Remember when I bought myself 2 pounds of food grade lye as a Christmas present? That investment has paid off with these beauties.
I’ve been working on soft Bavarian-style pretzels since before Christmas. I think I’ve got it down. Today I’m making a batch to take to my friend’s Super Bowl party, along with a double batch of my best grilled chicken wings.
The thing about real Bavarian pretzels is the crust. It has to be dark, mahogany brown with a leathery chew. It also has to have that distinctive, mineraly taste that separates a pretzel from a knotted bread stick.
There are several ways to achieve that crusty. Some recipes call for a simple egg wash. Others for a bath in a hot solution of baking soda and water. The really authentic recipes say a quick dip in hot lye is the only way to go.
I tested four variations of these methods to find out what the best technique was. I used a double blind test with my family as testers. Some family members thought that was a bit excessive, but this was for Science!
I made one batch of dough, divided it into eight pieces and treated two pretzel test groups with each of the following:
- Brush with egg wash
- Dip in 2 quarts boiling water and 1/2 cup baking soda
- Dip in 6 cups hot water (about 180° F) and 2 TBS food grade lye
- Dip in 6 cups water, heated to a boil and allowed to cool slightly, and 2 TBS food grade lye
I arranged the test pretzels on the baking sheet so that one of each group was on the outside of the sheet and one on the inside. I also rotated the tray half way through cooking to ensure even baking.
The results were clear.
The egg wash control group (top left) was just bread sticks. No crust, no flavor. Very similar to those things Aunt Annie tries to pass off as pretzels at the mall.
The baking soda group (top right) was a big improvement. In fact, on their own merits they were almost perfectly acceptable pretzels.
But the two lye treated groups were the winners. Half of the raters preferred the warm lye treated pretzels (lower left). The other half preferred the hot lye treatment (lower right).
I voted for the hot lye treated group, but only by a small margin. Given that even a fairly weak lye solution is pretty nasty stuff, I’m going with the warm lye treatment today. Even with gloves and goggles, warm lye seems safer than near boiling lye.
1 pkg dry active yeast (2 1/4 tsp)
1 TBS packed dark brown sugar
1/2 cup very warm water, about 110 – 115° F
4 cups (17 oz) all purpose flour plus several TBS for work surface
2 tsp salt
1/2 cup cold lager beer
3 TBS butter, softened and cut into small chunks
2 TBS vegetable oil
2 – 4 TBS of kosher salt
In a small measuring cup, mix yeast and brown sugar in water. Allow yeast to bloom for five to ten minutes.
Mix flour and salt in bowl of stand mixer. Using dough hook and mixer on low speed, add the water and beer to the flour.
Add softened butter, one piece at a time.
Knead dough at medium low speed for six to eight minutes. Dough will be smooth and sticky.
Drink remaining beer. This will give you strength for what comes next.
Knead dough on lightly floured surface, by hand, for two to four minutes. Dough should be very smooth, elastic and tacky but not sticky.
Place oil in large mixing bowl and coat bowl completely. Place dough in oiled bowl. Turn to coat with oil. Cover with plastic wrap. If you’re in a hurry, let rise at room temperature for one hour. If you have the time, you’ll get a better flavor is you place the dough in the refrigerator and let rise over night.
Either way, the dough should double.
Gently flatten the dough and cut into 12 equal pieces.
Cover dough pieces with moist towel. Remove one piece and shape piece into a rough rectangle.
Tightly roll the rectangle into a cylinder and pinch seam shut.
Starting with the seam down, roll the dough into a long, thin rope, about 24 inches long.
Do not flour your work surface. You need a little friction between the dough and the counter top to stretch the dough out long enough. If, after rolling out a couple of pretzels, the dough starts to stick to the counter, scrap the counter clean with a bench knife.
Using your fingers and the palms of your hands, start at the center of the dough and begin rolling the dough back and forth. With even pressure, start moving your hands toward the ends of the dough, stretching the center as you go. Stop once or twice to let the dough relax. Once you have the dough the right length, apply more pressure to the ends to taper them.
You need to get the ropes really long and really thin to allow for some snap back as you handle the dough. Otherwise, you’ll get big, bready pretzel, like the ones in my lye test. Not nice thin ones like the first photo.
Form the rope into a U, with the open end of the U facing away from you.
Twist the arms of the U over themselves, starting about 2/3 the way up the U.
Bring the ends of the arms back over the lower part of the U and pinch to form the pretzel.
Place pretzel on parchment lined baking sheet. Cover with moist towel. Repeat with remaining dough.
Score the loops and lower curve of the pretzels with a lame, razor or very sharp knife.
Cover with plastic wrap and allow to rise for half an hour.
Position oven racks in the top-middle and lower-middle positions. Pre-heat oven to 400° F.
Working with lye
Lye is dangerous. Always use safety goggles and rubber gloves when working with lye. The water/lye solution used here is roughly as reactive as drain cleaner. If you get it on your hands, it will burn. If you get it in your eyes, it will ruin your day and possibly your vision.
In a shallow stainless steel pot, heat six cups of water. Only use stainless steel. Aluminium and coated cookware might react to the lye.
When vapor is just starting to rise from water (about 180° F), remove from heat. Wearing gloves and safety goggles, slowly add two TBS of food grade lye. When the lye hits the water, it will start to bubble and fizz furiously. If you dump all the lye in at once, it can foam up, over the top of the pot.
Stir to dissolve.
Working quickly (but safely), dip each pretzel in the lye solution for 10 to 20 seconds. Using a stainless steel spoon or strainer, flip pretzels once halfway through dip.
Place on parchment lined baking sheet, allowing plenty of room between pretzels.
(My son did a couple of these, so they weren’t the prettiest pretzels at the Oktoberfest.)
Sprinkle with kosher salt. Salt should cover the pretzels evenly, but not coat them.
Bake for 15 to 20 minutes, switching sheets between upper and lower racks half way through.
Crusts should be dark brown and the whole kitchen should smell like pretzels.