A kernel of rye has many of the characteristics of a wheat seed but is a little less plump, is a little longer and has a darker, grayer color. Chewing seeds from each, they also taste quite similar, although rye has a little stronger flavor. When cooked, rye takes on it's distinctive flavor that makes this bread such a treat. A very popular grain in East Europe and Germany, breads made from rye have a distinctive flavor that is prized by many. A relatively new grain, it's estimated that rye has only been in cultivation for 2,000 to 3,000 years, probably originating in Asia Minor. In the past, rye was a very popular grain as it grew so well, even on poor soils, under dry, cold conditions and at high altitudes - on lands where other grains didn't produce well. For many in the dark ages, rye was a grain that could most often be counted on to give them enough of a return that they wouldn't starve. Rye made it's debut into the Americas in the 16th and 17th centuries and has been a minor cereal grain here ever since. During the 19th century and into the 20th century with the advent of more hardy, quicker maturing and more abundant producing strains of wheat, rye has markedly decreased in popularity and production. But rye continues to hold it's 'nitch' with the distinctive flavor it gives breads in Europe as well as here in North America.
Although rye does have some gluten, it doesn't contain enough to make good bread and must be used with other high gluten flours. Because of this, rye bread is generally heavier than wheat bread and has a darker color, a reflection of the grain it comes from. The more wheat flour is used, the lighter and milder the bread. Pumpernickel is one of the breads on the rye heavy side of this spectrum, prized by many for it's rich, dark brown color and strong flavor.
Rye's nutritional characteristics are similar to the other cereal grains, however rye is higher than wheat in fiber, vitamin E, riboflavin, folacin and pantothentic acid. And unusual for a cereal grain, rye contains twice as much of the amino acid, lysine as wheat. This is especially significant because lysine's the limiting amino acid in wheat and most other cereal grains which necessitates food mixing to develop a complete protein. This isn't a problem with rye as eating rye by itself gives you a well rounded protein. Rye's high fiber content, higher than the wheats, also aids in fighting heart disease. In one study reported in the December, 1966 edition of the American Heart Association's Journal, the high fiber content in grains, and especially rye, decreased the incidence of heart disease by 17% in 22,000 Finnish subjects.
Rye has many uses but is most well known for breads and the making of rye whisky. Rye flours are used as fillers in sauces, soups and in many processed meats such as sausages. Rye can be rolled into flakes or cracked and eaten as a breakfast cereal or ground and made into crackers. Rye can be added to many foods to give them a distinctive flavor. Whole rye kernels take a long time to cook - as long as two hours. And rye flakes can take as long as an hour to cook. Soaking the whole rye seed overnight will reduce the cooking time markedly. A small percentage of rye goes well with rice or you can make your own cracked or rolled multi-grain cereals. Rye flakes go great in granolas, trail mixes, and rye flakes are also a popular item in rye breads.