For many of us, our first introduction to rye was hearing the old English nursery rhyme “Sing a Song of Sixpence,” in which the subject of the yarn is said to have “a pocket full of rye.” But how did this close relative of wheat come to be mentioned in a coded message originally used to recruit potential pirates? And, perhaps more importantly, how did it make the jump from wild seed-bearing grass to cultivated cereal grain? Let’s find out.
Rye’s Taste & Texture
It’s easy to sing the praises of such a rich, hearty, robust grain. In its natural form, rye resembles wheat, though it has a longer, thinner kernel that ranges in color from yellowish brown to grayish green. It comes whole or cracked, as flour or flakes, and looks a bit like oats after it’s been milled. In spite of the fact that just 25% of the rye grown in the U.S. is consumed by humans, rye works hard for us, in such products as flour, bread, beer, whiskey, vodka, porridge, and cooked rye berries.
What’s Great About Rye
If there’s one thing you can call rye, it’s stubborn! Because rye’s germ and bran are harder to separate from the hull than other grains’, rye flour generally retains more nutrients. Furthermore, rye is a good source of fiber, which promotes satiety, so it’s good for weight management. Recent studies also indicate that rye bread may be a better choice than wheat for people managing diabetes, because rye bread has a lower glycemic index.
As one of the grains in our signature Seven Whole Grain blend, our rye is grown in the Canadian provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba.
Origins of Rye
Rye was first grown as a cereal grain around 1,000 BCE, but it has a long and wild history that precedes its domestication. Researchers believe it originated from either S. montanum, a wild rye strain from southern Europe and bordering parts of Asia, or from S. anatolicum, a free-range strand found in Syria, Armenia, Iran, Turkestan, and the Kirghiz Steppe.
Rye happily flourished alongside wheat and barley for more than 2,000 years until it was acknowledged as a potential crop grain. The first move toward cultivation was probably accidental and occurred while farmers were harvesting wheat or other grains, and was helped along by rye’s relative strength in poor soils and climates. Rye farming became much more common during the Middle Ages. The English and Dutch are responsible for bringing rye to North America’s northeastern region, and it is now farmed in South Dakota, Georgia, Nebraska, North Dakota, and Minnesota.
Cultivated rye’s botanical name is Secale cereale. Rye is a member of the extended wheat family (Triticeae) and is a cousin of both wheat and barley. “Winter rye” is any type of rye planted in the fall to provide wintertime ground cover. Rye is a cereal grain and should not be confused with ryegrass, a family of tufted grasses not eaten by people.
Rye Around the World
Rye is tough—it can be grown in more adverse conditions than any other small grain. In fact, winter rye is the hardiest of all cereals. This is reflected in where it’s grown today: northern Germany, Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, Latvia, and central and northern Russia. Rye thrives in cold, wet parts of North America, in South America (Argentina, Brazil), in Turkey, in Kazakhstan and in China.
For centuries, rye was the primary bread grain of northern Europe and western Asia, and produced such foods as Russian pumpernickel, Norwegian crisp bread, Swedish black bread, Austrian brick-oven bread, Eastern European bagels, Pennsylvania Dutch dumplings, and Finnish yeasty stuffed bread. Around the world, rye bread’s strong flavor is balanced with rich, creamy, fishy, salty, and sweet spreads and toppings.
More 7 Whole Grains
Learn more about our 7 whole grains with these Grainipedia entries: