The quality of German bread, or the lack thereof, made headlines again in Germany this year, and the bread baking trade was not amused. In early November the weekly Der Spiegel ran an article about the growing number of passionate home bread bakers, a type of counter culture to the rapid disappearance of small family-owned bakeries, the growing number of bakery chains, and supermarkets offering bread at dumping prices (I wrote about this in a previous blog post).
Imagine traveling to Italy and looking forward to delectable ice cream from ice cream parlors often famous for their special flavors. Imagine that instead, all you find are chain stores, and while the ice cream is made on the premises it comes from premixes. As a result it all tastes the same almost everywhere you buy a scoop. That fictional scenario pretty much applies to large parts of Germany’s bread landscape today.Most bakeries in Germany use sourdough and yeast premixes, very few still maintain their own sourdough cultures. I find it very telling that the personal chef of Germany’s former President Christian Wulff made his President’s Bread with liquid store-bought sourdough (which you can buy at most grocery stores). Bread made with these mixes smells good and looks appetizing but it lacks taste and character.
No wonder professional bread bakers in Germany are ticked off by hobby bakers out-baking them in terms of quality, and some even make a career out of it. But it’s a fact – you have to search long and hard to find really good bread in Germany these days.
Those who start baking their own bread, the article in Der Spiegel states, are no longer willing to eat the standard mass-produced bread from the grocery store next door. I can confirm that from my own experience. In my more than ten years of baking our own bread, I have gone from quick loaves with too much yeast to baking slow bread almost exclusively with sourdough, giving it plenty of time to develop flavor. My Pumpernickel Bread takes about three days from start to finish, plus two days after baking before you can cut it.I have gone out of my way for good German bread. From my last trip to Germany, I brought back several bags of different flours that I cannot find in the United States. As I wrote in a previous blog post, the variety of flours in Germany is astounding. If the varieties offered at the average supermarket are any indicator, more people are baking their own bread in Germany than a couple of years ago.
Compared to the hard-core hobby bread bakers in Germany, whom I would not dare to calls amateurs, I still feel like a novice. I only have one sourdough starter sitting in the fridge, and living abroad I am at a permanent disadvantage because of the limited variety of flours available. And it’s not just the lack of flour varieties, the variation between the brands can be challenging as well.
I made the Seeded Rye Bread by German bread blogger Björn Hollensteiner, aka Brotdoc, several times this year, and it was so good, easy and dependable that it quickly became a family favorite. Then suddenly the loaves turned out super dense and compact. I baked it again; same problem. I turned to Björn, a family physician and co-author of bread-baking guru Lutz Geißler’s second book, for advice. He thought the culprit was the brand of flour. It took two more trials tinkering with the formula and mix of flours until I got the recipe to a point where the bread can be reproduced with good results regardless of the brand of American dark rye flour you use.
Baking your own German bread is not for everyone. It requires passion, patience, persistence and flexibility in one’s schedule. I work from a home office and can take quick breaks to run up to the kitchen and tend to my sourdough during the day. And you need to enjoy the entire process, too. After a day at my desk I find it deeply satisfying to pull a loaf out of the oven.
For those who crave German bread in America and don’t have a good bakery nearby, or bake their own, there’s mail-order bread from Breadvillage. Christian Gruenwald, a native of Bavaria, started it because he missed German-style sourdough bread and found that anything labeled “German” in the US did not even come close to what he knew from home. He imports bread from Germany that is free of GMO, artificial ingredients and preservatives.
The bread comes 85% par-baked and you can freeze it upon arrival or pop it in the oven right away. The two breads I tested, Multi-Seed Bread and Rustic Farmer’s Bread, both had a good crumb and crust. I liked them best not fresh from the oven but after a day or so, and toasting made them more flavorful. It’s a reasonably priced option for German bread and if I did not bake bread myself, that’s what I would likely get.
Seeded Rye Bread
Recipe adapted from Brotdoc
I am intentionally not listing the ingredients in cup measures, as it is too imprecise. Hence you need a scale for this recipe.
200 g dark rye flour
60 g bread flour
260 g lukewarm water
1 tablespoon (20 to 25 g) fed sourdough starter
120 g pumpkin seeds
80 g flax seeds (brown or golden)
1 teaspoon salt
200 g boiling water
½ generous teaspoon active dry yeast
375 g lukewarm water
300 g dark rye flour
125 g bread flour
175 g semolina
1 scant tablespoon salt
1 tablespoon honey
Pumpkin and sunflower seeds for the pan
- Mix all the starter ingredients until well combined. Cover and let sit at room temperature for 12 to 14 hours.
- Roast the pumpkin seeds in an ungreased pan until lightly colored and fragrant. Roast the flax seeds the same way. Do not roast all the seeds together because they require different times. Place the seeds in a heatproof bowl, add salt and pour the boiling water over them. Stir to combine, cover and let sit for 2 hours.
- Dissolve the yeast in the water and stir until dissolved. Set aside for a few minutes until it foams. Mix the rye flour, bread flour and semolina in a bowl.
- Add the starter mix, yeast mix, flours and honey to the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook. Knead for 8 minutes at low speed, then add the seed mix and knead for another 1 to 2 minutes until the seeds are fully mixed into the dough.
- Grease two 9×5-inch (22.5 x10 cm) loaf pans and scatter some pumpkin and sunflower seeds in each pan. Place half of the dough into each pan and even it out with a wet spatula so it fills the pan. Spray lightly with water and scatter some pumpkin and sunflower seeds on top.
- Cover with a kitchen towel and let rise in a warm place for 2 to 3 hours, or until the dough has risen almost to the top of the pans.
- Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F (250 degrees C). Place the pans on the center rack of the preheated oven and immediately turn down the temperature to 400 degrees F (200 degrees C). Bake for 50 minutes, then remove the pans from the oven, unmold the loaves and place them directly on the oven rack. Bake for an additional 10 to 15 minutes, or until the loaves have a nice brown crust all around.
- Let cool completely on a wire rack before cutting.
Makes 2 loaves