The Science of Pretzels

Ever since living in Germany as a child I’ve loved pretzels. I remember going to cafe and seeing racks of them hanging there ready to be eaten. In the UK decent soft pretzels are hard to come by so on a wet, cold Thursday afternoon I decided to have a go at making my own.

Traditionally pretzels are bathed in a lye (sodium hydroxide) solution before being baked, this helps give them the chewy, darkened crust. My local chemist already looks at me suspiciously after I asked for saltpetre, so I decided to go for the safer option of a sodium bicarbonate solution (water and bicarbonate of soda).

Well they worked ok. They certainly had the right texture and taste, but lost their shape while being dipped. I think that may be due to the fact I’m still getting used to making dough in my KitchenAid and often find that dough comes out quite wet and springy.

I made 4 pretzels in total and dipped 3. It’s clear in the photograph which have been dipped, the dark ones. The sodium bicarbonate solution is an base. When the pretezel is dipped in the solution and baked it causes the Maillard reaction to occur, which is similar to caramalisation. This in turn allows lots of new flavour compounds to be created, explaining why although pretzels are made with basic bread ingredients they taste very different to conventional bread. The dipped prezels have an almost green/yellow sheen that is more noticable on the underside. I assume this is something to do with the Maillard reaction.

Interestingly there is a big differece in taste and texture between the pretzels that had been dipped and not dipped. The dipped pretzels tasted really good, even if they did look ugly and the undipped pretzel tasted like a dry, chewy bread roll.

The recipe I used is based on a Alton Brown recipe, but I sized it down and converted it to grams.

Soft German Pretzels
Makes 4 large pretzels

190ml warm water (60ml of boiling + 130ml cold water)
1 1/2 tsp sugar
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp active dry yeast
325g plain flour
25g unsalted butter, melted
1 1/4 litres of water
40g bicarbonate of soda
1 egg yolk beaten with 1 tbsp water
coarse sea salt

1) In a large bowl mix together warm water, sugar salt and yeast. Leave for 5 min and allow to foam. Into the large bowl add the flour and melted butter. Mix until you have a dough then knead for 5 min if you have a mixer or 10 min by hand.

2) Place dough into oiled bowl, cover and allow to rise in a warm place for 1-2 hours, or until the dough has doubled in size. (I have discovered my airing cupboard is the perfect place for rising dough)

3) Knock back the dough and cut into 4. Roll the dough into a long sausage shape then knot into a pretzel shape. Place on a baking sheet onto of oiled baking parchment.

4) In a large saucepan get the water and bicarbonate of soda onto a rolling boil. 1 by 1 place the pretzel into the boiling water and take out after 30 seconds. Place back on the baking tray. Brush pretzels with the beaten egg then sprinkle with salt.

5) Bake in a 230oc preheated oven for 12-15 min. Allow to cool on wire rack before eating. Ideally they need to be eaten the day they are made.

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