When Improvisation Fails, I Turn to Alton Brown
A few months ago, I tried making pretzel bites to go along with some cheese sauce I took to a Superbowl party, and they were a complete disaster. I thought I could just throw together a batch of no-knead dough, shape it into ropes, cut those into bite-sized pieces, boil them in a baking soda bath & bake them until they were brown. Voila: pretzel bites…right? Uh, no. Turns out, that’s a recipe for ugly lumps of soapy-tasting bread.
Thank god there was cheese sauce to dip them in, which just barely made them edible.*
I think my primary mistake was using too wet a dough. The no-knead dough depends on moisture to enable gluten formation. Making pretzels that don’t look like turds depends on dough at least stiff enough to hold the shape of a rope. Also, the wetter dough nearly threatened to dissolve in the alkali bath (which gives it the deep brown exterior, more on that below the jump) and absorbed way too much of the baking soda taste. Also also, they were overdone inside before the outside was brown. So by the afternoon of the day I baked them, they were beginning to get stale. Ugly lumps of soapy-tasting stale bread.
I decided to try again, this time using Alton Brown’s recipe for pretzels, which I adapted to use with my sourdough starter. Instead of bites, I made more traditionally-shaped pretzels because they were not designed for dipping, but for nibbling while wandering around at the 2011 World Expo of Beer in Frankenmuth. And since I was afraid plain pretzels without anything to dip them in might be a little boring, I decided to add a head of roasted garlic, some garlic powder, mustard powder, and msg to the dough. I was basically going for something like Gardetto’s mustard pretzels in soft pretzel form.
This attempt was far more successful. The dough was stiff enough to hold the desired shape, they took on just enough of the baking soda flavor to taste like pretzels instead of bagels, and had a glossy, chewy crust and soft interior. And the garlic and mustard and msg gave them a slightly tangy, savory flavor.
If you’re the kind of food purist who refuses to eat garlic powder or msg, you can certainly omit those things and they should still be tasty. Or you can add whatever other herbs or spices or cheeses you want in your pretzels. Or leave them plain. The one thing you should NOT do is store them in a plastic bag. They were lovely the night before the Expo when I made them, but after a night in plastic, the crust got soggy and lost its glossy, chewy appeal. By the World Expo, they had transformed into dense and slightly clammy garlic & sourdough-flavored, pretzel-shaped hockey pucks. I should have known better. Alas.
*In case I never get around to posting recipes for the rest of the things I made for my defense: that cheese sauce is now my default for mac & cheese, too; I use the sharpest creamy cheddar I can find (cheddar so sharp it’s crumbly will make the sauce grainy) and two batches of sauce per pound of pasta (e.g. 1 lb pasta = 16 oz cheese and 24 oz. evaporated milk). You can just coat the pasta in the sauce and serve as is if you like your mac & cheese saucy or bake it for 30-40 minutes at 350 F if you prefer it casserole-style. Breadcrumbs optional.
On Browning and Lye
Alton Brown’s recipe calls for boiling the pretzels in a baking soda bath and then brushing them with an egg wash. As both of those promote browning, I decided to try a tiny experiment to see how much each step was contributing to the crust. The egg wash-only pretzel was a great illustration of the importance of the alkali bath—it barely browned. The boiled-only pretzel browned nicely, but—although it’s hard to tell from the picture—it had a much more matte finish. So the egg wash is what provides the gloss.
Traditional Bavarian pretzels are dipped in diluted lye before baking (a mixture called Natronlauge which produces a Laugenbretzel). Supposedly, this technique was discovered by accident in 1839 at the Munich Royal Cafe when a baker by the name of Anton Nepomuk Pfanenbrenner was preparing pretzels while the kitchen was being cleaned. He meant to brush them with a sugar water solution, but accidentally used the sodium hydroxide cleaning solution instead. They came out of the oven with a glorious deep brown patina and distinctive, delicious taste.
