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Recipe: Soft Pretzels

August 29, 2010

Fresh, soft pretzels!

I adore making bread. Bread is one of those truly magical things, turning from flour, water and some jumped up fungi into a freshly baked, delicious wonder. I recently purchased two excellent books, Peter Reinhart’s the Bread Maker’s Apprentice and his slightly more accessible Artisan Breads Every Day. It’s very hard to take anything that uses the word “artisan” without irony completely seriously, but I can thoroughly recommend both books for any aspiring bakers. This recipe is from the latter book.

So, to the recipe. These are fairly simple to make, and the recipe has been modified to not require any particularly scary ingredients (such as food grade lye), so it’s not quite like one you might get commercially. Mind you, I made this recipe for my girlfriend, who is a total pretzel fiend, and she and I were both very happy with the results.

Okay. Let’s start with a quick primer. I suggest using weights where possible – and if you have a set of digital scales, use them. Second, I also made this with an electric stand mixer. It’s not required, but it’ll certainly save time and effort. Finally, you need to get good quality bread flour. Don’t skimp on it – it must be at least 11% protein, less than that, and you won’t get bread, you’ll get cake. Which tastes of ass.

Ingredients (Makes 12)

  • 567g (4 1/2 cups or 20 oz) bread flour
  • 11g (1 3/4 tsp if free-flowing) salt
  • 21g (1 1/2 tbsp) brown sugar
  • 3g (1 tsp) instant yeast
  • 340g (1 1/2 cups, 12 oz) lukewarm water (at about 35 degrees C or 95F)
  • 2 tbsp vegetable oil or melted butter

In addition, you will also need:

  • 57g (8 tsp) baking soda
  • 1 egg white
  • 454g (2 cups, 16 oz) warm water (38 degrees C, 100F)
  • Topping of your choice (e.g., salt, cheese, lard, whatever floats your boat)

Ingredients: Check

First, measure out the 340g of water into a jug (and if you’re OCD like me, use a digital probe thermometer to make sure the temperature is right) – it should feel quite warm to the touch (but not at all hot!), just below the temperature of human blood (good job yeast likes flour and not, e.g., brains). Whisk (or beat with a fork) the yeast into the water to wake it up. Let it stand while you place the flour, sugar and salt into a mixing bowl. Stir the dry ingredients to combine them, and measure out the oil or butter – I used oil in my recipe, and I will be substituting it for butter next time.

Give it time - soon it will turn into a beautiful princess

Pour everything into the mixing bowl and mix with either a paddle attachment or a spoon (if you foolishly don’t own a stand mixer). Mix it together for about a minute (at the lowest speed). It should make a very coarse, lumpy dough, as pictured to the right. Extract your paddle mixer (or spoon – this is harder than it might sound), and switch to a dough hook (or human power) – knead the dough for two minutes. It will look slightly less lumpy.

Ready for the final kneading

Leave the doughy mass to rest for five minutes. Enter trick number 1 of proper bread-making. Resting. It’s something that I have slowly learned (although in this recipe, the author explicitly commands it), but basically, kneading is really just mixing, and dough really just wants to be left alone to sort itself out. When you come back, the dough will be much better behaved, ready to be finished off. Knead for another three minutes to form a semi-tacky, smooth dough. It should look like the picture to the left.

Time for some fridgeration

Transfer the dough to a floured worksurface, and knead by hand for one minute. At this point, I divided my dough into two pieces, as I intended to cook it over two days. Whatever you do, prepare some bowls to cold-age the dough (from one to four days) by lightly misting them with spray-on oil (or rubbing a thin coat of oil on them), place the dough into the bowl(s), and cover with cling film. These need to rest at least overnight in the refridgerator, but a longer aging will produce a more tasty dough.

Day 2

Pretzels, as wikipedia will tell you, are unusual as they are dipped in a solution of lye before being baked. Now, lye (known to chemists by the far more erotic name, sodium hydroxide) is nasty, nasty stuff. It’s a strong alkali, and, as any chemist would know, has the ability to cause horrific alkali burns (it basically turns your flesh into soap). It’s used in pretzels to change the texture of the outside of the dough, making it very dry and crisp. Now, we’re not going to use lye – instead, we’re using sodium bicarbonate, or baking soda, a weak alkali. It’ll do the same thing as the lye, only less well, but, call me a wuss, I pick life over crispy pretzels.

Risen dough from the next day

So, we have to prepare a bicarb dipping solution for the pretzels. In a large (preferably shallow) bowl, mix together warm water, along with a comically huge amount of baking soda. Try in vain to get it to dissolve, and shove in an egg white as well. Apparently it improves shine, and who am I to argue? Whisk it all together until at least it looks like it’s combined, and get your dough out of the fridge. After that, preheat your oven to 205 degrees C (400F), or, if using a particularly fiery fan forced oven, 190 degrees C.

Rolling out the dough

Divide the dough into pieces (I’m using half of the batch here, so I got six pieces out of it) – and make sure you divide it by cutting it. With a knife. Don’t pull it until it falls apart, that just upsets the dough. It may help to think of it as a pet – you don’t want it to suffer for your dinner. Take each divided piece, and roll it out into a long rope (about 45 cm / 17in). You may need to lightly oil your worksurface to stop it from sticking to it. You will probably find that the dough retracts and relaxes as soon as you let go. If it does, leave it half rolled out and move on to another piece. When you get back to it, it will be much easier to shape.

Feel free to get artistique

Next, you have to shape the dough by twisting the ends together and folding them over into an approximation of a pretzel shape. I apologise for the picture, that piece actually had to be untwisted and rolled out again – it produced what would become a sort of lumpy pretzel flavoured ball as I didn’t roll it out nearly long enough. See this picture of pretzels for an idea of the shape we’re looking for.

Thankfully this dipping solution does not require protective gloves.

Just before baking the pretzels, carefully dip each of them into the bicarb solution, and allow the excess to drip off. Place on a sheet of baking paper and put whatever toppings you want on them. I went for cheese (oh yes) and salt (with cheese, oh yes). The recipe is a little salty for sweet toppings, so I’d suggest maybe a quarter less salt and a third more sugar if you want to try that.

Bake for about 15-18 minutes until browned and delicious looking (you may need to rotate them halfway through). They will need about 10 minutes to cool on a wire rack before being completely cooked, but fear not! Soon, you will be treated to delicious, crispy – and yet so soft – pretzels as the fruits of your labour.

Once done, feed to your better half for brownie points. Admittedly, I may have told her that the recipe only made three…

Just before baking

OH YES

From → Food, Recipes

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