Whole loaves of rye breads from San Francisco bakeries. (Wendy Goodfriend)
As a born and bred Jewish New Yorker, I recently satisfied my craving for rye bread by exploring six East Bay bakeries. But with Passover over, I decided to cross the bridge to see what kind of rye San Francisco had to offer. During this bread adventure, I found four more guide-worthy bakeries making quality loaves.
Having lived half my life in the Bay Area, I've developed a California conscience about knowing where my food comes from. And, in my quest for satisfying my appetite, it has become equally important to know the best business practices of companies supplying products I crave, and ultimately purchase.
So, in searching for rye bread, besides taste, texture, and loaf longevity; I also wanted to know about the bakeries choices regarding: source and quality of ingredients, environmentally-conscious production processes, benefits for employees and hiring practices, community involvement, and altruistic endeavors. My intention was to not only satisfy my yen but to also support local bakeries doing the right thing.
I was open to exploring and tasting a variety of types beyond the classic Jewish deli rye and found a range of styles originating from mostly European countries. I woke up to the fact that rye bread is not synonymous with the taste of caraway and there are cultural and environmental influences that determine flavor, density and digestibility.
Tartine co-owner and baker Chad Robertson shared that for the past five to seven years he has been inspired by a modern grain resurgence that has dominated the bread landscape- a movement to bring back heirloom and ancient grains. He went to Denmark where heirloom Nordic grains were being revived, specifically varieties of rye popular with Danish culture and the open-faced sandwiches known as smørrebrød (essentially, a Danish tartine). He loved the idea of this culinary trend but realized the bread was hard on his digestion. He discovered that sprouting the rye alleviated these problems and this realization along with the recipe from his Danish chef friend, René’s Bolvig, became the inspiration for the Seeded Sprouted Rye available at Tartine (the recipe is called René’s Rye and is available in his book, Tartine Book No.3.)
Tasting the Rye
The rye tasting was based on sampling the fresh bread plain and then tasting it as toast with unsalted butter. I was curious about flavor, consistency, the relationship between crust and crumb, the effect of toasting the bread, and loaf longevity. After three days of storage, using Josey Baker’s advice on How To Love Your Loaf, the breads were assessed for level of freshness and eat-ability – both plain and toasted.
What's In It Rye Bread: Organic whole dark rye flour, organic wheat flour, organic whole wheat flour, water, sea salt, caraway seeds. Price: $5.25
Why Buy This Rye
Noe Valley Bakery's Rye Bread is a fairly dense sour-based rye with a thick crust, chewy crumb, and strong but not too intense caraway flavor. According to co-owner/baker Michael Gassen, the rye is styled to resemble a good German rye, satisfy his wife's and mother-in-law's cravings for rye toast with cream cheese, and please Jewish East Coast transplants who, like me, miss the real deal. The crust was a bit tough when plain but became nice and crunchy when toasted. After day three, the rye was best consumed as toast with butter.
I found the bread scoring on this loaf to be quite attractive and Michael said it functioned to help keep the bread's cylindrical shape. To further maintain its shape, this rye goes through a long retardation (a cold process versus the warm process of fermentation), is free form, and proofed in a couche as opposed to a banneton. The sourdough starter used for this bread dates back to 1983, a blend of Italian Muscat grapes and organic rye flour from Giusto's.
Since the bakery opened, all leftovers have been donated to Mary Risley's Food Runners which collects and distributes food to those in need. Recently, Noe Valley Bakery has started to work with Cathrine Sneed's The Garden Project whose mission is to empower at risk youth by teaching them organic gardening and landscaping skills. The food they grow gets donated to local pantries and the bakery will be contributing the bread portion of that donation. Noe Valley Bakery also does demonstrations and participates in bake sales to support local public schools.
Environmental best practices include working with Recology to recycle and compost. The bakery is conscious of packaging waste and makes sure use compostable materials.
Before San Francisco mandated that small business employers provide healthcare for employees, Noe Valley bakery had already been offering full and part-time employees health benefits since 1994 when the bakery opened. Michael emphasized that the management cares about what is going on, pays attention, and works to fix problems related to conflict amongst employees in the bakery. He talked about how retention has become more difficult in the bakery business due to increased competition and they try to be fair with pay increases, "When minimum wages go up – everyone’s wages go up."
