A Baking Tradition — Swedish Rye Bread

23 Dec

Once or twice over the course of this blog’s short existence I’ve written about some of my traditional family recipes.  If there was an urtext that was the ultimate and prototypical family recipe growing up, then it was the recipe for Swedish Rye Bread.  My mother’s family is 100% German and my father’s is correspondingly 100% Swedish.  So, one might naturally think that it was my father responsible for introducing and making this bread.

Reality however is much less clear.  It was an ongoing debate in my house as to whether my mother or father is responsible for learning this recipe from my Grandmother on the Swedish side.  Each one claims credit for the original making of the bread.  I, not wanting to get in the middle of such an amusing (and not entirely in jest) feud, will take no position.  Not that I really have any basis to weigh in with my opinion anyway.

A list of ingredients: the only thing resembling a recipe that we have for Swedish Rye Bread.

A list of ingredients: the only thing resembling a recipe that we have for Swedish Rye Bread.

Swedish rye bread is a quintessential family recipe in truest sense.  There’s no written recipe that exists (until now); everything resides in my mother’s memory.  There is however a list of ingredients—but, as you’ll see, even that is in part more of a guideline than anything else.

Making Swedish rye bread is quite an undertaking as well. And it makes five loaves of bread.  So usually it’s a special treat reserved for holidays—Thanksgiving and Christmas specifically.  It used to be that we’d also make up several  batches of Swedish rye bread to give away as Christmas gifts as well.  A gift of bread was always quite welcome.  And we had to start giving at least one set of family friends two loaves instead of just one.  I had a friend who would eat it all so quickly that if we didn’t give her her own loaf the rest of the family wouldn’t ever get any.  That’s how you know I’m not exaggerating when I say this bread is great.

The ingredients follow, but they only get you halfway there. (If that.)

1 quart water, boiling

1/2 cup shortening

2 tablespoons salt

1/2 cup white sugar

3/4 cup light brown sugar

1/2 cup molasses

2 cups rye flour

2 packages yeast (dissolved in 1/2 cup warm water)

White flour (varies, but between 10 and 12 cups)

So that’s the ingredients.  But before I begin with the mixing instructions, I’ll warn you: you’ll need a big bowl.  I asked my mother, and she said before she had a big enough one, she used a 6 quart pot to mix it up in. So that gives you an idea of the size you’ll need.

The recipe starts easily enough.  It’s at the end where things get a little tricky.  If you’ve seen this bread made then it really isn’t that difficult.  If you haven’t however, some of the subjectivity inherent in the instructions may be a bit puzzling the first time you do.

1. Place shortening in a large bowl.

2. Add boiling water to the shortening and stir until the shortening is fully melted.

Shortening and boiling water, the the middle of of the melting process.

Shortening and boiling water, in the middle of of the melting process.

3. Add the white sugar, light brown sugar, molasses and rye flour.  Stir together and let sit for a couple of minutes to cool.

4. Meanwhile, dissolve the yeast in 1/2 cup warm water.  Add the yeast to the sugar/flour mixture.

Everything mixed together, waiting for the yeast to start forming bubbles.

Everything mixed together, waiting for the yeast to start forming bubbles.

5. Let everything sit until bubbles begin to form on the surface of the mixture.

6. Add white flour.  Begin by adding about 4 cups or so.  Stir together.  Continue adding white flour, two or three cups at a time, until it becomes difficult to stir into the dough. (This should happen around the seven to nine cup mark.)


The dough, after about eight cups of flour.

7. HEAVILY flour your kneading surface. The dough will still be quite sticky.  Use lots of flour, don’t worry about using too much, as you’ll need to keep adding white flour to the dough anyway.

8. Knead the dough until smooth, adding flour as needed.  The dough should still be slightly sticky when you’re done.

Well-kneaded dough.

Well-kneaded dough.

9. Place the dough into an oiled bowl, turning until it is coated on all sides.

10. Cover and let rise for a couple of hours, until it has risen significantly.

The dough has risen, it has risen indeed.

The dough has risen, it has risen indeed.

11. Spray five bread pans with cooking spray.

12. Lightly flour the counter.  Punch down the bread.  Turn it out onto the counter and knead just  enough to smooth it out.

13. Break off a ball of dough. Knead it briefly.  Shape it into a loaf shape and place into one of the sprayed bread pans.  Repeat until the remaining bread pans are filled.


14. Cover and let rise for another couple of hours.

(At this point, my grandmother apparently would poke the loaves with a fork.  My mother intermittently does and does not do so.  It’s not clear if this matters.  My mother says it makes no difference in the finished product—other than to leave holes on the top of your bread.)

15. Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes. (If you have a big enough oven, you can bake them all at the same time.  You’ll have to be the judge.  Just don’t over crowd your oven.)

16. Remove from the pan as soon as you take it out of the oven and let cool on racks.  When it’s still slightly warm, place it into Ziploc bags but don’t fully seal it until it is cool. (This seems to help keep it moist.)


So there you have it: my family’s tradition and secret recipe for Swedish Rye Bread.  It makes for amazing toast.  If that’s what you’re doing with it, all you really need is just a little bit of butter to make it perfect. (The first time she tried it, Tania attempted to *shudder* put jelly on her toast.  While permissible—I suppose—once you’ve had it before, adulterating your Swedish rye bread toast with anything that would mask its own flavors is entirely unacceptable upon first tasting. Just keep that in mind.) In circumstances other than toast, go crazy with the toppings and condiments.  This makes especially go sandwiches for leftover Thanksgiving turkey or Christmas ham.

Not to mention one pretty mean peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

The notes I took while making Swedish rye bread in advance of this blog.  It is the only written recipe that I know of that exists for this bread.

The notes I took while making Swedish rye bread in advance of this blog. It is the only written recipe that I know of that exists for this bread.


4 Responses to “A Baking Tradition — Swedish Rye Bread”

  1. Hope December 26, 2012 at 3:23 pm #

    I had forgotten about the rye bread and now realize I can’t have it anymore now that I am Glutten Free. Maybe I would have to treat it like the fortune cookie like I did when you and Tania were here. It would be worth the risk.

    Aunt Hope


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