Pumpernickel bread is weird, in a strangely appealing and fascinating way. When I was a kid it was just the wrong kind of bread: dark, bitter, dense, and intense (why would you do that to perfectly good bread?). Now though, in my mature grownup years, I’m starting to develop a taste for it. Pumpernickel’s quirks and intensity make it a bread with character and personality; something interesting and noteworthy in a sea of fluffy white plainness. It’s also a fun challenge to bake, and it’s becoming one of my favorite breads in my arsenal, for the moment.
The chocolate-brown rye bread we’re all used to from deli sandwiches and bread bowls is actually the American adaptation of the original German pumpernickel, which apparently is even more intense. It’s made from almost completely 100% rye (including whole rye berries in many cases) and because of the lack of gluten is cooked in forms. The color comes mainly from the ridiculously long cooking process (16-24 hours) at a lower temperature, which results in a super dense, dark loaf. The American version (like we’re making in this recipe) is a mixture of wheat and rye flours to help the loaves have enough gluten to hold some shape, and the color comes from other ingredients like cocoa and caramel coloring. So technically, this bread is just a dark rye bread and not a “true” pumpernickel, but I think it’s gained enough status as its own bread to give it some credit.
A few important notes before we get started:
Gluten – like I said, this bread uses higher-gluten flours to make up for what rye lacks. I additionally added some vital wheat gluten to help things along even more, which I recommend you do as well. Any breads with a high proportion of whole-grain flour tend to have less concentrated gluten levels, and the sharp shards of the grains in the less processed flours tend to work against you and shred the gluten strands somewhat. It’s nice to give it a little help.
Sourdough – this recipe calls for a wild yeast (sourdough) starter, because I like the flavor and I read somewhere that it helps counteract weird things the rye does to gluten. You may find it easier to just use regular yeast, but I’d still encourage a slow fermentation for the dough. Either make the pre-ferment with a small amount of yeast instead of the sourdough starter, or use more yeast but put the finished dough in the fridge overnight before baking. It’ll draw out the flavors of the flour better and give some complexity from the yeast’s fermentation process.
Caramel coloring – this isn’t as scary as it sounds, although it is a little surprising. It’s basically super-burnt caramel (which is just burnt sugar to begin with) mixed with water to dilute it. It’s fairly bitter, but extremely dark, so a little goes a long way. It’s not absolutely necessary for your bread, but it’s a key player in getting your bread dark enough, and I think it adds a lot. I’ll show you how to make it in the recipe.
Caraway seeds – pumpernickel bread actually owes a lot of its distinct flavor to these little guys. I didn’t like them at first, but now to me they’re a big part of the wonderful personality of the bread. Again, feel free to skip them, but I think they’re pretty important. They’ll be super cheap in an Indian or Middle Eastern grocery store, or a store that sells bulk spices and baking goods. Worth it.
Fantastic– let’s get to it. This recipe is mostly my invention, with inspiration from various other recipes out there (including The Bread Bible and the Smitten Kitchen blog). I’ve played around with it enough that it’s come into its own personality, so try it out and let me know what you think.
American Pumpernickel Recipe
(makes two loaves or 3 smaller ones)
2 cups medium-grind rye flour (also called pumpernickel flour sometimes)
2 cups whole wheat flour
1/4 cup sourdough mother starter
2 cups bread flour
2 cups water
2-3 tablespoons vital wheat gluten
2 tsp salt
2 tbs cocoa powder
2 tsp espresso powder (or super finely ground coffee beans)
1/3 cup molasses
2 tsp caramel coloring (instructions below)
1 tsp caraway seeds (or more, according to taste)
Make the pre-ferment: Mix the water with the rye flour, whole wheat flour, and the 1/4 cup mother starter. Stir to combine and cover overnight (or all day) until bubbly from the yeast. If you’re not interested in the sourdough angle, do the same thing except use about 1/4 tsp of yeast instead of the sourdough.
Make the caramel coloring: take some sugar (1/2 cup works fine) and mix in a stainless steel pan mixed with a splash of water and a pinch of cream of tartar, if you have it. Heat at medium heat without stirring until the water has evaporated and the sugar starts bubbling and changing color, just like you would with caramel.
Keep heating well past the point where you’d usually remove it, until the sugar is pretty burnt and dark brown/black. It will smoke and you’ll feel kind of uncomfortable letting something burn on your stove. Remove it from heat once it’s got great dark color, and pour in about 1/4 cup water. Return to heat long enough for the sugar to soften and mix into the water as you stir it. Pour into a heat-safe container and set aside. It should look pretty much black and have the consistency of a light syrup.
Back to the bread: once your pre-ferment is bubbly, add all the other stuff in, last of all the bread flour.
Stir thoroughly and add just enough flour to make the dough kneadable (if you need help knowing what this looks like, check out my post on kneading dough). Leave it a little on the “wet” side if you can, since this kind of bread tends to taste dry pretty easily.
Dump onto a floured counter and knead for 5-10 minutes, until the dough is smooth and rubbery. Return to a greased bowl and allow to rise until doubled in size.
Remove from the bowl and divide into portions for your loaves. Shape each into a boule (ball) or bâtard (oblong), or just place in greased loaf pans. Leave to rise, covered loosely, until the loaves are significantly expanded, and the dough doesn’t spring back immediately when touched with a finger.
Toward the end of the rise, preheat your oven with a baking stone to 450°F. When the oven is heated and the loaves are risen, score the loaves deeply (at least 1/2 inch) and place in the oven. Bake for 15-20 minutes or until the crust is hard and the internal temperature reads around 190-200°F.
Cool on a rack for about an hour, then slice and enjoy! These loaves stay fresh surprisingly long, and freeze really well.
What do you think? Are you a pumpernickel fan yet?