Making Black Bread (Pumpernickel)

Here’s how I like to eat a real pumpernickel: with lox, cream cheese and capers. Why? Because this moist, ultra-dense bread calls out for accompaniment. Smoked fish and cheese. A nice slice of pork fat with onions and chili powder on top. Something — and something rich. Oh, and beer.

Not that this bread doesn’t taste great on its own of course. This is an all-rye bread. No white wheat flour, no caraway seeds, nothing to mask it’s pure, peasant the-wheat-crop-failed-this-year-and-we-have-nothing-else-to-eat rye-ness. You’ll get it when you taste it. It ain’t no sandwich bread but it’s great for canapés, toast, or just eating with butter.

Yes there are darker pumpernickels out there, though most of those are dyed with espresso powder or sometimes cocoa to give them a coffee blackness. Others are darker because they have been baked for a dozen hours in a very steamy oven. I might try a longer baking time next time to see if I can get this one any darker. Having mail ordered both dark rye flour and rye meal so that I can make this, I’ve got several pounds left for experiments. Start by gathering your ingredients. On day one, combine your starter with the rye flour and water.

Stir it all up and let it sit about four hours until it’s swelled (about 50% larger than it was). You’ll see a few small bubbles on the top.

While you’re waiting, combine the rye flour, rye meal and boiling water.

This is what’s known in some bread circles as a “soaker”, a method for softening up large chunks of grain so they don’t shatter your teeth later. Trust me, it’s a good idea.

When the soaker is cool and the sponge is puffy, combine the two in a large mixing bowl or in the bowls of a mixer fitted with the paddle (a kneading hook will do you no good here, friends, those pentosan gums are just too gooey).

Knead or stir the mixture on low for a couple of minutes until the sponge is completely incorporated. Remove it to a bowl…

…and let it rise about four more hours until it’s about 50% larger than it was, then put it in the refrigerator overnight.

The next day combine the dough with the remaining rye flour and the salt. Stir it about three minutes.

Add the yeast and stir about three minutes more.

It will be quite sticky when it’s done, so turn it out onto a board well dusted with rye flour.

And roll it into a loaf of whatever shape you like…as long as it’s oblong.

This one I dropped into my pullman pan because I like straight sides.

I let it proof about another hour until cracks began to show.

Then I brushed it with boiling water and baked it at 475 for about 15 minutes (pouring water into a pan in the oven to generate steam), and then turned the oven down to 275 for another 2 1/2 hours. What does the boiling water paint job accomplish? It helps to gelatinize some of the starch and give it a bit of a sheen. Corn starch in boiling water does an even better job of adding shine and is a standby technique in Old World bakeries, especially those that make rye breads.

Don’t expect much of an oven spring with an all-rye bread. When it’s cooled, turn it out of the pan and let it sit until it’s completely cooled.

Let it sit for a minimum of two days before you slice it since it will be quite gummy on the inside before that. Those pentosan gums need time to dry out. Personally I like a rest of about five days, but experiment and see what you like. This is a great bread to have in your repertoire as it’s not only terrific, it’s a true representative of what peasant breads were actually like once upon a time. Enjoy it!

25 thoughts on “Making Black Bread (Pumpernickel)”

  1. So caraway seeds: 1. Dear god, why? and 2. When did those little mouse droppings start becoming standard in rye bread?

    It may be obvious that I don’t care for caraway 😉

    1. You don’t say!

      Caraway has been around longer that rye, that’s for sure. It’s thought that it was first cultivated in the region now known as Switzerland, if that gives you any clues as to who might have put caraway seeds in bread first! 😉


      – Joe

      1. Gosh, I can’t imagine good rye without them! The recipe I use looks very close to yours but I bake mine free form. Delicious!

  2. Oh it looks just like Finnish rye bread <3 which I prefer anytime over the German-type rye bread they sell here. I have tried making the Finnish type rye bread, but my own starter didn't work, so I'm still trying to get my hands on those over 100 year old starters that are passed from mother to daughter (unfortunately my family is way way too urban).

    1. OOh…get me a cup! 😉

      Let me know when you get around to trying this. You’ll have a great time with it, I think.