What's In It Jewish Rye Bread: Flour, yeast, sea salt, water, caraway, rye flour, natural starter. Price: $8.00
Why Buy This Rye
Wise Sons Jewish Rye lives up to what it was intended for...a classic sandwich bread to accompany a hefty portion of pastrami or corned beef. The crumb is spongy but not mushy, the cornmeal crust adds some texture to contrast with the soft interior, and the caraway and sour flavors seem just right. The bread uses both yeast as well as natural sourdough starter to help with the leavening and the starter provides good sour flavor. This big loaf makes great toast on day one, as well as on day three.
Co-founder Evan Bloom grew up in Los Angeles eating seeded Jewish corn rye from Bea's Bakery, the inspiration for Wise Sons rye. According to Evan, Bea's is a main bread supplier to many of the famous LA delis.
Evan shared a tip that you can do at home:
"One trick we do in the store is called 'double baking.' When you put a loaf of bread in a plastic bag it tends to get a little soft, so we put the bread into the oven for a few minutes at 400 degrees. That gets the whole loaf extra crunchy on the outside and then when you slice it, you have this nice contrast, and your sandwich is crusty outside and soft inside, which I think is one of the keys to a good pastrami sandwich."
What They Are Doing Right
Wise Sons uses Giusto's peak performer unbleached wheat flour which is a medium gluten bread flour, for their rye. It is not organic. They also use Central Milling flour for the bagels they produce.
The ingredients used for the products are kosher but the baking facility is not. Their green practices include recycling and composting waste.
Wise Sons donates their leftover when they have them to Food Runners and does many local non-profit in-kind donations for auctions and events.
Full comprehensive health insurance is completely covered for all employees. They offer job skills training and teach computer skills to employees who express interest. The company promotes from within whenever possible and compensates at appropriate rates above market rate. Wise Sons also offers a 401k but not many employees have taken advantage of this benefit.
Where To Get It
24th Street Deli: 3150 24th Street, San Francisco MAP
Fillmore Bagel & Bakery: 1520 Fillmore Street, San Francisco MAP
Hayes Valley Bagel & Coffee: 537 Octavia Street, San Francisco MAP
Inside the Contemporary Jewish Museum: 736 Mission St, San Francisco MAP
Josey Baker Bread also sells other breads that contain rye: Whole-Grain Wonder Bread, Molasses Bread, Sesame Seed Bread, JBB Griddle Cake Mix, and 100% Stone Ground Whole Rye Flour (and technically Josey said all the breads have an element of rye in them since a rye sourdough starter is used for all breads)
Why Buy This Rye Dark Mountain Rye
Josey's Dark Mountain Rye is savory and seedy (in a good way). It's a hearty, brawny bread that would be good for survival outings in the woods since it packs some serious loaf longevity. By day three, the rye was still soft enough to eat plain but tasted best toasted with butter. This high fiber, dense bread, is pure rye with no wheat added. The organic rye flour is freshly milled at The Mill and is also available for purchase. Only rye sourdough starter is used to bake all the breads, commercial yeast is not included.
Josey said he was never attracted to Jewish deli-style rye which he called, "white bread with a token of rye and an overpowering amount of caraway." He was inspired by Scandinavian-style ryes like Anna's Daughters' Rye, Kantine Sprouted Rye, as well as Tartine's Danish Seeded Sprouted Rye (featured in this guide).
Red, White & Rye
This hearth (round) loaf is cakey, spongy and has a unique sweet flavor that tastes amazing! When asked about this specific flavor Josey replied, "That’s actually just a naturally occurring flavor of the red wheat that we use, and it pops like that because of the fresh Milling!!"
As toast, the moist crumb remains but the crust is crispier and adds a nice textural contrast. By day three, the bread is not as spongy but is still great $4 toast.
This bread uses the same dough as the Whole-Grain Wonder Bread but the Wonder Bread is baked in a pan. These breads are mostly wheat—a blend of red and white wheat and some rye as well.
What They Are Doing Right
Josey Baker Bread uses all organic flour and grains. The whole grain flours are milled at The Mill and the sifted flour is from Keith Giusto Bakery Supply. Central Milling in Petaluma is the source of whole grain rye and wheat is grown in California by Fritz Durst and Community Grains serves as the matchmaker between JBB and Fritz.
Like Wise Sons and Noe Valley Bakery, Josey Baker Breads donates leftover products to Food Runners. JBB also donates a couple of pizza parties a month and participates in auctions and raffles.
Josey used to be an educator so he is inclined to be supportive to local schools. JBB plans to take on high school interns this summer to give them experience working in a bakery. They have classes several times a week at The Mill and a formal apprenticeship program.
The bakery is green-friendly. Bags are recyclable and for wholesale deliveries large trays are used instead of bags. Sourcing organic ingredients contributes to having environmentally conscious practices. And since they deal mostly with flour and water, natural cleaning products are used.
