Here’s proof that I bake more than bread: I made pretzels today.I made them for a bake sale, and they had to be ready to go at noon. I wanted the pretzels to be very fresh and soft, but didn’t want to get up at the crack of dawn to make them. The compromise was to put together and knead the dough last night, then refrigerate it over night so that it was risen and ready to go in the morning. That worked very well, and the cold dough was fine for this recipe. I also double it, in order to make 16 pretzels – and let me tell you, measuring out 44 ounces of flour is a bit on the intimidating side! I hand kneaded the dough, which was good because I don’t think my mixer would have handled it. Left in the fridge overnight, it had doubled up nicely.
In the morning, I dumped this basketball-sized hunk of dough out on the counter. With my dough scraper, I divided the dough in half, then the halves in half, rolled those wedges back into balls and quartered those. That left me with 16 oddly shaped pieces of dough:
The next step is to start rolling each of those into a rope. When you first start, it seems like you can only roll that much dough out into a kind of short snake:
But this will not do! You must keep rolling until your dough is an unbelievable 24″ long.
This starts as an exercise in frustration, because you roll and roll and as soon as you let go, the whole thing shrinks back to where you started. This is because the gluten that has made your dough rise so beautifully is very elastic and springy. Stretching it is a bit like pulling on a rubber band. So you have to get aggressive with your dough, pushing down on it with much more force than you’d think necessary. After a few of them, it gets quite natural.
Once you have your 24″ rope of dough, you lift it by both ends and lay it on the parchment paper on the baking sheet in a “U” shape, then swing the two ends to the center to form the pretzel shape. This is where you will realize why you needed 24″ of dough. Remember the springy part? That dough is going to shorten up considerable in the transfer, leaving you with a just-right-sized pretzel. Mash the two ends into the rope so that they will stay. They won’t want to, because everything has it’s nice gluten skin. Don’t worry about denting things up at this point; it’s all going to rise some more. Just make sure they are well-stuck together, because if they come apart later it’s a pain in the neck.
Four pretzels to each baking sheet, and they look like they’re ready to go, right?
Wrong. If you tried to salt and bake these now, you would end up with the most boring, pale, saltless pretzels ever. These pretzels need another step. They need to be boiled.
Does that sound crazy, boiling dough? Well, it’s how bagels are cooked, too. With pretzels, though, the added ingredient to the water is baking soda. It chemically reacts with the gluten to get that beautiful, dark and glossy pretzel look. Also, to make the salt stick, the boiled pretzels are then brushed with egg yolk mixed with a little water, then the salt is added.
This is the only tricky part of pretzel making, because you have to be ready to do a bunch of stuff at the same time. The pretzels only go into the boiling water for 30 seconds or so (okay, I tend to put them in a little longer, but it’s still short) and you want to get the egg wash and salt on them right away. So you need to be set up for production before you begin:
Boiling water, egg wash and pastry brush, salt, all at hand. The recipe calls for boiling the pretzels one at a time in a sauce pan, but I’ve found that two at a time in a skillet works just fine. Once the first two come out and the next two go in, egg wash and brush the first two. After the others come out, finish them up, too. Don’t worry about rushing the next pretzels in; the water can stand a couple minutes to get back up to full boil. The boiled, salted pretzels don’t look too different from the raw ones yet, but they are definitely puffed up:
After this, it’s into the 450-degree oven. This next picture is nothing more than my bragging about how amazing my oven is, but I just have to show it. Four large trays of pretzels, all perfectly done: three on three shelves in the main oven, evenly cooked because it has convection cooking, one in the bottom drawer second oven:
How cool is that? And there we have it, 16 soft pretzels that people were amazed to learn were homemade, and that sold out in no time at the bake sale.Now you can make them yourself!
The recipe is from Alton Brown’s Food Network page, slightly adapted by me.
Ingredients and instructions
- 1 1/2 cups warm (110 to 115 degrees F) water
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 2 teaspoons kosher salt
- 1 package active dry yeast
Combine in mixing bowl and let yeast dissolve
- 22 ounces all-purpose flour, approximately 4 1/2 cups
- 2 ounces unsalted butter, melted
Add to liquid and mix together. If using a mixer, use dough hook and mix for about 5 minutes. If hand kneading, knead until smooth and pliant, 5-10 minutes. Clean the bowl and lightly oil it, then put dough back into bowl. Allow to rise on the counter for an hour or until doubled, or overnight in the fridge.
Line two cookie sheets with parchment paper. On the stove start the following boiling in a skillet:
- 10 cups water
- 2/3 cup baking soda
Prepare and have on hand the following:
- 1 large egg yolk beaten with 1 tablespoon water
- Pretzel salt or course sea salt
Turn out the dough onto a lightly oiled surface and divide into eight pieces. Roll each piece out to a 24″ rope. Lift the rope up by both ends and let the center of the “U” settle on the parchment-lined cookie sheet. Circle the other two ends around to make the pretzel shape and push the ends into the rope so that they stick. Do this with all the dough balls so that you have 8 pretzels, 4 on each cookie sheet.
Place the pretzels, 2 at a time, into the skillet of boiling water for 30-45 seconds. Some will puff up right away and some will just seem to take longer. Lift them out with a large, slotted spatula that will support the whole pretzel and place it back on the parchment. Don’t worry that there’s some water on the paper. With a pastry brush, wash the surface of the pretzel with the egg wash, then shake your desired amount of salt onto the pretzel.
When all 8 are done, bake for 12-14 minutes at 450 until nicely browned. If your oven doesn’t heat evenly, rotate the trays halfway through. Cool on a wire rack.
The finished product, cooling:
(Oh, and gee. Is that a loaf of homemade bread? Imagine that!)