As any construction worker worth his hardhat will tell you, you can build the greatest, most lavish mansion in the world, with all the turrets and shark infested moats you want. You can make the faucets pour foie gras, and the shower rain down chocolate, but if that house isn’t on a rock solid foundation, you’re living in a very expensive dump.
Why do I harp on like I’m on some home improvement show? Becuase today I want to talk about the foundation layer of any good deli sandwich: Rye.
Two slices of rye bread are more than just the bookmarks of a delicatessen sandwich, be it corned beef, tongue, pastrami, smoked meat, Reuben, Rachel or some sort of Carnegie-esque gut busting combination. When your teeth first make contact with the sandwich, followed by your tongue, the first thing to grace your taste buds, to tickle your sense of texture, will be the surface of that thin slice of rye bread. It is the front lines in the battle for your mouth, and possibly the most important element of the sandwich besides the meat.
Good rye, whether with caraway seeks (aka ‘kimmel”), or not, whether cornmeal rolled, or not, is essential to the enjoyment of deli. The crust should crackle slightly, requiring a bit of effort to break through. It should smell somewhat sour, but in a pleasing way that offsets the sugars in the meat. Overall, it should be soft, and pillowy, yet firm enough to withstand up to a pound of hot meat and mustard. It must be real bread, the kind not found in supermarkets, but in bakeries and yes, delicatessens.
Good rye can liven up a mediocre sandwich. It can provide a bright note when the meat is less than perfectly tender, masking somewhat understeamed or poorly sliced briskets. Good rye has the above characteristics: the golden crust, the light blond centre with specs of brown, and a smell of breweries.
Bad rye is an atrocity. It can ruin the greatest sandwich, because your first impression will be stale bread, or one that is too airy and has no bite to it, no character. I’ve seen people take out Schwartz’s smoked meat and serve it on store bought rye, and let me tell you, there was nothing to write home about. Bad rye is a deli killer.
The best ryes I’ve ever had were in Michigan area. There, they double bake the ryes, which are larger loafs that are warmed in the oven before serving to give them an extra-thick crust, and a warm, steamy centre. Rather than cut them in an automatic machine (which does thin, even little slices), they will slice them by hand, or on a meat slicer, diagonally, to give you more crust. The result is incredible: big, meaty pieces of freshly baked bread to compliment the heft of a Sy Ginsberg corned beef sandwich. Magique. Some of the best are found at the Stage Deli, in West Bloomfield, where the late Jack Goldberg supposedly invented the double baked rye, and Zingerman’s in Ann Arbor, where fresh rye is baked on site from the best possible ingredients, using methods unchanged for centuries.
Los Angeles has some great ryes too, especially at Langer’s or Brent’s, where the Detroit method is applied. There are also shitty rye cities, usually in smaller markets, where the bakers have never gotten it right. Sometimes they look like ryes and taste like white bread, othertimes they taste like white bread and look like rye. People say it has to do with the amount of dense rye flour in the mix (usually around 25%). Some say it’s the water. Others disagree.
Yesterday, I had the pleasure of visiting Silverstein’s bakery, right here in downtown Toronto, to see some rye in action. Silverstein’s has been around since 1918, is one of the last Jewish businesses downtown, and is still run by the third generation of Silverstein men. Their ryes supply all the great delis of Toronto without fail: Yitz’s, Pancer’s, Coleman’s, Steeles Deli, Centre Street, Wolfie’s, Switzer’s, and the New Yorker. They are gorgeously colored and textured palates for the artisans behind counters, wielding meats and mustard while assembling their masterpieces. Here’s a little video, to show you how it’s done.
1. Dough is mixed with a sour starter, that is live yeast which has been constantly going since day one of the business (90 yr old yeast!).
2. Dough is formed into balls, which warm and rise
3. Dough is formed into loaves, then warms again and rises
4. Dough is loaded into the conveyor oven, and travels 150 plus feet over 40 minutes at 420 degrees
5. Ryes emerge (yay), spin up and down a giant conveyor swirl that looks like a parking garage ramp, and emerge, ready to eat.
Brian Silverstein always recommends waiting to slice your rye at the last minute. Presliced, in a bag, will soak up moisture and lose its bite.
If you’re in Toronto, and downtown, head over to Silverstein’s and pick up a loaf right from the oven.
Silverstein’s Bakery Ltd.
195 McCaul St
Toronto ON, M5T 1W6
***Note*** The above movie was edited in the new iMovie 08, which is a stale industrial grade hot dog bun compared to the previous version (a Motown double rye). Read here for more anti-iMovie kvetching.