Real Food Encyclopedia | Rye

There are a lot of reasons to love rye — and they don’t all require a measure of vermouth and a cherry. Cereal rye (Secale cereale) is an extremely versatile grain. It can be boiled and eaten whole, milled into flour and rolled into an oat alternative. The whole plant can be used as a cover crop, for forage and for animal feed. The straw makes a great roofing thatch. Rye is easy to grow and hardy in the field. And of course, it has a wonderful flavor when fermented into whiskey and beer.

Rye’s ability to grow where no other grain can survive has earned it the nickname the “poverty” grain. It grows faster than wheat, it can be flooded and can withstand drought, and it even grows in the cold. When there’s nothing else to harvest, rye will keep you fed. Because it is so hardy, it is popular in the climates of Russia, Poland, Canada, Argentina, China and Turkey that are less hospitable to other grains. It is also the principle grain of Scandinavia. Rye is grown here in the United States as a grain crop, primarily in Georgia and Oklahoma.

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Did you know?

  • The grain co-evolved with wheat and barley but was considered little more than a weed for over 2,000 years until its value as a crop was recognized. It was believed to have originated in the Mediterranean or Turkey and then spread throughout Europe where it enjoyed a solid reputation as a down-market grain.
  • Coarse, whole-grain rye flour is called pumpernickel.
  • Rye, like corn, is a grass that is grown for its seed.
  • Rye is made into whiskey blends such as Canadian whiskey and bourbon, as a base for vodka and gin, and is made into pure rye whiskey.

What to look for when buying rye

Grains spoil much more readily than most people think. It’s important to buy rye from sources that have a steady turn over to ensure that the grain is fresh. When buying rye flour, check for a mill date or sell-by date. Give your rye a sniff when purchasing. It should smell sweet and nutty. If it smells musty (like an attic that’s been closed up) or a rancid (like the greasy smell of a bad diner), pass that rye by.

Sustainability of rye

Environmental impact

Rye is a farmer’s friend. Because it has deep roots rye is able to capture nutrients, enhance soil health, prevent soil erosion and increase water penetration and retention. Rye reduces weeds without the use of herbicides. Due to these characteristics, rye is frequently adopted by farmers who use Integrated Pest Management (IPM) or organic growing practices.


Most rye grown is “winter rye” which is planted in the autumn; the plants then develop during the springtime, and the grain is harvested by August (in the Northern Hemisphere). Rye grown for crop cover is cut in the spring before it becomes too fibrous to quickly decompose in the field.

Eating rye


Air, moisture and insects are the enemies of grains such as rye. Rye berries should be stored in a sealed container to prevent contamination by these spoilers. If you are low on extra storage containers, you can fold the top of your opened bag of rye over several times and secure it tightly. Keep in a cool, dry place for up to six months or freeze for up to one year.

Milling will reduce the shelf life of the grain. Rye flour will stay fresh from one to three months in a cool, dark pantry or for two to six months in the freezer.


From cool summer salads to toe-warming porridge, rye can play a lot of different roles and they all taste great.

  • Rye berries are great boiled until tender and included in side dishes and salads.
  • Rye flour can be baked into breads.
  • Cracked rye makes excellent porridge.
  • Kvass is a traditional, fermented healthy tonic made of rye.
  • Rye whiskey is essential to making the classic Manhattan.


Rye is high in fiber including a type of fiber called arabinoxylan, which is also known for its high antioxidant activity. Rye causes less of a spike in blood sugar than wheat. It’s a good source of Vitamin E, calcium, iron and potassium, and has been linked to a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, colon cancer, breast cancer and diabetes.

Top photo by Anatoliy Sadovskiy/Adobe Stock.