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Saturday, January 7, 2012

Soft Pretzels

I am so excited to share this recipe with you! I have eaten a lot of pretzels in the last two months as I've been tweaking this recipe to get it just right. I also have to send out thanks to my mom for her role in mastering this process. We've been playing with this recipe for the last six months, both together when she came to visit and separately, reporting our results to one another. All in all, it's been a very satisfying collaboration.

As for our love of pretzels, that's a given. I think I've mentioned before that I'm from Pennsylvania Dutch folk and we're all about pretzels. Growing up, I'd visit my Nana in Lancaster, PA, and we'd walk down to the corner and tour the Anderson Pretzel factory. My mom had her sister ship large tins of pretzels to her for years. When you grow up on the best, only the best will do.

Speaking of which, that's part of the reason this was such a process. There are so many recipe versions for pretzels out there, but most of them have ingredients that are never found in a true Lancaster area pretzel. A true pretzel has no fat in it! That means no butter, no shortening, no oil, and no milk. We were looking for tasty and authentic. I think we did good!

Making the dough is easy. It's easiest if you have a stand mixer, but it mixes pretty easily by hand too. Knead the dough until it is smooth and elastic. If, for some reason, it seems too sticky, add a little flour until the dough is no longer sticky. Let it rise, covered, until double and then knock it back. I form it into a log, cut it into eight even pieces and then let it rest so that I'm not fighting that gluten quite so much while trying to shape them. Keep the pieces covered while they rest so the pieces don't dry out too much. A ten to twenty minute rest is plenty. Then take each piece and roll it out into a long rope. Shoot for a rope between 14 and 18 inches long.

Shape pretzels by twisting the ends once and, dabbing a little water on the pieces so they stick better, gently press the ends back on the pretzel itself. This picture shows the pretzel on a sheet of parchment. That was a mistake I made early on. You don't want to use parchment. You need to use either a SilPat or "Super Parchment" (available on Amazon). Regular parchment will permanently affix itself to the pretzels when they're in the oven and you'll have to resign yourself to either tossing them or eating parchment paper.

If you have trouble with the shape, you can always do them this way. They taste the same, look fairly similar, but are super easy to shape (and are only one twist away from the shape above).

Let the pretzels rise while you prepare the water bath. You don't want to let them rise too long or they may collapse while they are in the water. Shoot for about 20 minutes.

Now, here's where a lot of people get scared, but there's really no reason to be intimidated. To get an authentic tasting pretzel, you have to cook it in a lye bath. I purchased my food grade lye on Amazon from the Essential Depot. This is the two pound bottle of micro beads. It cost less than five bucks, although the shipping drove the price over $15. However, now I can make authentic pretzels whenever the urge strikes and the bottle lasts quite a while.

The main thing to consider is that you always want to add the lye to the water, not the other way around. Like acids, strong bases release a lot of heat when they dissociate in water. If you add water to the lye, it can spatter and that's not good.

I've found that the best results are achieved with a 0.5M solution. That translates to 6 cups of water and about 1 tablespoon (30 grams) of lye. (If you want to see how to calculate the concentrations, see NOTE 1 at the end of this post). While lye (NaOH, sodium hydroxide) can be very dangerous, at this concentration it is mostly an irritant. Dangerous to the eyes, but not too bad for the skin. I'd recommend wearing goggles or glasses and being sure to wash off any skin contamination immediately. If you're nervous working around it, by all means wear both goggles and gloves, but don't be unduly scared of it. It's not as dangerous as a lot of people fear. Of course, you do want to be sure that you keep the bottle (and the pot!) out of reach of children!

The water bath is the trickiest part of the whole process. You want to use a non-reactive, stainless steel pot (do NOT use a nonstick or aluminum pan unless you want to buy a new one) and a skimmer. Add the water and then the lye. Stir to dissolve. Heat the water to just below a simmer. You want it steaming, but not bubbling in any way. Gently lower the pretzels one at a time into the water. Count off 25 seconds, remove them from the water, and let them drip for a few moments before returning them to the baking sheet. By the way, be sure not to use an aluminum baking sheet either. I now have permanent marks on one of mine because I forgot and used it once. Oops!

Why do I say this is the trickiest part? Because if the water is too hot or if the pretzels are in the water too long, they can deflate once they're out the water in a very unflattering and untasty way. In my experience, it is better to under do it than over.

