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What is Pumpernickel Bread?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 16, 2024
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Pumpernickel is a form of German bread, referenced at least as far back as the 1450s. It is characterized by its dark color, very thin crust, and rye flavor. The traditional method for producing this bread is to combine course and fine rye flour with a sourdough starter and sometimes yeast. The bread then undergoes a slow cooking process, that can take up to 24 hours. The baking temperature is usually under 300°F (149°C), and results in a dark brown or almost black colored bread.

In Germany, pumpernickel bread is usually baked in small, covered loaf tins, but in America, it's often hand shaped and does not undergo the extensive baking process. To achieve the dark color of American bread, bakers may add chocolate, coffee, or molasses, and they frequently add caraway seeds. This version is usually a mix of wheat and rye flours, does not use a sourdough starter, and has a taste significantly different from the German style.

While it is fairly easy to find American-style pumpernickel bread in the US, finding the traditional German version can be quite difficult. There are a few bakers who master the style and sell their bread at their bakeries or at specialty food stores, and consumers may be able to order the original variety on the Internet.

True pumpernickel bread is often sold in pre-sliced packages. It can be used the base for hors d’oeuvres, and it pairs especially well with fish products, like lox and caviar, as well as with smoked meats, like smoked ham or turkey. Home bakers can try making their own for your homemade appetizers, but the cooking time can be a challenge for many.

The name "pumpernickel" has a rather unappetizing etymology. Pumpen is the Anglo Saxon word for flatulence, and Nickel refers to Satan. Therefore the name can be translated as Satan’s gas. This particular explanation focuses on the fact that many people have trouble digesting true German bread, resulting in some flatulence.

The American form, also simply called dark rye, is usually quite digestible, most resembling a standard American rye bread. It’s also a popular choice in Jewish delicatessens.

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Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen , Writer
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a DelightedCooking contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.

Discussion Comments

By anon147763 — On Jan 30, 2011

Hans: I am curious to learn more about what you are speaking of. I've done a lot of research online and thought that pumpernickel was the bread described in the article.

It's hard to learn more about it because most helpful information is in German, and as much as I wish I knew the language, I do not. If it's not too much trouble, I'd love to have an authentic recipe of both the Schwarzbrot and the Pumpernickel.

I already make the Schwarzbrot regularly, but only from info that I've been able to piece together - it turns out well, but an actual recipe would be great! And I'd love to make a real Pumpernickel, too! Thanks so much, Nancy

By anon144956 — On Jan 21, 2011

Sorry my friend. What you described is Schwarzbrot or black bread. Pumpernickel is a very specific rye bread with a distinctly different baking process. First, the flour (including whole grains) are cooked in water for 12 hours.

Second: The dough then is started baking at 400f and then for 13 hours steamed at 200f. That steam process generates the heavy sweet characteristic. Please check for detailed information also.

Pumpernickel has no yeast or source dough content.

Yeast, sourdough and rye or wheat/rye mixes create the common german breads called grey bread or black bread and these breads are baked, not steamed. --Hans

By twistedelm — On Jun 12, 2009

My buying habits are on the east coast/usa. About 10 years ago "Pumpernickel bread" use to costs more than any other type of bread. Now I noticed that the prices of pumpernickel bread are closer to the cost of regular rye or even wheat bread. Plus no ones mentioned the novelty breads--like a mixture of lite rye and pump/ for example.

It's my opinion that the producers of Pumpernickel bread in the USA desired more of a market so they increased the volume and lowered the price. But this is only speculation on my part. I eat pumpernickel daily.

By anon19425 — On Oct 12, 2008

Please, i would like to know how the westphalia pumpernickel it is done.

Tricia Christensen

Tricia Christensen


With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a DelightedCooking contributor, Tricia...
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