What is pumpernickel?
Pumpernickel is probably the most German of all breads. While German-style wholesome and wholegrain breads can nowadays be found in other countries, under European Union law authentic Westphalian pumpernickel can only be made in Germany.
The commercial use of the term Westfälischer Pumpernickel (Westphalian Pumpernickel) is regulated by the European Union scheme of protected geographical indications (PGIs).
Bread may only be sold under that name if the production process, from the mixing of the dough to the baking, takes place in Westphalia, an area where rye is a traditional crop and pumpernickel has been baked for more than five centuries.
The dark brown bread sold as pumpernickel in the United States has no resemblance with the real thing. Instead of baking the pumpernickel bread the traditional way, which is at very low temperature for 12 to 16 hours, in the US molasses are added to the dough to give it its dark color. In the authentic recipe, the sugars slowly caramelize during the baking process in a steam oven.
Traditional German pumpernickel must not contain any preservatives yet it has a very long shelf life. Shrink-wrapped, it keeps for several months, and in metal cans for up to two years.
The authentic version of the bread is a pure dark rye bread made of at least 90% coarsely ground rye flour or wholemeal rye grain, or a mixture of both, plus water, salt, and yeast.
Other optional ingredients are malt, sugar beet, or syrup. Sometimes, a little bit of stale pumpernickel is added to the dough. This intensifies the flavor and uses up leftovers at the same time.
The world seems to be divided into pumpernickel lovers and haters. I have several German friends who shiver at the sheer mention of it. I, obviously, belong to the first group. My mother’s family being from Westphalia, it must be in my genes.
Pumpernickel is, by the way, not just eaten as bread. It is also incorporated into scrumptious regional desserts, such as chocolate pumpernickel pudding, apple pumpernickel Betty (Apfelbettelmann), and Westphalian trifle. All these dessert recipes are in my German regional cookbook, Spoonfuls of Germany.
Until recently I always brought pumpernickel back from trips to Germany, or asked visitors to bring me some. Because the bread is so dense and filling, the packages are small, which makes the transatlantic pumpernickel trafficking easier.
I had been baking our own bread for many years but never made pumpernickel because I did not find a recipe that convinced me, and that I could make in a standard home oven. Then a few months ago, London-based German food blogger Ginger & Bread posted a straightforward pumpernickel bread recipe that she had found on a German bread-baking forum.
I went to work and, as the recipe requested, did not touch the pumpernickel for two days after baking. When I took the first bite, I had to close my eyes. This was hands-off the closest to original pumpernickel that you can make at home. It was fabulous.
What does pumpernickel mean?
In German, Pumpern is a verb that means “to fart”, and Nickel, just like Old Nick in English, was a name for the devil, so Pumpernickel would mean “farting devil”.
How to make pumpernickel
Because pumpernickel is so dense, the loaves are always small, much smaller than regular breads. I like baking the pumpernickel bread in straight-sided (16 ounce/450 ml) wide-mouth canning jars, which makes small, perfectly round loaves.
But a word of caution here: to prevent the jars from thermal shock breakage due to temperature differences, it is crucial to exactly follow the steps for the water bath process, including the specified times for cooling off. If you are not comfortable baking the bread in canning jars, use regular loaf pans, or a Pullman loaf pan, and only fill the pans to about two-thirds.
For the water bath, I find that my turkey roaster, which comes with a lid, works great. You can use any large casserole; just make sure before filling the pans or jars with the dough that the casserole is large enough to hold everything.
Since baking pumpernickel is such a lengthy process it makes sense to bake a large batch. I usually leave one loaf in the refrigerator, where it keeps for up to two weeks, and freeze the rest right away. Pumpernickel bread keeps for several months in the freezer.
- 7 oz. organic rye berries
- 12½ oz. organic dark rye flour
- 1½ cup lukewarm water
- 3 tablespoons fed sourdough starter
- 12½ oz. organic dark rye pumpernickel meal
- 12½ oz. organic cracked rye
- 1 tablespoon salt
- 1⅓ to 1½ cup lukewarm water
- 3½ oz. imported golden syrup (or real maple syrup)
- 5½ oz. dry-roasted unsalted sunflower seeds
- Put the berries in a small saucepan and pour boiling water over them to cover by at least 1 inch. Cover and set aside to soak overnight.
- For the levain, mix the rye flour, water and sourdough starter in a small bowl until well combined. Cover and let it rest overnight in a warm place.
- Add enough water to the soaked rye berries so that there is about three times as much water a berries. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer, covered, for about 1 hour, or until the berries are soft. Check for water once in a while to make sure the berries are always covered with plenty of water, and add more water if necessary. Drain the cooked berries and set aside to cool.
- In a large bowl mix the dark rye pumpernickel meal, cracked rye and salt. Add the levain and 1⅓ cup water. Mix until well combined and no traces of flour remain. Add the cooked berries, syrup and sunflower seeds. Knead the dough using the dough hook of an electric mixer or your hands and add the rest of the water during kneading, as needed, until the dough starts to come off the sides of the bowl. The dough should be moist and slightly sticky so it might not come off the sides of the bowl like in other bread doughs, which is fine. Dust with rye flour and cover. Let rest in a warm place for 30 minutes.
- Grease 5 (16 oz.) straight-sided canning jars or 2 loaf tins.
- Knead the dough on a lightly floured surface to remove any excess air. The dough should be slightly sticky. Divide the dough into equal portions and place it into your baking pans or jars. Leaving about 1 inch headspace in the jars to allow for the bread to rise (depending on the liveliness of your starter, the dough may or may not rise, mine always does). Only fill the pans to two-thirds to make smaller loaves. Grease small pieces of aluminum foil and cover the jars/baking pans, greased side down. Let rest in a warm place for 2 to 3 hours.
- Preheat the oven to 300 F. Remove the aluminum foil from the jars/baking pans and lightly spray the surface of the dough with water. Place the aluminum foil back on the jars/baking pans, greased side down. Make sure that the jars/baking pans are tightly covered.
- Adjust the oven rack to the lowest setting. Place the jars/baking pans in the casserole and and place it on the oven rack. Pour about 1 inch hot water into the casserole. Place the lid on the casserole.
- Bake for 1 hour at 300 F. Reduce the heat to 212 F and bake for 13 more hours. Add hot water to the casserole every few hours to maintain the water level. If you bake the bread overnight, pour more water into the casserole before you go to bed. A higher water level of 1½ to 2 inches does not harm but an empty dry casserole may cause the jars to crack and should be avoided by all means.
- At the end of the baking time, turn off the oven and leave the casserole in the oven for 1 hour. Then take the casserole with the jars/baking pans out of the oven and let everything cool on the counter for another 30 minutes, or until cool enough to handle. Meanwhile keep the oven door closed to trap the residual heat. Gently unmold the breads (promptly removing them is important, otherwise you will have trouble removing them later) and place them in the warm oven for a couple of hours to dry.
- Remove the breads from the oven. Let them cool completely, then wrap them in wax paper or parchment paper and either place them in freezer bags right away, or let the bread sit in a cool place for another two days before cutting it on Day 5. Store the pumpernickel in an airtight container in the refrigerator.