The Fresh Loaf

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The History of Caraway Seeds in Rye Bread

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farmerdd's picture

The History of Caraway Seeds in Rye Bread

I am interested in the history of caraway seeds used in rye bread. My great-grandmothers danish recipes don't include caraway seeds in the recipes (of Danish origin). Other danish rye recipes may include them, but these do not. A Wikipedia article on "Rye Bread" says,

In the United States, breads labeled as "rye" nearly always contain caraway unless explicitly labeled as "unseeded." In Canada (especially Montreal), breads labeled as "rye" often have no seeds, whereas breads labeled as "kimmel" are usually rye with caraway seeds.

This is all I can find on the topic.

When were caraways seeds introduced into rye bread? Who introduced them (a certain nationality)? Or was their addition based solely on commercial bread makers decision.


andychrist's picture

Can't tell you when it became a tradition, but even most "unseeded" commercial rye breads in the USA do have caraway, but it is finely ground so not too noticeable. Guessing the reason for this is that those who don't care for rye with whole seeds mostly just object to the texture/getting them stuck in their teeth; and that common deli ryes, made with mostly white flour, would taste pretty nondescript without any caraway at all.

I'm preparing a batch of sourdough rye bagels right now. I ground up a mix of caraway, coriander, fennel and dill for the final dough, into which I'll add some whole caraway as well. Think I'll try coating the boiled bagels with caraway too this time, along with the poppy, sesame and onion I usually do. You can never have too much caraway.


Stuart Borken's picture
Stuart Borken

I have no real clue, but, with a mind set firmly set into the predjudice of the Eastern European countries, I would think that the addition of caraway was considered of low or common origin and omitted from more "sophisticated" products.  So, if I'm wrong, I'm wrong....what difference does it make?  Maybe it's because today I visited with someone about foods and I commented that I have a recipe in a restaurant for a sweet and sour cabbage soup.....they said that such a soup was for poor people and just so common.

gary.turner's picture

Many years ago, I managed some erosion sensitive land. One of the preventive measures was to sow cereal rye, as each plant will develop 300 miles of root in a cubic foot or dirt over a single growing season. When ripe, I would scrape the berries from a plant into my hand and eat them right there in the field. They tasted like ― wait for it ― caraway.

I suspect, since by the time it gets from the field to your kitchen it's fairly tasteless, that caraway has been used to augment the rye flavor since very early on. Probably beginning at about 3:15PM of a Tuesday in the year [mumble] BCE.



Postal Grunt's picture
Postal Grunt

Caraway seeds have long been used in Eastern European and German foods. The seed is thought to have properties that aid digestion. When you look at those cuisines, you'll find lots of heavy on the stomach dishes that include potatoes, other starches, pork, sausages, sour cream, and other ingredients that can contribute to digestive tract distress.

There's also a German liquor called "Kummel" which uses caraway seeds in its manufacturing process and has been used as a post dinner "digestif".


MonkeyDaddy's picture

that it most likely stems from the carminative and digestive properties of caraway.  I have so many bread books that I can't remember which one it was, but I remember reading the origin of the word "pumpernickel" as being from the German words 'pumpern' and 'nickel'.  Since I couldn't remember the exact reference, I checked Wikipedia and it confirmed my memory: 'Pumpern' refers to intestinal gas, and 'nickel' means devil or demon.  The loose vernacular translation therefore is devil's fart or demon fart.  

If ancient peoples were already using caraway as a flavoring agent as well as to aid digestion, and if as gary.turner notes above that raw rye berries have a taste reminiscent of caraway, then it's not a big jump to mix them together.  Plus, if you have the added benefit of not suffering from gas pain, or offending the person next to you, then it's a no-brainer.

I also checked Wikipedia for early references to the cultivation of rye and caraway.  Rye was one of the earliest human crops, from as far back as 10,000 years B.C..  And caraway was cultivated in Europe as early as 1552 B.C.  So it's conceivable that some inventive baker may have been mixing caraway into his rye bread 3500 years ago.  Imagine all the demonic farting for the 8500 years before that!  LOL

Conjecture aside, it's amazing how many times throughout human history that something has been discovered, embraced, then lost only to be rediscovered centuries or millennia later.  So, the addition of caraway to rye bread may have happened "the first time" more than once.