When discussing employer practices Josey said, "I am proud of our culture and business." JBB provides employees with flexible work schedules, pays 100% healthcare, includes dental and vision for a minimal fee, has a partnership with a yoga studio so employees pay $5 for yoga classes, feeds employees meals during shifts, and has competitive salaries that start above minimum wage. He differentiated his company practices from traditional kitchen culture which he defines as "militaristic, hierarchical, misogynist bullshit." The majority of people on his management team are women and they prioritize to keep shifts at 7-8 hours.
What's In It Danish Style Seeded Sprouted Rye: High-extraction organic spelt flour, organic whole-grain dark rye flour, buttermilk, dark beer, dark malt syrup, water, leaven, fine sea salt, organic sprouted rye berries, sunflower seeds, whole brown flaxseeds, coarsely ground brown flaxseeds, unhulled brown sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds. Price: $13.00
Why Buy This Rye
Tartine's Danish Style Seeded Sprouted Rye is dense, sweet and nutty. It is great plain as thinly sliced bread but even better as warm toast spread with melted sweet butter. This sprouted rye tastes healthy and did not bother my stomach. By day three, the plain version was a bit drier but as toast it was still delicious.
What They Are Doing Right
According to co-owner/baker Chad Robertson, all the ingredients at Tartine are organic. The bakery is in partnership with a mill and a farming collective. Two mills work closely together in Washington and Oregon - Camas is in Oregon, they are farmer millers and grow a lot of grains for Tartine, mill it fresh and ship it every two weeks. Cairnspring Mills in Skagit Valley Washington is one of the richest grain-growing regions in the world with amazing soil. Tartine is building a similar network on the East Coast where they will be expanding next year.
Breads are not certified kosher but they may seek out certification at some point.
Tartine does not typically have a lot of leftovers but when they do they donate goods to shelters that distribute food. The bakery is supportive to schools, The Edible Schoolyard Project, and other local community charity organizations. Tartine also provides bakery and pastry donations, gift certificates, and school tours to demonstrate the baking process in action.
Regarding environmental-friendly practices, Chad explains that the city of San Francisco provides business incentives to separate out recycled and compostable materials as well as increase the use of compostable products. All of Tartine's to-go containers are compostable.
In San Francisco, it is the law to provide healthcare to small business employees and Tartine has been offering the basic requirements: healthcare, paid sick leave, and maternity leave for quite some time. Chad claims they had been providing competitive salaries and were already paying above minimum wage when rates increased.
The program that Chad was most excited to talk about was the exchange program with South Korea and Japan. Tartine just opened up in Seoul and they are opening up in Tokyo later this year. They have an exchange program in place where Japanese and Korean bakers come to California to learn from the team in the United States and then bakers from the California team travel to Tokyo or Seoul to collaborate with the teams in Asia.
Chad said, "For me that is something I really love. I have been doing that for a decade and I really wanted to make that opportunity available to my staff. It helps you grow – it helps anyone grow. The more you can travel and see different parts of the world, and the ways that people work, and the things that people make, along with different styles of doing things, it makes life much richer."
Chad also shared that the Asian teams are being creative, incorporating culturally specific Korean and Japanese ingredients into the Tartine breads they bake. And like the Scandinavian influence we are appreciating via the Seeded Sprouted Rye, Tartine plans to introduce the Bay Area to new breads influenced by the tastes and flavors of Korea and Japan.
Final Note: Rye Love
Through this rye exploration, I became aware of the relationship bakers have to their sourdough starter. There is a love connection that spans the time of an intimate and meaningful relationship. The starter is a living organism involved in the birth of their products, co-creating something precious, sacred and unique.
When Evan Bloom was told he had 10 minutes to go inside the commissary bakery fire in the Mission and take only what he needed, the eight-year old starter was at the top of the list.
Michael Gassen has been using the three starters: white, rye and wheat he initiated in 1993 which form the foundation of the breads and business he shares with his wife, Mary.
Josey Baker proudly said: “If you want to get technical about it, rye is in all of our breads because our sourdough culture is a 100% whole grain rye, so the seed from which all of our breads are made is a whole grain rye seed. Rye is at the heart of our bakery.”
What was heartwarming to me was the bakers I spoke with all seemed to love their work. Their passion for the craft was reflected in the products as well as their practices. Most were invested in supporting education – both in the community as well as in their businesses. And this sense of nurturance and altruism extended to what they do on a daily basis – feeding people, creating a sense of family amongst their workers, and dough-nating to others in need.