A while ago I wrote about my quest for a “proper” soft sourdough pretzel in Winnipeg. I wanted the salty, puffy, toothsome, slightly bitter outside and a soft chewy interior – not the horrible, sweet bready things you get from a place like Auntie Anne’s. Some people knew what I was talking about, but the only place they could recall seeing them was at a fair. (And I wasn’t able to find them on our trip to the Red River Ex.) Most people, though, directed me back to a place like Auntie Anne’s, or told me about a product like Snyder’s (a product which 1) wasn’t what I was looking for, as those pretzels are hard, not soft, and 2) aren’t available in Winnipeg.)
Looking for recipes led me down dead ends as well, since I’m still looking for a good sourdough starter. The starter that I made myself was rather anemic, and didn’t actually taste very sour. I know that you can buy authentic San Francisco starter at various places, but I haven’t found anywhere in town that sells it. (I may have to mail order some.)
It wasn’t until I went home to visit family and we went to Quaker Steak and Lube that I realized there was another name for these soft pretzels: Bavarian. A quick visit to Google, and suddenly I was swimming in recipes that didn’t call for sourdough starter. Why had I never connected Bavarian pretzels with “sourdough” pretzels? After talking to a few friends back home, I found that “sourdough pretzel” was used interchangably with “Bavarian pretzel,” except when they were different things, or when “sourdough” was used as a modifier for a Bavarian-style pretzel. Confused? So was I. After sitting down with some charts and graphs, I figured out that there were actually three different pretzels in question here: the hard sourdough pretzels (ala Snyder’s), Bavarian-style pretzels (the puffy, chewy pretzels I have been craving), and Bavarian-style sourdough pretzels (puffy, chewy pretzels made with a sourdough yeast).
Once I sorted that out, I began looking for a usable recipe. Most of them looked easy enough – flour, yeast, sugar of some sort. My next difficulty I had was the process of making the pretzels. Authentic Bavarian pretzels are boiled in a weak lye solution. The chemical reaction of the hot lye with the dough in the water bath is the difference between making pretzels and salty bagels. Problem: I didn’t want lye in the house, in any form. Not with the cats and such – it just didn’t seem worth it. (That, and boiling lye in the house? No way!) Lye is sodium hydroxide (NaOH); a quick Google search showed that sodium carbonate (Na2CO3) is often used as a substitute, especially in cooking applications. Unfortunately, it didn’t seem as though you could pop down to the corner store and pick up a box of food-grade sodium carbonate.
At this point, I have to give credit where credit is due. When I bemoaned the fact that “authentic” pretzels needed lye, my husband suggested that I use baking soda (aka sodium bicarbonate, or NaHCO3) instead. I foolishly disregarded his command of chemistry. So when I found a recipe which called for a bath of (gasp!) baking soda in water, I apologized to him. Baking soda is an alkali salt, just like lye; it just isn’t as strong. So instead of using a very weak lye solution, you could use a strong baking soda solution.
All of the pieces were in place. I knew what to call the pretzels, I had a promising recipe, and I had the alkaline pre-baking bath to put them in. It was time to make pretzels!
I’ve made this recipe several times now since getting back home from Ohio, and I’ve slowly tweaked the process. The very first time I made the pretzels, so many things went wrong! The pretzels were covered in so much flour (from rolling them out into pretzel shapes) that the pot of baking soda water foamed up tremendously as soon as they touched the water. I didn’t drain them completely before putting them on the baking sheet, so the baking soda baked onto the sheets and made a mess. I didn’t have any coarse salt; I tried using chunks of sea salt (like, before they go into a grinder)… Just picture a pretzel with a 10-carat size chunk of salt stuck to it. And I was still getting the hang of how big to make them, so I ended up with some really fat pretzels (which browned too much on top and set off the smoke alarm), and ones that were way too skinny.
But after three or four attempts, I think I have it! I used this recipe without any substantial changes, so I won’t reproduce it here. (My only tweak to the dough was to add a bit more water than was called for in order for the dough to come together, but I think that was because our winter air is so dry.) I floured my hands rather than the table surface (to prevent the dough from sticking to my hands when I was rolling out the “sticks.”) I used silicone baking pads, which worked fantastically. I also let the pretzels rest for a few minutes on a baking rack after they were removed from the water bath in order to let them drain. And coarse salt is essential: these pretzels are not for people on a low-sodium diet!
They are fantastic, and taste “authentic” to me. I’m sure some purist will complain that they aren’t real pretzels unless they’ve been dipped in lye. To that I say: “Then go make your own damn pretzels!” These have exactly the
right mouth feel, and just the right touch of a bitter/sweet twang when they hit your mouth. Colour me pleased.
The only problem I have left is storing them. These are moist pretzels. They are best when consumed right away (and still warm from the oven), but it is nice to store them for later. (A few seconds in the microwave heats them up wonderfully. Serve with nacho cheese or a spicy mustard.) But if you put them in a plastic bag, the salt “melts” off of them, and they come out of the bag feeling a bit soggy. If you leave them out, like in a bread box or something, they turn into little rocks. I tried just wrapping them in wax paper, but that’s like putting them in a bag. My next try will be a cookie tin, since those aren’t 100% airtight, but they keep stuff from going stale so fast. Does anyone have any other ideas?
I now have two legs of my holy trinity: beer and pretzels. All I need now are some excellent wings. The quest continues: stay tuned!