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.