Finnish Rye Bread

Finnish rye bread is dense and dark and sour, and as biased as I am, I must say it’s easily my favorite bread in the whole world. I always used to think that it’s hard to make, but as it turns out the process isn’t complicated at all – you just need to know what you’re aiming at. Finnish rye bread shouldn’t involve much more than three ingrdients: rye flour, salt, and water, and apart from those all it takes is a sourdough starter and a bit of time and patience. Some say the starter should only have rye flour and water as ingredients, but I used a few slices of stale rye bread to speed up the process and that worked beautifully. Of course, the best bread to be used in a starter is Finnish rye bread that only has those three ingredients: rye flour, salt, and water – I used a very sour organic rye bread from the Samsara bakery that we like a lot.


There’s great regional variation in Finnish rye breads, and big emotions are involved when people start to explain why the baking should be done in a certain way. No one in my family used to bake rye bread, so this recipe is a combination of many I found online and in cookbooks – mainly one great little book called Suomen maakuntaleivät (Finnish Regional Breads) by a Finnish celebrity cook from the eighties, Jaakko Kolmonen. I checked it out form the library, but he also now has his own website, where you can buy copies of all his cookbooks that are still in print. The banner picture with him smiling and hugging a cute little piglet does creep me out a little bit, but his bread book is quite amazing – it’s filled with a variety of regional recipes, and the author has travelled around the country, interviewing and observing bakers in their own homes.

The Rye Sourdough Starter:

  • 3 slices of good Finnish rye bread
  • 10 dl luke warm water
  • about 500 grams or 8 dl rye flour (medium)

I cut the crust off the bread, and crumbled the insides into the water. Then I let them dilute, added the flour, and stirred it in. I covered the bowl with some plastic wrap and poked a few air vents in the plastic.

Now I let the starter sit in a warm place, in room temperature, for about 22 hours. I whisked it briskly every now and then, maybe about five times all and all, and covered again after each time. It was all bubbly and foamy when it was ready, and smelled a bit sour and sweet.

The starter can be developed further for up to another 24 hours, which would most likely make it even more sour. The traditional way is to leave some dough on the sides of the wooden mixing bowl, let it dry, and just add the water and flour in the bowl to wake up the starter when needed. Some food scientists say only freshly milled flour works in a sourdough starter, but I just used what we had in the cupboard and it worked fine. Now if Finnish rye bread isn’t available, I don’t see why any kind of sourdough starter wouldn’t do just as well.

The Bread:

  • about 1 kg or 16 dl rye flour (medium)
  • 1 tablespoon sea salt
  • 1 dl warm water
  • the rye sourdough starter

When the starter was ready I mixed it with the salt and the warm water, and then kneaded in the flour a little by little. I kneaded until the dough was still soft but seemed workable. Rye flour isn’t very glutinous and the dough is bound to remain sticky, but that’s how it should be – the coarser the flour, the softer the dough, as Onerva Niilola explained in Kolmonen’s book. I reserved a piece of the dough about the size of my fist and froze it to be used as a starter the next time I bake rye bread.

Now I let the dough rise in a warm place for 4 hours, in two separate bowls that were covered with clean kitchen towels, until it had just about doubled in size. Then I divided the dough in three equal portions and lightly kneaded them a few times with floured hands until slightly firmer to the touch. I shaped the pieces into three round loaves with well floured hands on a well floured working surface and let them rise, covered with kitchen towels, for about 2 hours more until the surface started to crack. These round loaves are called limppu in Finnish.

Before baking the breads I made a few slits on the surface of the bread, but this isn’t traditional – the breads are usually just poked with the spikes of a fork here and there. I just think the slits are pretty, and I like how they offer a peek inside the bread.

I baked one bread at a time, in 200 degrees Celsius for 50 to 60 minutes, until the crust had browned and the bread sounded hollow when tapped on the bottom. Then I wrapped them tightly in kitchen towels and let the crusts soften overnight. The bread should be moist but well baked in the center, and it’s at its best a few days after baking. We store our rye bread in paper bags – with time it dries a bit and is easier to slice thinly.