The other day I was sitting at a local bar catching a game of football with a friend. The bartender handed us a bowl of pretzels. Noshing on a few over a beer, I got to thinking.
I can’t remember the last time I had a really great pretzel. Freshly puffed and temptingly aromatic, they’re the ones with the deep brown sheen that -- if you’re lucky -- you get still warm, the large specks of salt catching the light just so as they’re slid out of the oven.
Chance upon a good bakery at the right time, and you might be able to snag one. But homemade? Until recently, I simply didn’t think it was possible. But I couldn’t shake the thought of trying. It took a little trial and error, but I’ve found the process is surprisingly easy (well, except for twisting them in the air -- like flipping pizza dough, that takes practice).
The secret? Lye.
The dough is simple; take a basic yeast-risen dough that can be readied in an afternoon. But the trick to great pretzels is dipping the pretzels in a liquid wash before baking -- and not just any wash, but a combination of water and lye. That’s what gives pretzels their terrific color, texture and flavor.
Hear the word “lye” and you probably think of commercial drain opener. A powerful alkali, lye (typically sodium hydroxide or potassium hydroxide) is often used in heavy cleaning and soap making, and it can be highly corrosive.
But alkalies, like lye, are also widely used in the food world, a common one being baking soda (a mild alkali, the soda reacts with acidic ingredients to help leaven baked goods). Commercially, corn is often treated with alkali (“nixtamalization”) to make hominy. Cocoa powder can be treated with alkali (Dutch process) to neutralize the acid, giving the powder a milder flavor and richer color. Lye is also used in the curing of olives, the canning of mandarin oranges and the preparation of Chinese “century eggs” and Nordic lutefisk.
When shopping, look for food-grade lye; it’s of a higher quality than technical-grade lyes (what you might find at a hardware store), meaning it has lower levels of heavy-metal impurities (mercury, nickel, etc.). It can be hard to find at the grocery store, but it’s easy to find online. I got it from Essential Depot ( www.essentialdepot.com).
With pretzels, the dough is dipped in a very mild solution of lye; most sources I found call for a 3% solution, which is about 2 tablespoons (1 ounce) of lye dissolved in a quart of water. When the pretzel is dipped in the solution, the lye immediately begins to react with the surface of the dough, yellowing it. As it bakes, the color intensifies and turns a deep, glossy brown, the pretzel taking on a crisp, chewy texture. The alkali is neutralized in the process, making the pretzel safe to eat.
The alkaline environment also promotes the Maillard reaction, that familiar chemical process that leads to browning of such foods as bread, steaks and French fries.
Of course, lye is powerful, and if not used properly it can be dangerous. You should always wear gloves and goggles when working with lye; it is caustic and can burn if it comes in direct contact with your skin. I didn’t pay attention to the warnings when I first used it on the pretzels and, even at that mild concentration, my hands stung for days.
If you’re not comfortable using lye, there are alternatives. I tested the recipe with other washes to see how they compared. A baking soda (mild alkaline) wash creates a noticeable change in color, texture and flavor, but there is no sheen and the results are not as dramatic as lye. An egg white wash provides a clear sheen, though it doesn’t do much for color or texture. Whole eggs give wonderful sheen and color, though they won’t produce the same crust and flavor you would get from an alkaline-based wash.
I also tested the recipe with a “baked soda” wash. Food science writer Harold McGee recommends baking regular baking soda to increase its alkalinity. As baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) is heated, it undergoes a chemical reaction, forming sodium carbonate. The pretzels had better flavor and color than the other alternative washes, but it’s still not the same as lye.
Soft pretzels bake in almost no time, 10 to 15 minutes, give or take, depending on the size. Serve them right away: Soft pretzels are best straight out of the oven; they just don’t taste as good after they’ve sat around. For hard pretzels, roll them a little thinner and make them smaller (a giant hard pretzel is just awkward) and bake them at a slightly lower temperature for a longer period of time to dry them out.
Or try something a little different. Just the other evening I tried shaping pretzels in a rustic Swabian style, with thin little arms and a fat “belly,” a slash splitting the center. Hot as they were, I couldn’t help but grab one just out of the oven and take a bite. The crisp skin almost snapped as I bit through the center, giving way to a slightly chewy center. Soft as the center was, the little arms had dried and hardened to an amazing crunch. Worlds away from any sort of bar snack, this was a memorable pretzel.
Here is a comparison of some of the different washes that can be used for pretzels:
This is the classic pretzel wash that creates a rich brown sheen with thin crust. To make enough wash for one batch of pretzels, dissolve 1 ounce (about 2 tablespoons) food-grade lye in 1 quart of warm water (add the lye to the water, not the other way around). Wear gloves and goggles while using this wash; lye is caustic and can burn if it comes into contact with your skin or eyes. Place the wash in a shallow glass baking dish and dip the pretzels for about 10 seconds on each side to coat. Shake off any excess lye and place the pretzels on a greased, non-aluminum baking sheet.
Baked baking soda
The flavor from this wash is somewhat similar to lye, but the color isn’t as dark or shiny, and the crust isn’t as crisp. Harold McGee recommends spreading a layer of baking soda on an aluminum foil-lined baking sheet. Heat the oven between 250 and 300 degrees and bake the soda for 1 hour. To store, keep the soda in a tightly sealed jar so it does not absorb moisture from the air. To make enough wash for 1 batch of pretzels, dissolve 1 1/3 cups baked soda in 1 quart warm water. Place the wash in a glass bowl and immerse the pretzels for 3 to 4 minutes. Rinse the pretzels in a large bowl of plain water before baking.
Plain baking soda
Probably the easiest alkaline wash to make, it lends a mild tang, though the pretzels are not as crisp or thin, and there is little to no sheen. To make enough for one batch of pretzels, dissolve 1/4 cup soda in 1 quart of water in a small pot. Bring the mixture to a simmer, then remove from heat. Dip the pretzels in the wash for 20 to 30 seconds before baking.
This wash gives great color and sheen, but it does not give the same snap and won’t give the pretzels the same flavor as an alkaline wash. To make enough for 1 batch of pretzels, beat 2 eggs in a medium bowl, thinning if desired with a little water. Brush onto the pretzels before baking.
This wash gives the pretzels sheen but little to no color and won’t give the pretzels the same flavor as an alkaline wash. To make enough for 1 batch of pretzels, beat 2 egg whites in a medium bowl. Brush onto the pretzels before baking.
Although you could probably top a pretzel with almost anything, there are certain toppings and combinations that work best.
Coarse salt is always a favorite. You can find “pretzel salt” at many cooking and baking supply stores, as well as select gourmet markets. Substitute another coarse salt if you can’t locate it, but stay away from fine table salt -- the fine grain can melt into the pretzel as it bakes, and you won’t get the same wonderful “crunch” you get with coarse salt.
You can also try one or a combination of seeds, such as sunflower, pumpkin, poppy and sesame. Some herbs and spices also work well as toppings.
Top the pretzels with the salt and/or seeds right after they come out of the wash so the toppings stick, before the wash has a chance to dry.
Other toppings are best added shortly before the pretzels are done baking or after they are removed from the oven, to keep them from burning in the oven’s high heat. Top pretzels with grated cheese (or a blend of cheese and herbs or spices) a minute or two before they come out of the oven so the cheese has a chance to melt without scorching.
Freshly baked pretzels can be brushed or dunked in melted butter before topping (the butter will help the toppings to stick). Sprinkle over cinnamon sugar, or a blend of spices and grated dry cheese (such as Parmigiano-Reggiano).
Consider drizzling over melted chocolate, or just go all out and dunk the pretzels in chocolate before serving