Bread Alone: In Search of the Best Rye Bread in America

Regina Boone

Two aficionados of traditional Jewish rye track down the country's tastiest loaves

What's the matter with New York delicatessens? The smoked meats they serve are succulent, the chopped liver luxurious, the knoblewurst gnarly, but for the anemic rye they use to make sandwiches, a knuckle rapping is in order.

We marched to the cash register of the esteemed 2nd Ave Deli after enjoying fine, spice-rimmed pastrami on slices of what could have been Wonder bread with a tan, and expressed our extreme disappointment to the poor cashier. "I know, I know," she shrugged. "Good rye is hard to find." If you've eaten sandwiches in other famous Jewish-style delis in New York, you believe her. Katz's and the Carnegie Deli, grand as they may be in other respects, also embarrass good meat with lightweight bread, in which crust and crumb are nearly indistinguishable and caraway seeds are curiously devoid of flavor.

After consuming too many lackluster ryes, we began to wonder if we were expecting the impossible. Was our vision of the ideal deli sandwich merely euphoric recall of magnificent bread that never was? We looked at old 35mm slides of corned beef and pastrami sandwiches we'd eaten in the early 1970s, and although the pictures' colors had faded, there was no denying the luster of the bread's crust, the density of each slice, the surfeit of seeds that were plump instead of desiccated. Just to clarify, the Jewish deli rye that good meats deserve isn't the dark, heavy, all-rye-flour loaf that's indigenous to, and still prevalent in, parts of Eastern Europe (see "Regional Rye Breads,"); it's an American hybrid that contains white wheat flour, too, and has a fine crumb that makes it suitable for slicing and forming into sandwiches. That shiny surface is owed to an egg-wash glaze; its tang usually comes from a sourdough starter; and its bottom is covered with cornmeal (hence the common nickname corn rye).

A bit of research revealed that, despite glaring instances of mediocrity, classic Jewish rye—full flavored, with a sturdy crust—can still be found in this country, even in New York. The place to look is not the Lower East Side, where gentrification threatens even Katz's, but the Upper East Side, at Orwasher's Bakery, which makes oversize loaves that are deliriously crowded with caraway seeds, and on the Upper West Side, at Zabar's, where glossy, amber-hued loaves pack a deep rye-berry tang.

Counterintuitive as it might seem, some of the nation's most distinguished deli rye is found far from New York, in cities that aren't generally known for their Jewish culture—like Indianapolis, for instance. Yes, Indianapolis, where the 1905-vintage Shapiro's Delicatessen begins making its authoritative loaves (as well as bagels and onion buns) at midnight so that they're ready to slice by 6:30 a.m., to accompany corned beef hash and corned beef omelettes. Sandwiches of the lean but luxurious house-brined beef are served on slices of rye that are hand-cut extra thick.

Manny's Coffee Shop and Deli, at the southwestern edge of the Chicago Loop, is another Midwestern corned beef mecca where, like at Shapiro's, the service is cafeteria style. The highlight of Manny's effulgent line, which includes the likes of knishes and kishke and chicken soup with matzo balls or kreplach, is going one-on-one with corned beef slicer Gino Gambarota. "Lady, this isn't Highland Park," he scolds a slender suburbanite who asks for only half a sandwich. The behemoth is made on morning-fresh rye from Northbrook-based Highland Baking Company, and it contains a mound of brick red meat so massive that the bottom slice of rye is buried and the top one sits like a little yarmulke. Yet the surplus does nothing to diminish rye's essential role as a sour foil for plush meat. If you can get the bread mavens of Chicago to pause in their hosannas for the bagels at Kaufman's, they might let you know that the rye bread made at this beloved mid-20th-century deli-bakery is corned beef's best friend. Kaufman's two-pound loaf is a heavyweight dirigible with a golden brown crust, a khaki crumb, and the pungent ping of caraway seeds that typifies so many Midwestern deli ryes. (The excellent loaf made by Davis Bakery, in Cleveland, is an identical twin.) It has all the brawn needed to support a superior Reuben, in which corned beef is combined with Swiss cheese and sauerkraut, the whole shebang grilled to hot, melty succulence and topped with Thousand Island dressing.

Good rye on the West Coast ranges from the crusty, light artisanal loaf laced with glistening ribbons of sweet onion at Seattle's Macrina Bakery to the caraway- and cornmeal-surfaced classic at San Diego's D.Z. Akins. San Francisco's Acme Bread Company makes a dark, hard-crusted old-world loaf that's so buff, it's more suitable as an accompaniment to borscht or stew than as a sandwich exoskeleton. For an exemplary deli sandwich made on beautiful rye, the place to go is Langer's, in Los Angeles, where the loaves—made by Bea's Bakery, in Tarzana, then double-baked in-house—are moist and tender, with a subtle sour tang and a wickedly crisp crust. The rye is sliced thick and likely will still be warm when it gets loaded with heaps of tender corned beef.

But America's very best deli rye? No contest. We found it in Ann Arbor, Michigan, when we noticed that the bread that Zingerman's Deli used to construct our Diana's Different Drummer sandwich (brisket, Russian dressing, coleslaw, and horseradish) was sensational. It comes from Zingerman's Bakehouse, which makes loaves of rugged rye that are dense and springy, laced with the taste of hearth smoke. Of the 500 or so loaves Zingerman's might bake in a day, about 20 or 30 are set aside to be sliced and mixed with water to become mash used in the next day's batch—a trick traditionally used by thrifty bakers who wanted to put day-old bread to use and turbocharge its flavor. This infusion of already risen and cooked bread combines with a high ratio of rye—to—regular wheat flour and a good measure of the rye-sour culture originally created when the bakeshop began to produce the great holy grail for rye bread lovers, in 1992. Comanaging partner Amy Emberling calls it "turn-of-the-century rye; Lower East Side American rye." Frank Carollo, the other comanaging partner, explains that their rye gets its firm, shiny crust because, after being mixed, rising, being shaped, and rising again (five hours in all), each loaf is brushed with water and baked in a chamber full of steam for five minutes. The steam is drawn out of the oven, and about 40 minutes later, when the bread is done and still hot, it is brushed with water again, creating a distinctive crinkly, crisp surface. It's a traditional technique that was common among Jewish bakers in New York City during the 1960s.

Zingerman's loaves are available in all the classic configurations: laced with caramelized onions; either studded with caraway seeds or with caraway seeds ground into the dough. While the torpedo loaf is standard, the bakeshop also makes a circular rye that weighs two kilos, an edible monument that calls out for cold cuts, hot cured meats, and smoked fish—or for nothing more than a stick of softened butter to lay bare the pure joy of good old-fashioned rye bread.

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