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A Very Merry Pretzel Christmas

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Soft Pretzels

Apologies for my posting laziness of late – I have been spending the vast majority of my free time working on a knitted shawl for my cousin’s wedding in February. Oh, and shoveling. Because it will NOT. STOP. SNOWING. This had to be the year I decided I was “sick of living in apartments” and wanted something “more like an actual house.” It has snowed so much, in fact, that this was the first Christmas since moving to Iowa that I decided not to make the 4.5 hour drive back to my hometown for the holidays. As Christmas drew closer it seemed more and more likely that everyone else would be stuck here too, and so we had a Very Merry Snowbound Christmas that did not involve ending up in a ditch somewhere along Highway 20.

Soft Pretzels

When I first posted on teh facespaces that I wouldn’t be making the drive to see my family, a friend replied to my post with one word: “pretzels.” This friend was hosting the Christmas party that a slew of snowbound friends would be attending, and had suggested multiple times in the past that I abandon any scientific career aspirations to run a pretzel cart which would follow her around day in and day out, delivering fresh pretzels on demand. Her brother-in-law, an Iowan living in Manhattan, also told me I had real promise as a pretzel cart lady in the big city. (Aren’t people my age supposed to drop everything and move to NYC to pursue their “dreams?” Maybe I missed that boat. Plus, that job sounds really, really cold.) Regardless of your pretzel cart career aspirations, this recipe is definitely a tasty project on a blustery winter day. The pretzels are the perfect party food, and there are many options for baked-on toppings or dips.

Soft Pretzels

The secret to these pretzels is a quick dip in a solution of boiling water and base. I had to go back to the source to figure out exactly why boiling pretzels in a basic solution is necessary for maximum deliciousness. It is actually a pretty interesting process – the heat and the base will quickly denature and break down the proteins on the surface of the pretzel, providing a bunch of shorter-chain peptides that will facilitate browning via the Maillard reaction. The Maillard reaction happens when sugars and proteins react with one another, producing a variety of compounds that are hard to characterize with SCIENCE! but we generally recognize as “brown” and “tasty.” (A fellow graduate student in my group was working on characterizing these Maillard reaction compounds for her PhD thesis and it was very complicated, to say the least.)

The basic environment helps speed up the Maillard reaction two different ways – first, as I mentioned above, there are more small protein pieces to react with the sugars (only one end of the protein can react, and breaking it up creates more ends) and second, the base creates an environment in which it is easier (see: thermodynamics) for the sugars to react with the end of the protein. Phew. That was a lot of SCIENCE!, but I hope you at least got the gist of it: boiling in base = brown & tasty. I have made you a drawring to summarize:


Truly authentic pretzels are boiled in a bath of lye, or sodium hydroxide as we call it in the chemistry biz. Considering it is expensive and downright dangerous to do this in your own home, we’ll stick with a slightly less exciting base, sodium bicarbonate or baking soda. This means a pretty big sacrifice on the pH scale, with the sodium bicarbonate solution having a pH around 8 or 9, and the lye solution having a pH around 13. What this means in pretzel terms is that the lye solution is going to be able to denature and break up a lot more proteins, thus producing more brown and tasty. The authentic lye-dipped pretzels would have a much harder and crunchier exterior than the pretzels produced by this method or anything you’d buy at the mall. However, this is still a basic solution and you’re going to need a non-reactive pot for the baking soda solution, something made of stainless steel or possessing an enameled coating. Stay away from aluminum and cast iron for this task.

Soft Pretzels

Soft Pretzels

Adapted from Alton Brown

Yield: 16 pretzels

Note: I made a 1.5 times batch and made the pretzels slightly smaller from the original recipe since I was taking these as a party finger food. My adjustments are below.

For the Pretzels

18 oz warm water (110-115 °F/43-45 °C)

1.5 Tablespoons sugar

3 teaspoons kosher salt

1.5 package/3.75 teaspoons instant yeast (bread machine yeast)

33 oz all-purpose flour (about 6.75 cups, I used half AP/half bread flour)

6 Tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly

1-2 egg yolk beaten with 1-2 Tablespoons water for egg wash

Coarse pretzel salt or kosher salt

Spray oil for bowl and parchment paper/silpats for pans

For Baking Soda Bath

10 cups water

2/3 cup baking soda

Make the Dough

1. If you are using active dry yeast, mix the sugar and salt into the warm water and sprinkle the yeast on top. Allow to proof for 5 minutes, or until the mixture begins to foam slightly. This step is not necessary for instant/bread machine yeast, although it doesn’t hurt.

2. If using instant yeast, whisk together flour, sugar, salt, and yeast. Mix in melted butter and pour in the water.  Combine with a wooden spoon or the paddle attachment of a stand mixer until the ingredients are well mixed.

3. Switch to the hook attachment on the stand mixer and knead on medium speed for 4-5 minutes, or 6-8 minutes by hand. Rinse out and oil the mixing bowl, form the pretzel dough into a ball and roll around in the bowl to coat in oil. Cover with plastic wrap and allow to rise until doubled, about 1 hour.

Shape the Pretzels

1. When the dough is almost doubled in size, mix the 10 cups of water and 2/3 cup baking soda in a non-reactive pan, and bring to a rolling boil. Preheat the oven to 450 °F/230 °C and line two half sheet pans with parchment or silpats.

2. Once the dough has doubled in size, remove from the bowl onto a lightly oiled work surface and punch down slightly to remove gas pockets. Divide the dough into 16 equal pieces (I used my kitchen scale here). Roll the dough into 6″ ropes and allow to rest for a few minutes so that the gluten can relax.

3. Once the ropes have relaxed, continue rolling out until the ropes are about 18-20″ in length. Form into a pretzel shape and set aside.

4. Once you have formed 6 pretzels, use a slotted spoon or spider to dip them one by one into the boiling water, for 30 seconds each. Remove the boiled pretzel and place on one of the prepared sheet pans. After boiling the batch of 6 pretzels, brush each pretzel with egg wash and sprinkle with salt.

5. Bake the pretzels for 10-12 minutes, or until dark golden brown. Place on a cooling rack for at least 5 minutes before serving.

Serving options: Velveeta + canned chillis dip, mustard, cinnamon, butter, jam, garlic butter, etc.

This recipe takes about 2 hours from start to finish, and the pretzels are best eaten the day they are made.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. melanie permalink
    Wednesday, January 20, 2010 6:23 pm

    I need to make these 🙂 And I didn’t know that you had a group member analyzing tasty brown bits!


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