Rye Flour Classification: Untangling the Mess

 

Rye flours and meals
Rye flours (top row, left to right): white , light, medium, wholegrain, dark
Rye meal (bottom row, left to right): rye kernels, coarse, medium, fine

Note: This article first appeared in the Fall, 2017 issue of Bread Lines, the quarterly newsletter of the Bread Baker’s Guild of America.

When I buy a bag of wheat flour, I pretty much know what I’m getting. We’re a wheat-eating nation, and although there are no formal standards for wheat flour grading, the milling industry has reached a marketing consensus that puts everyone on the same page. So no matter who milled it, I can be confident that my bag of bread flour will contain 12-13% protein and 0.50-0.53%ash, my H&R/AP flour will come in at10.5-12% protein and 0.52-0.53% ash, my soft wheat cake flour will measure at 8.0-9.5 percent protein and 0.42-0.45% ash, and so on down the line for any other flour I might need. There are few, if any, surprises.

Rye is another matter entirely. Because of limited production and even more limited bakery demand, it’s been relegated to the status of “specialty grain” and left to individual millers to decide what to call it when they bring it to market. As a result, there is neither consensus nor consistency in grading rye flours. To cite a couple of examples, Bob’s Red Mill organic dark rye is the same flour that King Arthur sells as organic wholegrain rye. Meanwhile, KA’s organic dark rye, from which some endosperm has been removed, comes in at a stated ash content of 1.4%, versus 1.3% for its wholegrain rye, while Bay State’s dark rye, at a stated 2.4% ash, is the rye equivalent of first clear flour – that is, what’s left after the lighter grades are sifted out.

Grind is also an area of confusion. Most millers market their finest grind as flour and refer to coarser grinds as meal; however, some don’t. Last spring, when I gave a two-day BBGA rye workshop, I requested a couple of bags of medium rye flour. Accordingly, our sponsor went out and bought 100 pounds of Montana Milling medium rye, which seemed coarser and not quite like the General Mills/Bay State medium rye flour I was used to working with.

It turns out – as I discovered while researching this article – that Montana Milling produces only wholegrain rye and grades it according to the fineness of the grind. In other words, that “medium rye,” I’d been expecting (1.25% ash, 9.7% protein), turned out to be wholegrain rye (1.50% ash, 7.8% protein), milled into a coarser grind than I was expecting. Not a huge difference in the grand scheme of things, but different enough to affect the flavor, crumb and dough behavior of the breads we made.

And then there’s the matter of “pumpernickel.” Like ash content, the coarseness of grind affects absorbency, rheology (mixing characteristics), crumb density and mouth feel, and different grinds produce different results. A pumpernickel made with King Arthur’s Dark Pumpernickel Flour, which is a fine rye meal, is a very different bread from one made with Bob’s Red Mill Pumpernickel Dark Rye Meal, a coarser grind equivalent to medium rye meal. And both are radically different from the pumpernickels I make using coarse rye meal. Without a clear standard, the descriptor “pumpernickel” doesn’t help us.

Moisture content, which reflects the practice of tempering grain before it’s milled, is another area of confusion. Where wheat is tempered to a standard 14%, rye’s “standard” moisture content can range anywhere from under 11% to 14%, depending on the miller and the product. For example, for Bay State’s dark rye comes in at 11% moisture, while its wholegrain contains 14%, its medium rye 13% and its white rye 13.5%. Meanwhile General Mills white rye contains 14% and its medium rye 13.5% and Montana Milling’s wholegrain ryes come in at 10.97%. In real world terms, this means that it’s impossible to arrive at a true apples-to-apples comparison of ash and protein content without having to recalculate the percentages*. To muddy the waters even further, a lot of the mills I’ve contacted, notably Ardent Milling (formerly ConAgra), King Arthur, Central Milling and Bob’s Red Mill, don’t even routinely provide that information.

All of which only creates confusion and inconsistent results among bakers who want to add more rye breads to their repertoires.

In Europe, where rye bread is much more common, government bureaus are tasked with establishing clear and consistent flour grading standards. And unlike US flours, which are based protein content, European millers grade their flours according to ash content at 0% moisture. Not only does ash-based grading communicate a flour’s relative extraction rate and fiber content, but also the kind of absorbency, dough behavior and flavor intensity I can expect.

The confusion has gone on for too long, making things complicated where they ought to be simple. To address the labeling dilemma (and make bakers’ lives easier), I propose that the milling industry adopt a consistent standard modeled on Europe’s 0% moisture ash and protein guidelines. Such a rye standard might look like this:

Grade Moisture Ash Protein
White

0%

0.00-1.00%

6.5-8.5%

Light

0%

1.01-1.30%

8.o-9.0%

Medium

0%

1.31-1.60%

9.o-10.o%

Wholegrain

0%

1.61-1.80%

9.o-10.5%

Dark

0%

2.00%-3.00%

12.o%-14.o%

Adopting this kind of standard doesn’t require a great deal of work on the millers’ part, since they already have the analytical data at hand. And it will go a long, long way in helping the bakers who are their primary customers.

