I love cooking, baking and reading about cooking and baking, so it’s no surprise that I get two cooking magazines – Cook’s Illustrated and Fine Cooking. Cook’s Illustrated is all about science and testing and making it perfect, and Fine Cooking is about beautiful pictures and making decadent things – I love them both!
The October/November 2012 issue of Fine Cooking arrived innocently enough; with an article about make-ahead holiday desserts, hearty clam chowder, cooking with cast-iron, etc… And then I turned to page 71 and pounced upon an article about the making of the perfect pretzel. It was a fascinating read and since I had just watched an episode of “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” where Guy Fieri visited with a place that makes authentic Bavarian pretzels, I was hooked.
There are two interesting parts to the recipe: first, once the pretzels are formed, they are frozen, for at least two hours and up to 3 weeks. Second, this freezing of the pretzels makes it easier to dip the pretzels in food-grade lye without having them lose their beautiful pretzel shape. Yep, lye! You know, that stuff that is the main ingredient is many soaps and drain cleaners? But here, with pretzels, the food-grade lye (safer and less caustic, but still slightly dangerous) is used to create a beautiful brown pretzel that you will not get otherwise.
Fascinated, I cautiously ordered a bottle of sodium hydroxide beads (lye’s chemical name is sodium hydroxide) and waited anxiously for an opportunity to make pretzels. In early October we hosted a party for a Broncos vs. Patriots football game, almost in part because I wanted to make pretzels, Mike wanted to make some of his homemade mustard and we wanted an excuse to clean the house (and get together with friends of course).
Having a former chemistry professor as a father often comes in handy, and this time was no different. I was informed that I should be “careful” with the lye and never, ever, to use aluminum utensils or aluminum bowls with the lye. As my father explained, “It will eat the aluminum, produce hydrogen gas and then explode.” Nifty! On the other hand, food-grade lye has been used for a long time in the making of green olives, lutefisk, hominy and of course, pretzels.
Since the pretzels can and have to be made ahead and put in the freezer, I made them on Thursday and then on that Sunday morning I followed the recipe and dipped the pretzels in their lye/water mixture. I baked them and found to my great joy that the first batch was awesome – and then the second batch, not so much…
You see, I had run out of parchment paper while forming the pretzels, and so had improvised and put several pretzels on wax paper instead of the parchment paper recommended by the recipe. After a nice soak in the lye bath however, the pretzels essentially melded to the wax paper and then it was impossible to remove them from the wax paper. I ended up having to cut them off of the wax paper and leave a disappointing half stuck to wax paper. But admittedly, with the combination of the beautiful brown crust, the lovely chewy dough and Mike’s homemade spicy mustard, the pretzels were a hit.
I’ve made them several times now, and am always pleased with the results. They are a bit of a pain to make, I need at least two days to make them; one day to mix and rise the dough, form the pretzels and then freeze them, and another to dip them in lye, allow them to rise and bake them. But they are so totally worth all the work!
Here’s the recipe:
Fine Cooking’s Bavarian-Style Soft Preztels (makes 6-7 pretzels, around 7 inches across)
1 1/4 tsp active dry yeast
4 1/2 cups unbleached bread flour
2 Tbs. packed light brown sugar
1 Tbs. vegetable oil (more as needed)
2 1/4 kosher salt
1 1/2 Tbs. food-grade lye microbeads
1 large egg, lightly beaten
1 Tbs. pretzel or course salt
1. Combine the yeast and 1 1/2 cups lukewarm water in the bowl of a stand mixer and allow the yeast to dissolve and bloom. Add the flour, sugar, oil and salt and mix on low speed until the dough forms a ball. Add water as needed if the dough is too floury.
2. Transfer the dough to an lightly oiled board or counter and knead the dough until it is smooth and elastic. Form the dough into a ball and transfer to a lightly oiled bowl, cover with plastic wrap and allow it to rise until the dough has doubled in size.
3. Once the dough has risen divide it into portions that weigh as close to 6 ounces as possible (I weigh each ball) and then allow the balls to rest on an oiled surface for 20-30 minutes.
4. On the oiled surface, with lightly oiled fingers, roll each ball into a long “snake” that measures 30 inches long and then form each snake into a “U”, with the bottom the “U” closest to you. Cross the ends of the “U” into an “X”, about two inches from the end, twist the ends once and then bring the ends towards the bottom of the “U”. Move the pretzel to a baking sheet that is covered in Silpat or lightly oiled parchment paper (don’t use wax paper!).
5. Cover the pretzels with plastic wrap and allow them to freeze for at least two hours and up to three weeks.
6. 2 hours before you need the pretzels, remove them from the freezer.
7. Making sure to be wearing plastic gloves when handling the lye, in a stainless steel bowl, pour two cups of cold water and then add the lye. Using a stainless steel whisk, stir the lye/water until the lye is dissolved.
8. Using stainless steel tongs (or a stainless steel spoon) carefully dip each pretzel (one at the time) in the lye mixture for 5-8 seconds, flipping gently if the whole pretzel does not fit into the lye bath. Remove carefully from the lye bath and place back on the baking sheet. (Dispose of the lye by pouring the lye bath slowly down the sink drain and washing all of your stainless steel utensils well.)
9. Allow the pretzels to rise (and thaw) for 1 1/2 hours – 2 hours until they are soft and puffy. Then pre-heat the oven to 400 degrees.
10. This step is optional, but I like to brush the pretzels in an egg wash (1 large lightly beaten egg), prior to salting generously with pretzel salt or coarse salt (I use kosher salt).
11. If possible, put another baking sheet underneath the one with pretzels on it so that the pretzels do not burn while baking. Place on a center positioned rack and bake for 22 minutes or until the pretzels are a deep brown.
When I made pretzel buns last weeks (for bratwurst burgers) I used the above recipe, but simply took the formed 6 oz balls of dough from Step 3 above, allowed them to rise briefly, froze them, and then dipped each ball in the lye the next day. After the buns had risen I brushed them with egg wash, salted them and then made small slashes in the tops with a knife to allow the dough to expand during baking. This produced wonderful, chewy buns that were great for our bratwurst burgers (also served with Mike’s homemade spicy mustard – yum!)
In the end, even though the recipe is a little work and I must be especially careful to wear gloves and have no children in the kitchen when I am working with the lye, I am totally addicted to these pretzels. They are at once chewy and soft, the perfect companions for mustard (or cheese if that’s your fancy) and are the best when freshly made and only briefly out of the oven.