Pumpernickel [puhm-per-nik-uhl] is a typically heavy, slightly sweet rye bread traditionally made with sourdough starter and coarsely ground rye. It is often made today with a combination of rye flour and whole rye grains.

Some mass produced pumpernickel in North America may incorporate natural colorants such as molasses, caramel color, coffee, or cocoa powder among others to imitate the various shades of brown of traditional German pumpernickel, which is derived from long baking times and the maillard reaction (a chemical reaction between amino acids and reducing sugars).

At one time it was traditional peasant fare, but largely during the 20th century various forms became popular through delicatessens and supermarkets. Present-day European and North American pumpernickel differ in several characteristics, including the use of additional leaveners, and, in North America, coloring and flavoring agents, the addition of wheat flour, higher baking temperature, and a dramatically shortened baking time.

The word stems from an old Bavarian term for ‘hard,’ either referring to the process used to grind the grain into flour, or the density of the final bread product. According to a popular German dictionary, it refers to a form of ‘pumping work.’ Philologist Johann Christoph Adelung states that the word has an origin in the Germanic vernacular where ‘pumpern’ was a New High German synonym for being flatulent, and ‘Nickel’ was a form of the name Nicholas, commonly associated with a goblin or devil (e.g. Old Nick, a familiar name for Satan), or more generally for a malevolent spirit or demon. Hence, pumpernickel means ‘devil’s fart.’ The ‘American Heritage Dictionary’ adds ‘so named from being hard to digest.’ A variant of this explanation is also given by the German etymological dictionary Kluge that says the word is older than its usage for the particular type of bread, and may have been used as a mocking name for a person of unrefined manners (‘farting Nick’) first. The change of meaning may have been caused by its use as a mocking expression for the (in the eyes of outsiders) unrefined rye bread produced by the Westphalian population.

A false folk etymology involves Napoleon, who, while invading Germany, asked for bread and was served dark Westphalian rye. According to the folktale, Napoleon declared that this was not suitable bread for himself, the emperor, but was bread (pain) for Nickel (or Nicole), his horse: ‘C’est du pain pour Nickel/Nicole!’ However, the name Nickel is not confirmed for any of Napoleon’s many horses. Additional folk etymology grew from a ‘witty interpretation,’ proposed by seventeenth-century satirist Johann Balthasar Schupp, that the bread was only ‘good for Nicol,’ a nickname for a weak or puny horse.

Pumpernickel has been long associated with the Westphalia region of Germany, first referred to in print in 1450. Although it is not known whether this and other early references refer to precisely the bread that came to be known as Pumpernickel, Westphalian pumpernickel is distinguished by use of coarse rye meal and a very long baking period, which gives the bread its characteristic dark color. Like most traditional all-rye breads, pumpernickel is traditionally made with an acidic sourdough starter, which preserves dough structure by counteracting highly active rye amylases (enzymes). That method is sometimes augmented or replaced in commercial baking by adding citric acid or lactic acid along with commercial yeast.

Traditional German pumpernickel contains no coloring agents, instead relying on the Maillard reaction to produce its characteristic deep brown color, sweet, dark chocolate, coffee flavor, and earthy aroma. To achieve this, loaves are baked in long, narrow, lidded pans 16 to 24 hours in a low-temperature (about 250 °F), steam-filled oven. Like the French pain de mie, Westphalian pumpernickel has little or no crust. It is very similar to rye Vollkornbrot, a dense rye bread with large amounts of whole grains added. Pumpernickel varieties are popular in the Netherlands, under the name ‘roggebrood,’ where it has been a common part of the diet for centuries. Despite its peasant roots, German pumpernickel is often sold today sliced in small packets in supermarkets, where it may be paired with caviar, smoked salmon, sturgeon, and other expensive products on an hors d’oeuvres tray.

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