You can buy food-grade lye online, but it’s a harsh corrosive that must be handled with gloves and lab goggles. If it comes in contact with your skin, it will make you peel and bleed. And I’m not entirely sure it’s safe to boil (lye fumes, anyone?) so the boiling and soaking may become separate steps. But despite the fuss involved (or maybe because of it?) many people swear by lye as the only way to produce “authentic” pretzels.
When it comes to peeling, bleeding skin, I say screw authenticity. Baking soda will give you results like the ones you see above. If you’re not satisfied with that, you can make a slightly stronger alkali by baking the baking soda. I tried that when I made the pretzel bites, and thought they came out bitter and soapy tasting. Of course, that may have been due to the too-soft dough. I may try that again the next time I make pretzels, but I thought the regular baking soda worked just fine. For more on baked baking soda, see Harold McGee.
Recipe: Sourdough Soft Pretzels (adapted from Alton Brown)
for 8 ballpark-sized, 16 medium-sized, or 24 fist-sized soft pretzels
- 3 cups refreshed 100% hydration sourdough starter*
- 3/4 cups warm water (110-114 F)
- 1/4 cup melted butter
- 7-8 cups bread flour (or more, as needed)
- 2 Tablespoons sugar (or honey or malt powder or other sweetener)
- 1 Tablespoon kosher salt
- 1 package (2 1/4 teaspoons) active dry yeast (optional)
- herbs, spices, etc. (optional. I used 2 heads of roasted garlic, 2 t. garlic powder, 4 t. mustard powder or 2 T. dijon mustard, and 2 t. msg)
- oil for coating rising bowl(s) and baking sheets
- 2/3 cup baking soda for every 10 cups of water used in boiling bath
- 1 egg for egg wash
- coarse salt for sprinkling
*if you don’t have a sourdough starter, add another package of active dry yeast and 2 1/4 cups more water and flour (a total of 2 packages or 4 1/2 t. yeast, 3 cups of water, and at least 9 1/4 cups of flour)
- If using roasted garlic, mash it into the melted butter to form a smooth paste.
- Whisk together the starter, water, yeast, and garlic-butter mixture, and then add the flour, sugar, salt, and any other seasonings you want.
- Knead the dough until it forms a smooth ball, adding more flour if necessary to make a stiff dough that does not stick to you. For the chewiest pretzels, knead for 15 minutes until you get a baker’s windowpane.
- Coat the mixing bowl lightly with oil, place the ball of dough in the bowl, and turn to coat. Cover and let rise for 3-24 hours, or until doubled in size. The longer you let it rise, the more sourdough flavor will develop. However, if you want to wait more than 24 hrs before baking, you may want to refrigerate it to prevent it from becoming too sour & retarding the oven spring.
- When ready to bake, preheat the oven to 450 F and bring 10 cups of water to boil with 2/3 cup of baking soda.
- Divide the dough into as many balls as you want—I used 110 g./3.8 oz portions of dough to make twenty-four pretzels (each about 3 1/2 oz after baking). Shape each ball into a rope by rolling it on a clean surface. Make each rope into a large U, and then fold the long pieces down like crossed arms.
Or if you want to do the classic twisted shape, see this guide at The Kitchn. Or cut the ropes into 1” pieces for pretzel bites. Or make circles, like bagels. Or letters. Or whatever.
- One or two at a time, gently place the pretzels in the boiling baking soda bath. Boil for 30 seconds to a minute, turning halfway through. Using a spatula or slotted spoon, remove to a colander to drain for a few seconds and then transfer to a baking sheet coated in oil or lined with parchment paper.
- Whisk a raw egg with a tablespoon or two of water or milk, and brush the tops of the pretzels. Sprinkle with coarse salt.
- Bake for 12-15 minutes, or until the crust is a deep, glossy brown and the interiors are 190-200F.
- Consume immediately, or store in a paper bag. Plastic/airtight containers will destroy the crust.