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Pumpernickel is a type of German bread traditionally made with coarsely-ground rye meal. It is now often made with a combination of rye flour and whole rye berries. It has been long associated with the Westphalia region of Germany. The first written mention of the black bread of Westphalia was in 1450. While it is not known whether this, and other early references, refer to precisely the bread that came to be known as pumpernickel, there has long been something different about Westphalian rye bread that elicited comment. The defining characteristics of Westphalian pumpernickel are coarse rye flour—rye meal—and an exceedingly long baking period. The long slow baking is what gives pumpernickel its characteristic dark color. The bread can emerge from the oven deep brown, even black. Like most all-rye breads, pumpernickel is traditionally made with a sourdough starter; the acid preserves the bread structure by inactivating the highly active rye amylases. The process is sometimes short-circuited in commercial baking by adding citric acid or lactic acid along with commercial yeast.

Types of Pumpernickel[edit | edit source]

Broadly speaking, there are two different pumpernickel traditions -- the Westphalian pumpernickel, made almost completely from rye and a sourdough starter, and the American Jewish tradition, in which the bread is closer to a basic American rye bread with rye flour for flavor and wheat flour for structure.

German-style[edit | edit source]

A slice of German-style pumpernickel

Traditional German pumpernickel contains no coloring agents, instead relying on the Maillard reaction to produce its characteristic deep brown color, sweet dark chocolate coffee flavor, and earthy aroma (however, it is not uncommon to use darkly toasted bread from a previous batch as a coloring agent). Loaves produced in this manner require 16 to 24 hours of baking in a low temperature (about 250°F or 120°C) steam-filled oven. The bread is usually baked in long narrow pans that include a lid. Like the French pain de mie Westphalian pumpernickel has little or no crust. It is very similar to rye Vollkornbrot, a dense rye bread with large amounts of whole grains added.

True German pumpernickel is produced primarily in Germany, though versions of it are sometimes made by specialty bakers outside its homeland. It is difficult to find in the United States at supermarkets and smaller groceries. German pumpernickel is often sold in small packets of pre-sliced bread. It is usually found in markets aimed at an upscale clientele because German pumpernickel is often paired with caviar, smoked salmon, sturgeon, and other expensive products of the hors d'oeuvres tray. Because of its association with expensive hors d'oeuvres it can be found throughout Europe, including in the United Kingdom, in upscale groceries, as it is in the United States and Canada.

American Pumpernickel[edit | edit source]

A separate pumpernickel bread tradition has developed in America. The American pumpernickel loaf approximates the dark color of traditional German pumpernickel by adding molasses, coffee, cocoa powder, or other darkening agents. In addition to coloring and flavor agents, American bakers often add wheat flour (to provide gluten structure and increase rising) and commercial yeast (to quicken the rise compared to a traditional sourdough). Because of the ways in which American bakers have changed the original German recipe, and for economic reasons, they tend to eschew the long slow baking that is characteristic of German pumpernickel. The result is a loaf that resembles commercial American rye bread -- a bread made with a mix of wheat and rye flour -- but with darker coloring. Many bakers also add a significant amount of caraway seeds, providing an alternate flavor that is now characteristic of many American commercial pumpernickel (and light rye) breads.

American pumpernickel loaves are almost always baked without a baking pan, resulting in a rounded loaf. These breads do not have the dense crumb of a traditional German pumpernickel, and have a rather different flavor profile derived from the added darkening agents and the faster baking process.

American pumpernickel bread is associated with Jewish cuisine and can often be found in stores that sell "Jewish rye" and other Jewish deli foods. In addition, American pumpernickel dough is sometimes combined with light rye dough to produce a type of bicolored rye bread known as "marble rye", as well as being made into bagels.