* To calculate a flour’s ash content at 0% moisture, divide the ash percentages by 100% minus the moisture percentage. Thus, to find the ash content of Bay State’s wholegrain rye, which is 1.50% at 14% moisture, divide 1.50% by 100%-14%=86%, giving ash content of 1.74% at 0% moisture. Find protein the same way.


14 Comments

  • Sabine FriedrichWalter

    September 24, 2017

    Thank you for the Rye Classification in the USA, but I must say the medium Rye I got in my first order had the consistency like bulgur. The last order look like more crushed as chopped.. I might by a flour mill to make my own Rye meal for my German Rye breads. Thank you

    Reply
    • Stanley Ginsberg

      September 24, 2017

      I’ve found a lot of inconsistency in rye flours, both in terms of its appearance and behavior. In part, I suspect that it has to do with the fact that, because it’s such a marginal crop, very few millers strive for the consistency that’s characteristic of wheat patent flours. Instead of blending, they simply mill whatever is available — assuming it falls within their rather wide specification ranges — and ship it out. Perhaps when US bakers demand more and better classification things will change. For now, it’s a pretty confusing landscape.

      Reply
  • Ted Fichtenholtz

    September 24, 2017

    I thank you for clearifing the different level of protein in each flour.
    Since we don’t use “ash” to grade flours why use that as a value especially since it is not printed on labels.

    Reply
    • Stanley Ginsberg

      September 24, 2017

      Ted, since rye is non gluten-forming, the protein content is nice to have, but doesn’t provide insight into how the dough will behave. Ash, on the other hand, is indicative of extraction rate, relative absorbency and flavor. Put another way, the biggest hurdle a lot of wheat bakers have is the expectation that rye will behave in the same way. It doesn’t; rather, rye’s unique starch-based dough chemistry dictates its own set of rules that need to be respected in order to achieve consistently good results.

      Reply
      • Ted Fichtenholtz

        September 24, 2017

        Thanks for the answer. I still don’t know why the ash rating is not put on the bags of flour.
        It would help bakers

        Reply
  • Bette

    September 24, 2017

    Great article. Explains a lot. Standardization would definitely help.

    Reply
  • MaryJo

    September 24, 2017

    Thank you, thank you, thank you! I was really annoyed about the similar labels but wildly different products between brands that I tried/

    Reply
  • Dan

    September 25, 2017

    Is there a way for home millers, who are willing to sift, to approximate the grades/types of flours in your formulas? I guess another way to put it would be is, are extraction rates reliably correlated to ash percentages?

    Reply
    • Stanley Ginsberg

      September 25, 2017

      That’s a tricky one. I think the closest approximation would be to mill a known quantity of grain, then weigh the output to establish how much remains in the mill. I’d then put it through a 60 mesh screen and weigh the bolted flour, divide it by the original amount, and that should give you an approximate extraction rate. If you want higher extraction, I suggest putting the material in the sieve through the mill once more, then bolting it a second time.

      As for grades and extraction rates, use 65-70% for white rye flour 80% for light rye, and 85% for medium rye. Wholegrain rye is obviously 100% extraction.

      Reply
  • wardo

    September 26, 2017

    Where does Hodgson Mills Organic whole-grain rye flour fit into all of this?

    Reply
    • Stanley Ginsberg

      September 26, 2017

      I think in this case the name is both accurate and self-explanatory.

      Reply
      • Caroline

        September 29, 2017

        It may be self explanatory as to the name but in actual appearance and texture, I would classify it as an EXTRA fine rye meal-a category that is unique. It is definitely closer to the meal than the flour categories shown.

        Again, I am so grateful you published this article. I wish there were more standard varieties of rye flour available to me locally-Hodgsen Mills is about it. I will probably be ordering my flour online as I get more into rye baking. So delicious!

        Reply
        • Stanley Ginsberg

          September 29, 2017

          Point well taken. Interestingly, Bay State Milling doesn’t produce a wholegrain rye flour; instead, they have an extra fine rye meal (which I’ve baked with). The distinction between it and, say, Central Milling’s wholegrain rye flour is a fine one (no pun intended), but certainly valid. I will, say, though, that in practice both can be used interchangeably with nearly imperceptible differences in outcome.

          Reply
  • Karin Anderson

    October 1, 2017

    You are so right, Stanley, and I do wish the milling industry would adopt your rye classification. For a German baker, used to baking rye breads, is the lack of standardization of rye in the US a source of frustration.
    I hope the renaissance of rye appreciation will lead to more widespread growing and milling of rye in the US – with a little obstretic help from “The Rye Baker” 🙂

    Reply

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