      – Joe

  3. Very nice indeed. I’m still waiting for the rye meal to arrive. In the meantime, I’ve been building tons of starter.

    Here’s today’s question: how do you control this stuff? (Stop laughing.) A lot of it has gone down the drain, I understand that that’s a part of it, and I’ve also split it and added different flour to some, and I froze some, and with some I started the barm that Peter Reinhart describes in his book.

    But the question is not really about quantity. I was playing around with sourdough a few years ago, and I had the same problem. I have no overall understanding about how much to use, when to use it, how much to feed it, how long before baking, what type of loaf will it turn out, etc. I’ve made some very nice loaves previously as well as some clunkers, but I never really understood why some were good and some were not. It was always random. Each time I started to make a loaf of sourdough, I never knew what I would end up with. The more I read about it, the more confused I get. (Too many numbers, with percentage signs and decimals and everything. And they’re all different. TMI.) So, back to the question: how do you control this stuff? (Many thanks.)

  4. Having worked with sourdough a fair bit over the past few years – mostly I don’t think about it that much.

    If I’m using it consistently, I do something like this:
    Empty the container out and use it for whatever I’m making, but don’t wash the container.
    Add half an ounce each of flour and water to the traces left in the container.
    Once or twice a day, add enough flour and water (in equal quantities) to double the amount of starter; since I started with about 1 ounce, the second day I’ll have 2 ounces, then 4, etc.
    When it gets up to the amount I need for the next round of bread or pancakes – which is usually 16oz – empty the bowl out and start over.

    If I’m not using it, I build it up to 4oz, stick it in the fridge, and ignore it until I decide I want to use it again.

    Admittedly – generally speaking I’m not doing anything more complicated than making a very simple loaf (take starter, add flour and salt, rise once, and bake) or pancakes, so I generally don’t need to get into complex calculations. I’ll save that for my day job 🙂

    1. Thanks for your response, Jane. Makes sense, and I certainly like the straightforwardness of your approach. You don’t do any of the “dump half the starter, add flour and water” stuff? I guess if you’re starting with small enough amounts and using it often enough, there’s no need for that. Do you have a set formula for your bread? I enjoy playing around with the starter, adding different flours, etc. I just wish the results were more predictable. I suppose I should start taking notes. 🙂

      1. I use a variation of the old dough method. From what I hear most bakeries use this method. I have 2 wonderful starters that I bought from King Arthur (their French starter and their old New England ) and I alternate using them. I bake a couple of times a week and whenever I am baking a yeast product I empty have of my starter in with the water- feed my starter and stick it back in the fridge. I then use a somewhat smaller amount of yeast than is called for in the recipe. The dough is outrageously and obscenely silky and gorgeous. I get a great rise and really good flavor with none of the trickiness of a pure starter product. It works beautifully for me ever single time!

  5. Really interesting to see your approach on rye bread! Being from region where rye bread is kind of national identity (How do you recognize Latvian on U.S. border? He’s handing in customs declaration with food, i.e., bread declared:)), I can share a bit of historical and practical information:
    1)Probably further south and west in Europe rye bread can be seen as poor peasant food; here in Baltics and Scandinavia (and Russia too) even wealthy families ate rye bread on everyday basis, as rye is growing better here and wheat flour was saved for special occasions, like Sunday breakfast, traditional holidays etc. Actually rye bread was such important part of diet that girl’s ability to marry was kind of determined by her skills to bake good bread; there are records of practice (at the end of 19th century) that to-be-husbands representatives come to maidens house and test her bread before agreeing for marriage. Bread was always baked at home, every had its own brick oven, and big amount of loaves was baked at time, then consumed over several week period.
    2) Today, of course, wheat breads are consumed much more, but rye bread remain very popular and is available in significant variety, many of them are different from what your recipe provides. If you want to test some, try to spot Russian or Polish shop in some big city, they usually sell one of most popular Latvian rye-bread brands, “L??i” (bread from the big loaf is the best, as it’s closest to the really traditional bread recipes). Unfortunately few of us bake rye bread at home, because traditional recipes require brick oven, therefore we use some recipes with starter, rye bread, sugar and various seeds and nuts; they can be proofed just overnight and then baked in kitchen oven.
    3)What gives our bread different taste from German style bread – first, for traditional recipes, very important was the mixing container, which was big, oblong shaped bowl made of wood. In that container, some yeast and bacteria cultures developed over time on the surface of wood, giving starter and then bread rich flavor; such containers were passed for generations within the family. Second, we use powdered rye malt (non-diastatic), which gives sweetness and flavor too. And the caraway, yes 🙂 It’s not mandatory, but a bit of caraway in rye bread is nice.

