I don’t like pretzels in general, but I do love a good Bavarian soft pretzel. I’ve never made them and they’ve been on my list for a while. But last week, after a trip to Milwaukee where they’re already celebrating Oktoberfest (German roots are anchored deep in Wisconsin), pretzels climbed to the top of my to-do list.
What makes Bavarian pretzels special is the dark, chewy crust which, as the legend goes, was an accident. According to German Food Guide, in the early 19th century a baker accidentally brushed his pretzels with a cleaning solution rather than his sugar-water wash. The result was so pleasing to his palate, he turned it into a traditional method to make the pretzels that we know as German pretzels today.
I combed through many recipes for Bavarian pretzels and I found you can achieve the chewy crust using either lye (LYE!!!!!!) or baking soda.
Two things that lye remind me of:
1) how pioneers used to make soap using lye and
2) the scene in Malcolm X in which Denzel Washington had to dunk his head in water because they lye used to straighten his hair burned his scalp.
A dangerous element to use on food, methinks. There’s no way I could trust myself with something that toxic — particularly when directions indicate you need gloves and goggles to work with it.
What I found fascinating in my research is that Grant Achatz (Alinea, James Beard Award Winner, recipient of numerous “best chef/restaurant in the world” awards) shared his recipe for Bavarian pretzels with Food & Wine Magazine. If you don’t know anything about Achatz, he’s a serious tinkerer in the kitchen. He’s known and celebrated for molecular gastronomy — making foam from a kiwi or creating vapors that taste like bubble gum or some such gastronomical nonsense. Surprisingly, he didn’t use the lye method for his pretzels; he used the safe, less complicated baking soda method. Also, he didn’t twist them into a pretzel knot, he made pretzel bread sticks — but I’ll address that later.
Besides not putting myself through the anxiety of using a volatile, skin-melting substance, I wanted to use ingredients I already have (lard — I have a whole tub of it! and buttermilk — I only use it for pie dough) and need to get rid of.
From what I’ve gathered, methods and ingredients for pretzels are basically the same with slight variations. My method and ingredients are a melange of about five recipes (two from Food & Wine, NYTimes, BBC Good Food, and Saveur) with adjustments based on what I felt like doing and what I had on hand.
- 4 ½ cups flour
- 1 tb active dry yeast
- 1 3/4 cups buttermilk
- ¼ cup brown sugar
- 2 tb lard, melted
- 10 cups water
- 1/2 cup baking soda
- 1 egg +splash of water
- kosher salt
- In a mixing bowl, stir together the sugar, lard and buttermilk. Sprinkle the yeast on top of the mixture and let stand for 5-7 minutes or when the yeast starts to foam. Stir in 1 cup of flour, cover with plastic and let it sit and bubble for three hours or however long you’d like — according to BBC Good Food, the longer you let it sit, the better the sour/yeasty flavor you get.
I took this time as an opportunity to go to the farmers market to get poblano mustard from Co-op Sauce to go with the pretzels. I tried to find brats (an appropriate German accompaniment to pretzels), but got distracted by Underground Meats from Madison, Wisconsin. They make fabulous dry-cured meats using humanely treated pigs and goats (for a meat-eating animal lover, this makes me very happy). I think Morrpolse is a fine substitute for brats.
When I got home, my apartment smelled like beer. I determined that three hours was enough time to ferment.
- At this point add the remaining flour to your yeast mixture. Using the hook attachment, stir on low for ten minutes. Cover the bowl in plastic and let stand until the dough has doubled in size — about 30 minutes, but keep an eye on it; you don’t want to let it rise too much or you’ll end up with spongy pretzels.
- Punch down the dough and scale it.
This is where I made some misjudgements. I scaled the dough into 6 equal pieces (6.28 oz each — if you don’t have a kitchen scale, I highly recommend picking one up; they’re so choice). They were pretty big pieces and they only got bigger. I’m not a novice at working with yeast dough, so I did find it odd that Saveur’s recipe used four cups of flour for two pretzels. I expected big, but if I had tried to make two pretzels from that much flour, they would have been the size of car tires. I intended to make them small, but even the small ones were huge.
- Brush some melted butter on a sheet pan. Line the pan with parchment paper and brush a little more butter on top of the paper.
- On a lightly floured surface, roll each piece of dough into a very long, thin rope. Bring the two ends together, twist the tops together and fold over to make a pretzel shape (it’s very easy). Place on parchment paper-lined sheet pan. Let stand for ten minutes and then refrigerate for an hour.
In my first attempt, my dough wasn’t super thin, but it twisted nicely into a pretzel shape and when left to proof, it still looked nice. Unfortunately, it turned into a giant blob when the baking soda method was applied — disastrously ugly, but still delicious).
- Preheat oven to 500℉.
- In a large pot, stir together the water and baking soda and bring to a simmer over high heat. Just as it starts to bubble, reduce the heat to medium-low. Using a slotted spatula, carefully lift one pretzel off the sheet pan and lower it into the simmering water. Let it cook for 30 seconds, turn it and let it cook for another 30 seconds before removing it from the water and placing it on your sheet pan for baking. Repeat for remaining pretzels.
This is very difficult. At least it’s very difficult if you want your pretzels to look perfect. I suspect this is why Achatz made bread sticks. Frankly, now that I look back at his methods, he was intentionally being very kind to the home cook — he wants us to succeed!
- Score the dough if you’re making rolls. Brush with egg wash. Sprinkle with kosher salt (be generous since there’s no salt in the dough). Bake for about 15 minutes or until the crust is dark brown.
Serve hot or at room temperature — they’re delicious either way. I recommend serving it with mustard mixed with melted butter (about 1 TB mustard to 1 tsp of butter). It’s magical. If you can get your hands on poblano mustard, it’s magical sprinkled with pixie dust. This recipe makes 12 4″ Bavarian pretzels.