Among the exhaustive bread selections at your local grocery store, pumpernickel loaves often stand out as distinctive due to their dark brown coloring. Pumpernickel bread also has a complex, earthy flavor that add both heartiness and a subtle sweetness. Much of the uniqueness of traditional pumpernickel bread comes from the type of flour, though modern North American varieties have created new takes on the traditional German loaf.
Traditional pumpernickel bread originated in Germany in the 15th century. Authentic German pumpernickel bread uses primarily rye flour, usually of a coarse rather than a fine grain. The only other flour used in traditional pumpernickel is wheat flour, which is used as an ingredient in the sourdough starter, a pre-fermented flour, water and yeast mixture that combines with the rye flour to hold the bread together. The other important element of traditional pumpernickel is the rising and baking process. Authentic pumpernickel rises three times, instead of two, and is slow cooked in a steam oven at low temperature for up to 24 hours. The long cooking process and use of rye flour are what give authentic pumpernickel its rich color and taste.
Few modern commercial bakeries use the traditional method of preparing pumpernickel bread. Commercial pumpernickel breads typically use a small portion of rye flour in combination with bleached wheat and malted flours. The additional flours increase the shelf life and decrease the need for slow baking times. To ensure pumpernickel bread still has its signature color and flavor, bakeries add a range of color and flavor agents, such as coffee, caramel or caramel coloring, cocoa or molasses.
The variable ratios of flours in pumpernickel breads, as well as the difference in baking technique, create different flavors and textures of pumpernickel. Traditional artisan pumpernickel tends to be much heavier and more moist than the commercial varieties. Though commercial varieties are typically close in flavor to the traditional version, they tend to include additional sugar, making a sweeter bread. Artisan bakeries that specialize in bread are the most likely places to find pumpernickel made with primarily rye flour.
Making Authentic Pumpernickel
You can make either version of pumpernickel bread at home. Most home recipes for pumpernickel do not include a 16- to 24-hour cooking period in a steaming oven, mostly because it is impractical and could be dangerous. Instead, modern recipes for "traditional" pumpernickel require creating a sourdough starter from rye flour, yeast and acids, which takes about 48 hours to properly ferment. Once the starter is ready, the dough mixture, which usually includes rye flour in addition to wheat or malted flour to promote quicker cooking, must rise for two to three hours. Cooking times vary, though one or two hours is typical.