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Rúgbrauð: A short introduction

A cornerstone of Icelandic cuisine is the omnipresent rúgbrauð or rye bread.

Many cultures make bread with rye flour, but what makes the Icelandic one unique is the baking method and level of sweetness, perfect to complement the rest of Icelandic cuisine. The sweet bread provides a nice contrast to the plentiful amount of smoked, soured, pickled, and fermented foods that people in Iceland have historically used to preserve food through the winter.

A highly recommended combination on a slice of rúgbrauð is a nice piece of smoked salmon, slices of boiled eggs, and some pickled onions on top. You can also never go wrong with just a nice smear of butter.


History and tradition

Historically rúgbrauð is most likely influenced by the much longer Danish tradition of making rye bread. The first recorded mention of this bread dates to the 18th century. If you were to make a taste test comparison of classic Danish rye bread and Icelandic rúgbrauð, you’d find some stark differences.

Danish rye bread is a wholesome bread, often made with seeds, and is not sweet.

Icelandic rúgbrauð is a sweet, molasses-y, dark and moist bread that borders the line between bread and cake.

The reason for this is historical. Until the 20th-century, ovens were not commonly found in Iceland at all. Most households would make bread over a stove or fireplace, thus resulting in an Icelandic preference for flatbreads or the famous rúgbrauð. The way to cook rúgbrauð on a stove or over a fire is to do it low and slow.

The batter for the bread is very wet, and if you cook at too high a temperature, you’ll have burned the outside, but the core might still be wet. So, a tradition formed of packing the batter in a sealed pot or container of some kind and letting the bread bake overnight on the cooling embers of a fire or residual heat of the stove.

In areas where geothermal heat was readily available, people would seal the batter tightly in a container and then bury it in the sand close to a geothermal heat source and let it bake over a day or two. The consequence of baking at low temperatures over long periods of time is that starches in the flour convert into sugars, so the end product becomes deeply caramelized and dark in colour.

In modern times, ovens became household items, and sources of sugar were readily available. Many people started to add sugar to their recipes to cut down on some of the cooking time. At that point, the preference for rúgbrauð being sweet was well established, so the Danish style of making rye bread never really took hold in Iceland.

Ingredients, tips and tricks

A few points to mention about the ingredients.

Súrmjólk is the principal wet ingredient in this recipe. Translating to sour milk, it is a fermented dairy product that is most easily comparable to Buttermilk or Kefir. If neither is available, take ⅓ plain yoghurt and mix it with ⅔ milk. You’ll get a similar consistency and, most importantly, the acidic component necessary to activate the baking soda.

In Iceland, it is quite popular to use a brand called Lyle’s Golden syrup to make this bread. Essentially it is a lightly caramelized white sugar syrup. If you cannot find it, then you can substitute the syrup for molasses or black treacle, but then you might want to exchange the brown sugar for white sugar as well.

Feel free to adjust the amount of these sweeteners if the recipe is too sweet for your taste or not sweet enough. The proportions in this recipe are aimed at being only moderately sweet. There are plenty of rúgbrauð purists who would make it even sweeter.

Any basic bread loaf tin will do for this recipe. The batter is enough for two tins. A bigger deep oven pan or a big dutch oven pot will also work, but keep in mind that the baking time might vary. Due to the very low temperature, the bread is unlikely to over-bake, so adding additional baking time is fine.

Dry ingredients:

Wet ingredients:


Start by preheating your oven to 100 degrees Celsius on convection heat if possible. The convection fan will ensure a more even baking. If your oven does not have this function, not to worry, bake for an extra 15-30 minutes to compensate.

In a stand mixer or a bowl, combine all ingredients. It is easier with a paddle attachment in a stand mixer. Otherwise, a sturdy spatula or spoon and a big bowl will do the trick.

The texture you are looking for is like wet porridge. If you’ve ever made banana bread before, it is quite similar in consistency.

Do not worry about overmixing since the rye flour contains next to no gluten, so over-kneading this batter is hard to do. Rather more important is to make sure no bits of syrup or flour remain unmixed, so mix well!

Once your batter is well mixed, take your baking tins and butter them well on all sides and the bottom. Cut a sheet of baking paper to fit the bottom of your container and place it on the bottom. The butter will make sure it sticks, and the paper will make for an easier release of the bread once the baking is complete.

Pour the batter in the tin, or tins plural, depending on the size of your chosen baking vessel. Keep in mind that the bread will rise slightly, so leave at least 3-5 cm of space towards the top of the tin.

With a spatula, smooth out the batter slightly, most of it will settle in the oven, but you want an even layer of batter so that the bread bakes evenly.

Now take aluminium foil and cover the top of the tin, making sure to seal it tightly along all sides. The key here is to allow little to no steam to escape to aid in the low and slow baking process. If you are using a pot, make sure that the lid seals well; otherwise, use aluminium foil.

Bake in the oven at 100 C on convection for 4 hours (4 hours + 15-30 minutes without convection). When the timer rings, turn off the oven and leave the bread to cool overnight in the oven. Do not open the oven until the next day, the residual heat and steam will continue to bake the bread slowly overnight.

The next day you can remove the bread from the tin. If it’s sticking a bit, run a knife or a flat tool of some kind around the edges to help it release, this is when the baking paper underneath will help a lot.

This recipe will make enough rúgbrauð for two loaves, baked in standard loaf tins, or one big block if baked in a deep oven pan. The bread keeps well and stays moist for at least a few days after baking, but feel free to pack a portion in paper and plastic wrap and to store in the freezer for later.