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This is an interesting case of a bread with definite origins which has been altered as immigrants took it to the USA, probably struggled with a lack of ingredients and evolved a bread which has little in common with its origins, but the name has stuck.

It seems the original version of pumpernickel comes from Westphalia in Germany. The name has its meaning lost in the mists of time, and like all such survivors, there are different even bizarre stories of its meaning. The linguistic clues seem to lead to the name as a slang or colloquial reference, which has deep semiotics which may not make sense today, or which refer to cultural expressions now lost and difficult to understand or put within a context. This is as “devils fart” with the “pumper” referring to flatulence and “nickel” as a reference to “old nick”, the devil, Satan. Obviously, the context is lost (at least on foreigners), and many guesses are made as to whether the bread causes or cures flatulence or whether the name refers to those who eat the bread?

In any case, the recipe has certainly evolved in an interesting way. From the basic description of this being a bread made from soaked cracked rye grains, it may have added or inherent (sourdough) ferment and it may have a small amount of coarse rye meal or wholemeal rye flour. This appears to be the basic and true composition, although some insist it has no flour at all and is made purely from cracked rye. There must be an element of truth in this as it is clearly a different bread to the numerous black breads made from rye four or meal… otherwise it wouldn’t have a distinguishing title. As it journeyed to the USA, probable lack of ingredients were causal in its evolution. It is common to see an American recipe based on wheat flour, with a smaller proportion of rye flour, and the darkness created by any or all of molasses, cocoa or ground coffee. This is a long way from the Westphalian loaf, but is interesting as the morphing of a recipe as it travels through time and ingredient availability.

It is therefore difficult to talk of authenticity in such a recipe, as to Americans, their version of pumpernickel IS an authentic (American) version. To a westphalian, it is a laughable and probably incomprehensible version. The American is certainly different in texture and process.

Usually the American recipe is made with yeast and it’s a quick (3hr) process. This is anathema to rye eaters as the digestive sourness of a rye bread is implicit, engendered by the sourdough ferment. Yeasted rye breads are always lacking this twang and are less savoury and perhaps less digestible. There is conjecture as to whether the old version is even a sourdough, some suggesting that the ferment happens as the mash of rye grains is left to soak for 16-24 hours, and as such isn’t inoculated with a culture. Nevertheless, acidity will rapidly develop in such a rye mash and would provide some aeration and a little lighter texture. Apart from this long soaking, the loaf was originally covered and baked for 12 hours at a very low temperature. This is miles from the 3hr process which dominates internet-US- pumpernickel. But it must have satisfied some immigrant longing for a taste or experience of home, eventhough the substitutions have also evolved with availability, but molasses, the commonest and seemingly authentic (for the American),would probably been an early addition given the widespread use and availability of molasses in the sugar-growing Americas.

The taste then has morphed as well as the texture, with the molasses-cocoa-coffee and wheat flour all creating a much sweeter bread certainly from a sourdough version, but interestingly the flavour of an unfermented archaic pumpernickle would be sweeter as well. Wheat flour was probably the first substitution for rye as its doubtful new immigrants to the Americas, particularly in a rural setting, could source rye flour, and if any was available, its clearly been eked-out with wheat flour, which was commonly available in the USA in colonial and early times. The dilution of the amount of rye and the dark colour it produced being made up for by the other dark coloured ingredients. I remember seeing a version which was coloured with a barley/dandelion ersatz coffee mixture, which was probably an early substitution for rye, later replaced by more fashionable ingredients.

The texture has certainly morphed, with the “original” being very grainy, while the modern version of the Americas is simply a more regular textured, if a little heavy, bread. The pumpernickel of older times needed to be kept a few days and preferably a week for the texture to “cure”, soften and become more edible, whereas the modern bread may even be eaten warm, which again is anathema in rye-eating territory, and probably a gastro-intestinal disaster in the original context. The pumpernickle of old is very thinly sliced, which can be easily achieved with the original texture, but not so with a modern version which is more likely to be sliced as a regular bread. The thin slicing while aesthetic is also functional in that the substance of this bread, being considerable, required a thin slice. Today, the original bread is served with smoked or pickled fish and or roe and a farmhouse cream or “cottage”(quark) cheese, and varied ingredients of that nature. I just cant imagine these accompaniments sitting well with a molasses and cocoa enhanced version?, but tastes vary!

Here are two recipes to ponder and experiment with. It seems that the “recipe” has become so fluid as to invite your own experimentation which hopefully remains to some extent within the bounds…of….”good taste” which perhaps cannot be said of all of the modern versions. By giving an approximation of the original from Andrew Whitely`s book and a modern morph, you can discern a version which suits you.

The first is really just for information and not really recommended, but interesting given the divergence of the ingredients from the second recipe.


  • 1 1/4 cups warm water (110 degrees F/45 degrees C)
  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons molasses
  • 1 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup rye flour
  • 1/2 cup whole wheat flour
  • 1/4 cup bread flour
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 3 tablespoons dry milk powder
  • 2 teaspoons instant coffee powder
  • 2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 1 tablespoon caraway seed
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons active dry yeast


  1. Place ingredients into the pan of the bread machine in the order suggested by the manufacturer. Select Whole Wheat cycle, and Start.
  2. After the first rise, remove dough from the machine. Shape, and place into a lightly oiled 9x5 inch loaf pan. Cover, and let rise for 1 hour.
  3. Bake at 350 degrees C (175 degrees C) for 45 minutes. Remove from oven, and let cool before slicing.

The second is from “Bread Matters” by Andrew Whitely, and is probably closer to an “original”, it is certainly worth making, and comparing the two is a study in gastronomy!!

225g boiling water

375g coarse kibbled ie cracked rye grains

Pour the boiling water on the grain and leave for at least 8 hours to soak. 12 hrs is ideal.

At the same time as soaking the grain, build up a sourdough with

50g rye sourdough starter

150g wholemeal rye flour

300g water at 40 C.

This can mature as the grains soak.

When all is matured,

Combine the sourdough with the grains and their water and

7g sea salt.

Mix well and work it a bit with your hands.

Then place in an oiled tin, it should be about 2/3 full, cover tightly with a lid or foil and prove in a warm place for 2-3 hours or until at or near the top of the tin. Bake with the lid/foil in place for at least 4 hours at 130 C.

Uncover and roll in a cotton tea-towel on a cooling rack. Leave it for at least a day to cut, preferably longer.

Also check the interesting version under “Recipes”>”Rye”>Dan`s pumpernickel bread.