In any case, thank God that somebody did try it the first time, because caraway rye is one of my most favorite breads of all time!  :)



fotomat1's picture

organic rye and will tell you it does have a subtle caraway note that store bought whole grain rye does not. I do agree that even unseeded rye bought in the US does contain caraway and it is the caraway flavor that most people,at least here on the east coast, associate with deli rye bread.

Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

when talking about bread spices.  The "old wives" advice for flatulence, colic and upset stomach drifts more toward fennel than caraway.  Fennel tea is milder, sweeter and the first home helper for colicky babies and sleep deprived mothers.  It can even be purchased as an instant tea granulate in the baby food section of Austrian supermarkets.  I also find it common as a base bread spice.  The flavour is much lighter and sweeter than Anise.  Art is in the amount used.

In looking up Caraway, Cumin, Anise and Fennel one finds layers of overlap and name usage.  Many times one is used to describe the other.  It wouldn't surprise me if the specific percentage of these spices/seeds in bread are slightly varied from time to time as food and tastes vary.  

I would like to add that I've seen many of these plants growing along roads and fields, on sand banks and elsewhere outside of cultivated fields.  Earlier plant seeds could have easily been picked and eaten by hunter-gatherers.  I am always discovering more plants around, weeds, that have food uses.  note:  Important to properly identify before eating!

MonkeyDaddy's picture

Caraway is the flavor of rye bread to me.  Without Cumin, chili is nothing.  And you can't have Italian sausage without Fennel.  My wife's family are all from the Calabrese area of southern Italy and a huge percentage of her family's holiday baking recipes contain black anise seeds.  Apparently, the plants are not sown commercially, and Calabrese families go out and pick the wild seeds my hand on the local hillsides.  My wife's grandmother had about a pound in the freezer when she died, which my wife considers part of her inheritance.  So I'm very familiar with the flavor of anise in baked goods - especially my wife's biscotti

I have often thought that a mix of all the seeds might be an intriguing topping for a loaf, but never really put anything together.  I might give it a try.

Mini Oven, correct me if I'm wrong...  Are you supposing that the spice plants may have ended up in bread because they popped up wild amongst the grain plants and were harvested all together?  If so, that is a fascinating theory and makes a lot of sense.  I just wanted to make sure I understood correctly.


Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

Oh, sure.  That could easily happen.  I try not to be too specific (so the mind can wander with ideas) but pictured  those out collecting food, herbs and spices (there are still Catholic holidays that include passing out small symbolic bundles of herbs and flowers, some of these traditions go way way back in history, even before Christianity)  tossing foods and flavours together.  Some of these were used against what could ail a person or just to have something special or have a better or different taste.  When talking across boarders and languages it is interesting how words are formed or changed.  Many of these seeds look a lot alike and are in the wild carrot family of plants.  If you threw carrot seed, fennel seeds, caraway, fennel and cumin seeds together, you'd have one heck of a time sorting them.  But they all taste good.  (or so many of us think.)

Anyone try grinding carrot seeds?  We know carrots are a old, old food and when the leaves are all a bit similar, one is sure to pull up or collect seeds from one plant thinking it is the other.  Also grow naturally in the areas of grain, interesting huh?   Mixing up seeds could easily happen.  Actually Carrots were first collected for their aroma, leaves and seeds before the roots, which were at one time quite woody in texture.  This year I saved my lovage seeds to see what they do inside bread.  The plants look like giant parsley plants but smell like minestrone or veg. soup stock when one touches them. The leaves are quite potent, one can dip a leaf stalk in hot water or soup for seconds or up to a minute (like a tea bag) and remove.  I have to be careful when I freeze parsley, celery, and lovage greens, to label them well, they look so much alike!   

Honey is also an ancient food and often takes on flavours of the pollen the bees chose to collect.  I should go talk to the Imker or beekeepers 'round abouts, see what they have to say about bread, caraway & grain fields and what it does to honey. 

Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

and just look at the number of hits!  Something going on there....