Wait until you are done "boiling" all of the pretzels before sprinkling salt on them. If you sprinkle the salt immediately, I've found the salt absorbs a lot of the water and the pretzel doesn't keep as well (I show pictures of what happens below).

You can use kosher salt (on the right, below) or pretzel salt (on the left). Pretzel salt is available online and at some bulk food stores. I like the pretzel salt, again, because it seems more authentic. You can see how the grains of the pretzel salt are much larger, giving that characteristic crunch.

So, what happens if you use a different concentration of lye? Well, it impacts how much the exterior of the pretzel is gelatinized, which affects how dark they will get in the oven. The more lye, the darker the pretzel gets. I've been using the 0.5M solution and expect good results up to about 0.75M, but if you go too high, the pretzels get so dark and bitter, they're practically inedible.

How about storage? They're best eaten within eight hours. If you are not going to eat them in that time frame, then you need to freeze them, and the sooner the better. Pretzels left overnight, whether wrapped or not, turn into some nasty, diseased looking shade of their former self. Apparently, the moisture left in the pretzel is sucked up by the salt, causing it to dissolve on the pretzel's surface. Needless to say, it isn't appealing in the least. Freezing them, however, works great! Simply freeze them on a sheet until hardened and then place in an air tight container or bag. When ready to eat, zap them in the microwave in twenty second increments until they are thawed and nicely warm. If you choose, you can then toast them a bit as well.

What about hard pretzels? Well, I'm still fiddling with that technique, but it involves letting the pretzels continue to dry out after baking. If I can ever get it right, I'll let you know. In the meantime, enjoy these wonderful, chewy authentic soft pretzels!

Soft Pretzels
Yield: 8 3-4" pretzels

2 cups bread flour (or all purpose)
1/4 tsp instant yeast
1/4 tsp table salt
1/4 to 1/2 tsp diastatic malt powder (optional, see NOTE 2)
3/4 cup water

pretzel salt (or kosher)

Mix all ingredients together to form a dough. Knead until it is smooth and elastic, about 5-10 minutes depending on whether you are doing it by hand or in a mixer. Let rise, covered, in a warm location until doubled. Knock dough down and form into a log. Cut into eight equal pieces. Cover and let rest 10-20 minutes. Shape each piece into a 14-18" long rope and then fold it into a pretzel shape. Place on a non-reactive baking sheet lined with a silicone mat. Let rise slightly, about 20 minutes.

Add six cups of water to a large sauce pan and then stir in 30 grams (1 TBS if using Essential Depot's microbeads) food grade lye. Heat to just below a simmer. Water should be steaming, but not bubbling. Dip pretzels individually, timing each for 25 seconds in the water. Remove, let drip, and then return to the sheet pan. After all pretzels have been dipped, salt, if so desired.

Place into a preheated 425° F oven. Bake for 12-15 minutes or until browned to your liking. Eat within 8 hours or freeze within four.

NOTE: Molarity (M or mol/L) is a measurement of concentration. To determine the amount of NaOH to use for a specific concentration, you need to use a little chemistry. Because a liter and a quart (4 cups) are so close in volume, I will use the measurements interchangeably. The formula is: amount of substance (in grams) = molar mass x molarity x volume. The molar mass of NaOH comes from the periodic table and is always approximately 40 grams/mol. The molarity is the concentration of the solution you are interested in making and the volume is how much solution you want to end up with at the end. For the 0.5M solution used above, the formula is: ? g = 40 g/mol x 0.5 mol/L x 1.5 L (again, 6 cups is approximately 1.5 liters). When you multiply 40 times 0.5 times 1.5, you get 30 g (notice how the units cancel out leaving you in grams). When I used my scale, that came to about 1 TBS of those microbeads. If you wanted to do a 0.75M solution, that would be: ? g = 40 g/mol x 0.75 mol/L x 1.5 L, which comes to 45 grams. If you want to use more or less than 6 cups of water, you can use this formula to make sure you still use the right amount of lye.

NOTE 2: I've tried these pretzels both with and without the malt powder. I kind of like it in there as it adds a layer of flavor that I really like, but it's not very authentic, so use your own judgement. The other thing you can do to increase the flavor profile is to make the dough 24 hours before you want to make pretzels. Let the dough rise at room temperature for one hour and then punch the dough down and stick it in the refrigerator until the next day.

1 comment:

  1. It looks like that you have made the donuts of new style. One point in this recipe is interesting, putting salt at the right time or it will absorb a lot of water is good.


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