not be too wet. Turn it on to a floured work surface and knead for at least 10 minutes.
  4. Leave the dough to rise in a bowl covered with clingfilm in a warm place (29°C/85°F) for about 1½ hours, until nearly doubled in size.
  5. Turn out on to the lightly floured work surface, knock back and divide into two. Mould the pieces into balls. Grease one 2 kg/4 lb loaf tin, or two 1 kg/2 lb tins. If using a large tin, the balls may be tinned as they are, moistening the tops and rolling them in rye flour or flakes before being placed touching each other in the tin. If using smaller loaf tins, flatten the balls on the work surface, fold the right and left sides of the circle to meet at the centre, turn the shape round so that the long edge faces you and roll up towards you, pinching the join with the heel of hand and thumb as you roll. Moisten the top and roll in rye flour or flakes.
  6. Cover the tins with oiled clingfilm and leave to prove for about 30-45 minutes. Meanwhile, heat the oven to 230°C/450°F/gas 8.
  7. If baking in the large tin, bake the bread on an upper shelf for 20 minutes, spraying the loaves with water three times in the first 5 minutes. Reduce the oven temperature to 200°C/400°/gas 6 and bake for a further 20 minutes, then reduce the temperature to 180°C/350°F/gas 4 and bake for a final 20 minutes. If using the smaller tins, reduce the 20 minute periods to 15 minutes. The loaves are cooked when they sound hollow if tapped. Cool on a wire rack.