While the name may be strange, pumpernickel bread is actually more prosaic than it sounds. Pumpernickel is bread once made from coarsely ground rye, but is now created with a rye flour and whole rye berry combination. This bread has its traditional roots in Germany, particularly in the region of Westphalia. It can also be found in specialty shops outside of its country of origin, and is targeted to upper class markets that use slices of pumpernickel to go with caviar, sturgeon and other expensive finger foods.
This bread usually has the properties of being heavy and only mildly sweet. A sourdough starter is involved, as with most preparations of rye breads – this acidity helps preserve the shape of the pumpernickel by neutralizing the rye amylases. This can also be enhanced with the use of citric or lactic acid, a technique utilized by commercial and modern bakeries.
Pumpernickel also has a darker color than most other breads, due to the long process of baking involved. The color of pumpernickel usually ranges from dark brown to even black, at times. There are no coloring agents involved in traditional pumpernickel, and the Maillard reaction is responsible for the color, the flavor and the aroma. Baking may require 16 to 24 hours of baking at a steam-filled oven that is kept at a relatively low temperature of 120 degrees Celsius. Another of its distinguishing characteristics is the lack of crust and its density. Pumpernickel is a bread that is dense and heavy, and has little or no crust to speak of.
There has also been a variation of the pumpernickel that evolved in North America. Instead of relying on the baking process to produce the distinctive dark color, other ingredients are included in the mixture, such as coffee, cocoa grains, or even molasses. These serve as coloring agents, and aside from these, wheat flour and commercial yeast are included to give a more structured and quicker rise than the traditional German recipe. With this process, American pumpernickel does not require the long baking time of the German original. Caraway seeds are also a favorite addition of American bakers, which gives an alternative flavor. In contrast to the narrow loaves of German pumpernickel, American loaves are rounded. The flavor profile is also noted to be different, as the baking process and even the base recipe of the two are significantly different.
The name pumpernickel has interesting origins: according to the philologist Johann Christoph Adelung, it has its roots in the Germanic vernacular. “Pumpen” can be traced to German for “flatulent”, and “Nickel” for “Nicholas”. The name can be taken to literally mean the “devil’s fart”, because the latter half of the word is usually taken to refer to Satan, or a goblin. Alternative explanations claim the word may be traced to mocking terms for unrefined people without manners, which extended to the unrefined rye bread of the Westphalian people. There is still no official etymology of the word, and even the Oxford English Dictionary has yet to provide a definite answer. However, the first use in the English language is traced to as early as 1756.