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, bread was something light, airy, with a white crumb, made out of some kind of wheat flour. It was always on the table but rarely the hero. What about its making process? I knew only that a yeast produces somehow gas and inflates 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 was used to, were relatively compact, with brick-like shapes, and darker in colour. Sometimes, they had even whole grains and seeds. But also, their flavours and aromas were new to me, rather intense I would say. And on top of all, they were pretty expensive. Because of all that, I thought back then that my bread life in Germany won't be great!
In the beginning, I couldn’t find easily traditional bakeries. There were (many of them not anymore), but they were closing early, so that I couldn’t spot them on late afternoons, coming back from work. Therefore, I was buying breads in supermarkets. As a consequence, I was eating regularly industrialised bread that not only had no taste, but it was also turning uneatable 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 German 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 the UNESCO’s intangible cultural heritage list. Germans love their bread and they're often complaining when being abroad 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 take the evening meal which is cold and contains just slices of breads, topped with cheeses, cured meats, pickles, tomatoes. It sounds at first boring but believe me, there are so many breads, most of them rich in taste and very nutritious, that you can have a different Abendbrot experience every single 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.
An important role plays also the climate that allows the growth of several crops. While in other countries bread is made predominantly from wheat, in Germany other grains are used equally well, like rye (Roggen) and spelt (Dinkel) that grow in the colder north, while wheat (Weizen) is produced mostly in the warmer south. Those three grains and their flours, either single or mixed, and often in the whole grain form, are used to make the vast majority of German breads. Moreover, there are additional grains and seeds that can be found as minor components in recipes, enhancing even further the complexity of German breads. For instance, you can get breads that contain oat (Hafer), barley (Gerste), millet (Hirse), buckwheat (Buchweizen), and on top of that, a big collection of seeds.
Another factor that contributes to the fame of German bread is the extended use of sourdough fermentation, which not only infuses deeper flavours and aromas into bread but it also makes it more wholesome. While in other countries the use of sourdough has substantially declined in the last century, in Germany this method kept existing in large extent because many typical breads, like the ones based on rye flour, rely strongly on the use of sourdough to develop their intense flavour and character, something that is impossible to achieve using only baker's yeast.
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. It helps us not to get bored. Each time we can try something new, we can use a different flour blend, a mixing technique, or a shaping method. This way, every single bread can look and taste different, having its own character and identity, staying thus always in our bread recipe list, and most important, in our memory!
A typical German Bread
For the sake of this article, I would like to choose and list here one German bread. Which one to pick? There are so many! Let me pick one that clearly differentiates the German bread tradition from what I had experienced before in my life. In that case, the choice should be something dark and dense, that means something made of rye flour. 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, for instance, to make and present Pumpernickel, one of the most famous German breads, originally from the Westfalia region. It's traditionally 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, and caramel aroma characteristics.
Being unable to make proper Pumpernickel in my home oven, I turned to its small brother, a bread with also a strong character, made of 100% whole grain rye flour.
Rye Whole Grain Bread (Roggenvollkornbrot)
500 gr rye whole grain flour *
400 gr water
300 gr active rye sourdough **
10 gr salt
* Rye flour is low in gluten and makes very sticky doughs, difficult to handle by hand. But, you do not have to manipulate and knead the dough a lot since you do not really care to develop any great gluten structure. A simple mix of the dough ingredients with a spatula, until flour is fully hydrated, is all you need to do.
** If your sourdough isn't based on rye, you can transform it to such by simply feeding it with 100% rye flour. Even a single refreshment can be enough, providing that you keep your sourdough fit by feeding it in a weekly basis.
To do so, the night before take out your sourdough starter from the fridge and feed it with whole grain rye flour and water (5 times in weight each). Let it grow overnight at room temperature and next morning it should be activated and ready to be added in the final dough. Just taste it, it should feel clearly sour.
For the final dough, add all the ingredients into a bowl, and mix well using a spatula. The dough will be very sticky, with a cement-like appearance. It is not important to knead it further by hand, but if you want to feel it and work it a bit, wet your hands and punch/fold it into the bowl for a few minutes. You will notice the dough lacking completely extensibility and elasticity. This is normal with rye because of its low gluten content.
(No matter if the dough is very sticky, do not try to add extra flour)
When all components are mixed well and you feel satisfied working the dough, pat it with wet hands to come roughly together to a ball, and let it covered into the bowl to ferment and rise.
(At this moment, you can alternatively simplify the whole process by performing this fermentation step directly inside a baking tin. You do this in case you don't want to handle anymore the dough with your hands. To do so, shape the dough briefly with wet hands and put it directly in a bread baking tin. Flatten its surface with a spatula, dust it with flour, cover, and let it there to ferment and rise. After a few hours the dough will be risen, covering the volume of the tin. You will notice also cracks appearing onto its surface, an indication of maximum growth. Then, you can proceed directly with the baking, omitting the next few steps that involve a second dough rise)
It should rise relatively fast. I usually let it for ca. 3 hours at room temperature or until I see small holes popping out on the surface.
Scrape the dough out on a well-floured surface. Briefly fold it to a desired shape, round or oval. Try not to manipulate too much the dough because it will start sticking to your hands. You can either place it into a proofing basket or into a bread baking tin. Cover it and let it rise again for another 2-3 hours.
When the dough has risen well, filling the volume of the proofing vessel, preheat your oven at 220°C.
(Except from the volume growth, you will notice irregular cracks on the dough surface. This indicates the dough cannot hold more gasses and it's ready for baking. Be careful not to let it grow too much and starts deflating)
Bake it for 60 min. After, let it cool down for at least a couple of hours (ideally for a whole day) before you slice it.