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A slice of pumpernickel bread
TypeRye bread
Place of originGermany
Region or stateWestphalia
Main ingredientsRye flour, rye berries

Pumpernickel (English: /ˈpʌmpərnɪkəl/; German: [ˈpʊmpɐˌnɪkl̩] ) is a typically dense, slightly sweet rye bread traditionally made with sourdough starter and coarsely ground rye. It is sometimes made with a combination of rye flour and whole rye grains ("rye berries").

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



The word supposedly 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.[citation needed]

The philologist Johann Christoph Adelung (1732–1806) 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 "farting devil" or "devil's fart", a definition accepted by the publisher Random House,[1] and by some English language dictionaries, including the Merriam-Webster Dictionary.[2] 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 this particular type of bread, and may have been used as a mocking name for a person of unrefined manners (a "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.[citation needed]

The Oxford English Dictionary does not commit to any particular etymology for the word. It suggests it may mean a lout or booby, but also says "origin uncertain". The OED currently states the first use in English was in 1756.[citation needed]

Chambers Twentieth Century Dictionary gives the etymology as being the German word for a rackety goblin, a coarse lout, and rye-bread - possibly from its giving forth a sound like pump when struck.[3]

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!".[4] In a variation of the same basic story, Napoleon declared that the bread was no good for him, but was only good (bon) for his horse: "C'est bon pour Nickel!". 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.[5][6]


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 made with an acidic sourdough starter, which preserves dough structure. The acid inactivates the rye protein, amylase, which converts the starch to sugar. That sourdough starter is sometimes augmented, or replaced, in commercial baking by adding citric acid or lactic acid along with commercial yeast.[7]

A slice of Polish malt-colored pumpernickel

Traditional German pumpernickel contains no coloring agents, instead relying on the Maillard reaction to produce its characteristic deep brown color, its sweet, dark chocolate, coffee flavor, and its earthy aroma. To achieve this, loaves are baked in long narrow lidded pans 16 to 24 hours in a low-temperature, about 120 °C (250 °F), steam-filled oven. Like French sandwich bread, or a pullman loaf, 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.[citation needed] German pumpernickel is often sold 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.[citation needed]


Pumpernickel varieties are popular in the Netherlands, where it has been a common part of the diet for centuries.[8] It is known there as Fries roggebrood or 'Frisian rye bread', as this variety of rye bread originates in the Dutch province of Friesland, and is significantly different as, for example, Brabants roggebrood, rye bread made with yeast, from the province of North Brabant.

North America

The term "pumpernickel" is often used in North American, especially in the United States, to refer to an airy style of dark-colored wheat-and-rye sandwich bread or bagel popularized by Jewish delis. These products often forgo the sourdough starter, long bake times, and steaming, and instead use baker's yeast and short dry bakes that do not allow for the same degree of Maillard browning as traditional German methods. To compensate, ingredients such as molasses, caramel color, coffee, and cocoa powder are added for both color and flavor. Some shops and bakeries, especially those in Canada, do use recipes that produce a traditional dense loaf.[9][10][11]

See also


  1. ^ "Pumpernickel at The Mavens' Word of the Day". Random House. August 15, 1997. Archived from the original on Dec 14, 2000. Retrieved 2008-08-31.
  2. ^ "Pumpernickel". Merriam-Webster. Archived from the original on 2007-09-29. Retrieved 2007-12-13.
  3. ^ Chambers's twentieth century dictionary. Edinburgh: Chambers. 1952.
  4. ^ Barbara and David P. Mikkelson (13 July 2007). "Etymology of Pumpernickel". Snopes. Retrieved 11 January 2012.
  5. ^ Grimm, Jacob and William: Deutsches Wörterbuch: Biermörder – D, Volume 2, Verlag Von S. Hirzel, 1860
  6. ^ Jahrbuch des Vereins für Niederdeutsche Sprachforschung, Volumes 34-37, Jahrgang 1908, Dieter Soltau's Verlag, 1908
  7. ^ From the label of a German-style Pumpernickel sold by Trader Joe's in eastern Massachusetts.
  8. ^ "Graansoorten" [Grain varieties]. Nederlands BakkerijMuseum. Archived from the original on 2018-11-13.
  9. ^ "Pumpernickel Bread: Real versus American-style". CooksInfo. 6 August 2010. Retrieved 28 February 2024.
  10. ^ Ephanov, Nikita (13 January 2024). "The Difference Between American And German Pumpernickel Bread". Yahoo Finance. Retrieved 28 February 2024.
  11. ^ Trillin, Calvin (27 March 2000). "The Magic Bagel". The New Yorker. p. 53. Retrieved 3 November 2020.