What is Lebkuchen?
Lebkuchen (pronounced leyb-koo-kuh n) is a centuries-old German spiced treat traditionally baked during the winter holiday season. While lebkuchen is often translated to English as gingerbread, it’s not exactly what most Americans envision when they think of gingerbread. Sure, it belongs to the category of baked goods flavored with spices like cinnamon, ginger, cloves, and nutmeg and sweetened with honey, molasses or sugar. But unlike a crisp gingerbread man cookie, lebkuchen is soft, dense, and often nutty, with a texture somewhere between a cake and a cookie.
There are several different types of lebkuchen which vary in their ingredients (particularly their nut content), price points, and relative availability in the U.S. We highlight the main types below.
What is Nuremberg Lebkuchen?
Nuremberg-style lebkuchen, known as Nürnberger Lebkuchen or Elisenlebkuchen in Germany, is the crème de la crème of lebkuchen, having the highest nut content -- typically comprised of almonds and hazelnuts, but also walnuts and cashews -- of all types of lebkuchen. By definition, Nürnberger Lebkuchen must contain a minimum of 25% nuts and less than 10% wheat flour. The finest artisanal lebkuchen bakeries in Nuremberg boast close to 40% nut content, while industrial manufacturers tend to meet the bare minimum threshold of 25%.
Nuremberg lebkuchen also usually contain marzipan (or what is called almond paste in the U.S.), candied citron and orange peel, and they always have an edible wafer (collectively known as Oblaten or Back Oblaten) on the bottom. They are rather large in size, most often rounded (~4” in diameter), but sometimes rectangular (~8” long x 4.75” wide).
You will often find Nuremberg lebkuchen packaged in decorative tins intended to be shared as holiday gifts. Due to its higher nut content, quality, and packaging, Nuremberg lebkuchen commands a premium price relative to other types of lebkuchen.
Imported industrial brands such as Lebkuchen Schmidt (which produces 3 million lebkuchen per day during lebkuchen season) are commonly found in the U.S. Imported artisanal brands are much harder to come by.
Leckerlee specializes in Nuremberg lebkuchen, with a 40% nut content, and our beautifully designed lebkuchen tins carry on the tradition of gift-giving.
WHAT IS OBLATEN LEBKUCHEN?
The next level down from Nuremberg lebkuchen, in terms of quality and price, is Feine (fine) Oblaten Lebkuchen. You’ll also find an edible Oblate wafer on the bottom, hence the name. This type of lebkuchen must have at least 14% nut content. Standard Oblaten Lebkuchen -- without the “Feine” distinction -- needs to have only 7% nut content. Oblaten Lebkuchen is industrially produced in mass quantities. Some common brands available in the U.S. include Lebkuchen Schmidt and Wicklein.
OTHER TYPES OF LEBKUCHEN
There are also types of lebkuchen which don’t come on a wafer at all and don’t typically contain any nuts. Generally speaking, this category of lebkuchen is known as Braune Lebkuchen in Germany, and the dough is comprised primarily of wheat flour and honey. The big, decoratively frosted lebkuchen hearts (Lebkuchenherzen) sold during Oktoberfest fall into this category. So do the bags of lebkuchen pieces in the shapes of hearts and stars and pretzels, and any lebkuchen pieces that have a fruit filling. Some common brands available in the U.S. include Bahlsen, Weiss, and Lambertz.
These types of lebkuchen are fundamentally different from Nuremberg lebkuchen, and even though they are all referred to as lebkuchen, they are not directly comparable.
Lebkuchen has ancient roots in the honey cake (Honigkuchen) baked by Egyptians thousands of years ago as a gift to the gods. However, lebkuchen as we know it today was first created by Franconian monks in the 13th century, in the region now known as Bavaria.
Nuremberg thrived as the center for lebkuchen production for two reasons. First, the dense forests around the city were a vast source of honey, a key ingredient in lebkuchen. Second, Nuremberg was also conveniently located at the crossroads of the ancient spice trade routes, giving it access to the then-exotic spices found in lebkuchen.
WHAT IS ON THE BOTTOM OF LEBKUCHEN?
Oblaten Lebkuchen are distinguished by a signature edible wafer (collectively called Oblaten in German) on the bottom. The wafers are made from wheat flour, starch, and water. Franconian monks invented lebkuchen in the Middle Ages and used communion wafers to prevent the lebkuchen dough from sticking to the baking sheets. Modern-day Oblaten evolved as a substitute for this use of communion wafers and remain quite common in German baking today.
We’ve found that the instinct of most Americans is to peel the wafer off...but please don’t do this! The Oblaten are completely edible and an integral part of the lebkuchen-eating experience.
HOW LONG DOES LEBKUCHEN KEEP?
Lebkuchen has a naturally long shelf life, and we don’t use any artificial preservatives in our products. We recommend you eat the lebkuchen within a few weeks for optimal texture and taste, but as long as you store your lebkuchen in an airtight container and in a cool, dry place, you can continue to enjoy your lebkuchen for more than 3 months. Should the lebkuchen lose some of its moisture, try the old trick of adding a piece of sliced apple to the container for one to two days and then remove it.
CAN YOU FREEZE LEBKUCHEN?
In our experience, Oblaten Lebkuchen such as Nuremberg lebkuchen freeze well. In fact, many of our customers buy lebkuchen just as our season is ending and freeze them to tide them over until our next season begins. For best results, carefully wrap each lebkuchen individually in plastic food wrap and place in an airtight container in the freezer.
If possible, thaw lebkuchen in the refrigerator before bringing to room temperature. Defrosting the lebkuchen slowly helps preserve the texture. For chocolate-covered lebkuchen in particular, this phased defrosting also prevents drastic changes in temperature that may affect the chocolate’s appearance and texture.
Our classic and chocolate mini lebkuchen have 170 and 200 calories each, respectively. Our classic and chocolate lebkuchen, which are substantial portions weighing 3.0oz and 3.4oz respectively, have 370 and 450 calories each.
You can find additional nutritional information for Leckerlee lebkuchen here.