    Thanks for all the scientific information about how rye flour and dough works! It explains some failures I have experienced with rye previously 🙂

    1. Thanks for all the good information, Antuanete! I greatly appreciate it!

      – Joe

  6. Hey Joe,

    I made your rye bread last week-end (first taste today !) and I have a lot of rye starter left.
    I was wondering if I could use it in a standard bread recipe instead of yeast (or maybe a mixture of the two) ?
    If I can , how much should I use for a given quantity of flour ?

    Thanks a lot !

  7. I’m confused about the recipe instructions as given. This page says 275 deg. F. for 2 1/2 hours after the initial hot baking. Yet on the ingredients page it says 225 deg. F. for 2 1/2 hours. Which is it? Also, should the pan be covered with aluminum foil or left uncovered throughout the baking process?

    1. Sorry about that, Joe! Sometimes I make changes in the run-through and forget to update the recipe. Definitely use the instructions in the tutorial here, I’ll go back and fix it. And there’s no need to have the foil on during baking.

      Thanks, Joe!

      – Joe

  8. Dear Joe,

    I just made the “Black Bread” per Ginsberg’s book- which is for the most part, I know, what you used, with a few tweaks. I did bake one loaf in a pullman pan and another in a loaf pan, and they both look great. OK. Now, with the waiting for two days- do I wrap the loaves? Or do they sit out nekked? Neither your post nor Ginsberg’s recipe states which. The main reason I am asking this is that some of these types of recipes call for wrapping the loaves well and waiting….
    I hope you can reply tonight, as I will need to make arrangements such as a “DON’T TOUCH THIS!!!” sign.
    I grew up with access to an excellent Jewish bakery (now closed for many years) in Erie, PA. Making your own is really about the only way to get those flavors back.
    LOVE your blog. Thanks for all the help!

    1. Thanks Mary Beth and sorry I didn’t see this until this morning! I simply covered mine in foil since I actually wanted them to dry out a little. As I’m sure you’re noticing, there’s no problem with the loaves retaining moisture!

      Let me know what you think of the final product!


      – Joe

      1. No problem in getting your reply this morning, Joe. I had made close to a double recipe so I plopped the loaves back in their pans and covered them with a plastic kitchen cap- the elasticized covers that look like shower caps. I will take some pictures when I slice them. Actually, I riffed on the recipe in that I didn’t use boiling water to soak the rye flour but I did add some whole, slightly cooked rye grains and some soaked rye meal along with the rye sour and rye flour. I had a bit of a challenge adjusting for the proper amount of salt, since I had lost track of exact amounts of my ingredients. Also, the dough was more of a sticky, heavy muffin batter than yours, by the looks of things. And just for fun, I baked one loaf in a lidded pullman pan and the other in a bread pan. I sprayed them both with water before baking but still used steam for the open pan. Will check back in with photos in another 24 hours or so!

  9. Hi Joe,

    The bread tasted delicious! I had a better crumb shot but couldn’t figure out how to post it after getting this one to work….

    That being said, the bread in the pullman loaf pan looked better, IMO, and had a tiny bit of an oven spring I think due to the steam getting trapped because it had the lid on. It is not too moist at all- very easy to slice nice and thin. Has a delicious tang and was chewy (in a good way!), very moist, and flavorful- not gummy or crumbly.

    Truth be told, I sliced one loaf about 18 hours earlier than the other, and the one that I sliced last had a more rounded flavor than the earlier one. We like this bread sliced extra thin, just spread with good butter, cream cheese, or peanut butter. I realize the PB is not native to this bread’s roots, but I don’t think there is a more delicious breakfast!

    I think this is one of those recipes that you just have to dive in and try, especially if you like these dark rye breads to begin with. Since rye sour is so easy to keep going once established, it is not all that difficult other than remembering that it doesn’t act anything like a dough made that has wheat in it.

    Glad I checked here to see your tips and photos once I decided to bake this bread. You always give a nice mix of science, lore, and technique!

    1. Thank so much, Mary Beth!

      I’m very, very glad it worked out for you!


      – Joe

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