Germany is famous for its beer. Wait a minute, that’s liquid bread!
Me and German bread
When I moved to Germany, I didn’t know much about German bread. To be honest, I didn’t know much about bread in general. For me, still at that time, bread was something light, airy, with a white inner crust, made out of some kind of wheat flour. It was always on the table but rarely was the hero. What about its making process? I knew only generally that some yeast pump air out to rise the dough. What is sourdough? I had no clue, whatsoever!
My first visits to German bakeries accompanied by surprises. First, many breads, contrary to what I knew, were relatively compact, with rectangular shapes, darker in colour. Sometimes, they had even grains and seeds inside or on them. But also, their flavour and aroma were new to me, rather intense I would say. And on top of all, they cost pretty expensive. With all these, I thought back then that Germany it’s not going to be good for my bread life!
In the beginning, I couldn’t find easily traditional bakeries in the city. There were (many of them not anymore), but because of early closing, I couldn’t notice them on late afternoons, coming back from work. Therefore, I was looking for breads in supermarkets. As a consequence, I was eating regularly industrialised bread that not only had no taste, but it was also getting stale quickly.
To make the long story short, at some point, I got into sourdough fermentation, became passionate with bread making, started kneading doughs and baking loaves, and became familiar with words like Roggenbrot, Mischbrot, Vollkornbrot, Pumpernickel, Schrippe, Sauerteigbrot, etc.
In retrospect, it was a blessing coming to Germany and developing my passion for bread in the country that claims to have the best bread in the world.
German Bread (Deutsches Brot)
Germany has a great bread tradition. According to the German Institute for Bread, there are more than three thousand bread types sold nowadays in the whole country. Some years ago, German bread culture was added to UNESCO’s intangible cultural heritage list. Germans love their bread and they’re often complaining when they visit other countries and cannot find the same variety and quality. The importance of bread in German life is perfectly depicted by the custom of Abendbrot (literally meaning evening bread), which is a typical and simple way for Germans to enjoy the evening meal with just slices of breads, topped with cheeses, cured meats, pickles, tomatoes. And believe me, there’re so many breads that you can have a different Abendbrot every day.
But what makes bread in Germany so special and diverse?
First come history and traditions. Back in the Middle Ages, the area was occupied from many small kingdoms, which they had their own customs, dialects and of course, breads. Those breads were made with different recipes and techniques.
Then, an important role plays the climate that allows the growth of several crops. While in other countries bread is made predominantly from wheat, in Germany this is not exactly the case. Here, they grow in good quality crops like rye (Roggen) and spelt (Dinkel) in the colder north, while wheat (Weizen) is produced mostly in the warmer south. Those three grains and their flours, either single or mixed, are used to make the vast majority of German breads. Moreover, there are additional grains and seeds that are being used as minor components in bread recipes, enhancing even further the complexity of German breads. For instance, you can get breads that contain oat (Hafer), millet (Hirse), buckwheat (Buchweizen), sunflower seeds and others.
Another factor that contributes to the fame of German bread is the extended use of sourdough fermentation that infuses deeper flavours and aromas into bread. While in other countries the use of sourdough has substantially declined in the last century because of the introduction of single yeast fermentation, in Germany this method kept existing. It had to do not only with tradition but also with practical aspects, an example being bread dough that has as main component rye flour. The latter doesn’t come out good without the use of sourdough.
For us, home bakers and bread enthusiasts, it’s simply a great pleasure to have at our disposal this variety of ingredients, traditions, and techniques. We can never get bored. Each time we can try something new, we can use a different flour blend or mixing technique, we can also shape and proof the dough using several techniques and trays/baskets, as to get at the end breads with different looks and tastes. And every single bread will have its own character and identity.
For the sake of this article, I need to choose and list here one German bread. Which one to pick? I would go for something that clearly differentiates German bread tradition from what I had experienced before in my life, coming from the European south. That makes an easy choice for rye bread. Rye, in combination with sourdough fermentation, is the most you can get in terms of deep flavours, dark colours, and rich consistency. I would love to make and present Pumpernickel, one of the most famous German breads, but it’s not easy to make it at home. Pumpernickel, originally from the Westfalia region, traditionally is made from coarsely ground rye flour (Roggenschrot), salt and water, and undergoes baking for many hours, at low temperatures, in steam-filled ovens. That gives bread its characteristic dark brown colour and chocolate/coffee/caramel type of aromas.
Being unable to make proper Pumpernickel at home, I thought to present its small brother, that is a bread made with 100% whole grain rye flour, baked normally in a home oven.
Rye Whole Grain Bread (Roggenvollkornbrot)
500 gr rye whole grain flour
350 gr rye active sourdough
350 gr water
10 gr salt
- The night before take out the sourdough starter from the fridge, feed it with rye whole grain flour and water and let it grow overnight at room temperature. In the morning, the sourdough (known also as biga at this point) is active enough to be used in the final dough.
- For the final dough mix the rye flour, the sourdough, the water, and the salt.
- The dough will be very sticky and it will feel like cement. Knead it only for a couple of minutes, trying only to bring it roughly together.
- Wet your hands with a bit of oil, finish bringing the dough together and place it in a bowl. Cover it and let it ferment for 3-4 hours at room temperature.
(Don’t get panicked and don’t add extra flour if it sticks too much to your hands. That’s how rye flour behaves. Just try to bring it roughly together with wet hands)
- After it has risen (you should be able to see some bubbles cracking out on the surface), scrape it out on a floured work surface. Shape it briefly with your hands to the desired form, using flour to avoid sticking, and place it in the adequate proofing basket or directly in the bread baking pan. Cover it and let it rise again for 2-3 hours.
- Preheat the oven at 220°C and bake it for ca. 45-60 min. If it bakes in a pan, take it out and bake it uncovered for the last 10 min.
- Remove it from the oven and let it stand for a couple of hours before slicing it.