Perfect Soft Pretzels
My cravings for soft pretzels generally lie dormant for months at a time, until I find myself walking through a mall at 11 am and the smell of buttery baked goods starts wafting over from an Auntie Anne’s type establishment. I try to keep my head down and scurry past as quickly as possible, but I’ll be thinking about soft, salty pretzels for the rest of the day.
In June, when Mike and I were deeply entrenched in the FIFA World Cup and Saucer escapades, as a hat-tip to the German team we made Rouladen (beef wrapped around bacon and pickles, because, c’mon), but I kept thinking about German street food….specifically, the joy of giant pretzels served with a sweetly pungent mustard for dipping. It’s been weeks since the World Cup, and yet every day or two I start twisting the idea around in my mind again. Soft pretzels. Salty, soft pretzels. Richly browned fresh baked pretzels. Last week I decided to make a batch of sweet grainy mustard, and there is a distinct possibility that the mustard was naught but my subconscious telling me that when you have mustard you ought to have pretzels.
The first time I made soft pretzels I was 12 years old. My class was trotted around to different high schools in an enrollment drive that was only thinly veiled as “learning seminars”, and I had signed up to Build a Better Birdhouse, Cook Like A Chef, and….something else that obviously had no lasting impact (the birdhouse, by the way, still stands at my parent’s cottage). Cooking like a chef, as luck would have it, involved herding preteens into the home economics room and teaching them how to make pretzels.
This wasn’t just the first time that I had ever made soft pretzels, it was also the first time that I had ever eaten soft pretzels. Boiling and baking soft, supple dough was like a culinary enlightenment for me, and from that point on I was a die-hard soft pretzel fan.
Over the years I have experimented with soft pretzel recipes, deviating from the original black-flecked photocopied recipe that we were given that day. It was a good pretzel recipe, easy enough to use (as evidenced by the fact that even a child could make them), but I knew that it could be better. For a start, I don’t like my soft pretzels to have a hard crust like the originals did. I also like my pretzels to have a rich, dark color, so I started using an egg wash. Good pretzels should have just a hint of gentle sweetness, so a moderate amount of sugar entered the mix. Oh, and I like them to be soft but toothsome, so I’ve added in a bit of milk and a drizzle of butter for flavor and texture.
At the risk of tooting my own horn, I think that I’ve finally got it just right. Soft pretzels with a rich pretzel flavor, glorious deep color, and soft but slightly chewy texture. If you like the pretzel kiosk at your local mall, consider yourself lucky because these come pretty darn close….but at a fraction of the price.
Perfect Soft Pretzels
Makes 8 medium/large soft pretzels
- 1 tablespoon active yeast
- 3/4 cup warm water *
- 1/2 cup warm milk *
- 2 tbsp granulated sugar
- 2 tbsp unsalted butter
- 2 tsp fine kosher salt
- 4 – 4.5 cups all purpose flour
- 1/2 cup baking soda
- 1 egg + 1 tbsp cold water
- coarse kosher salt or pretzel salt for sprinkling **
* The water should be luke-warm, not hot. Yeast likes to grow in a warm environment, but too much heat will kill the spores and your dough won’t rise.
** Pretzel salt is different than coarse salt. The grains are large and almost fluffy in texture, and they’re also significantly less salty. If you have pretzel salt, use it. If not, a large grained very coarse sea salt or kosher salt is fine. This is NOT the time to use a find ground kosher salt, and table salt has no place in the world of pretzels.
Melt the butter and let it cool for a few minutes until it is warm but no longer hot to the touch. Pour the butter into a fairly large mixing bowl along with the warm water, milk, sugar and yeast. Give it a quick stir and let this sit for 5-10 minutes.
After a few minutes you should see the yeast starting to froth or ‘bloom’. This means that it is active and your dough will rise. If you’re waiting for more than 10 minutes and this hasn’t happened yet, that means that your yeast is no longer active and you’ll need to start again with fresh yeast.
Add the salt and 4 cups of flour to the liquids and stir until it is combined. You should have a fairly dry, scrappy dough with dry crumbly bits at the bottom of the bowl. The texture that you’re going for is not at all sticky. If anything, before you work it you might worry that the dough is too dry. If it sticks at all to the sides of the bowl then you want to add more flour. I use 4 cups of flour, but you may need a bit more or less depending on the relative humidity of your environment.
Put the fairly dry scraps onto to your work surface (even the crumbly bits from the bottom) and start to work the dough. After 2-3 minutes of kneading it should start to come together. Again, there should be NO STICKINESS. If the dough is sticking at all to your counter, continue to flour the area and sprinkle it on top of the dough, working it in until you have a fairly stiff, dry mass.
Knead the dough for 7-10 minutes until it is smooth and rubbery.
Lightly oil a large mixing bowl and turn the ball of dough around in it so that it is covered with a thin film. Set a clean dish towel on top of the bowl and leave it to rise in a warm and draft free spot until it has almost tripled in size, which should take roughly 1.5 hours.
Punch down the dough and divide it into 8 equal pieces.
Taking one piece of dough at a time, roll it on the table into a long thin rope that is roughly 1/2″ in diameter and 22-24″ long. Fold the dough into a “U” shape with ends of equal length. Bringing the ends towards the center, in the middle of the “U” fold the left end over the right and twist them together twice so that the left end is back on the left side. Press down gently on the center of the twist to secure it. Sounds confusing? Look at the picture below.
Leaving the loop at the bottom where it is, lift only the twist and invert it (flip it over).
The sides of the “U” now become the top of your pretzel. Fold the ends over to either side to make a crossed pretzel shape. Gently push both ends onto the dough to secure them. It only takes a couple to get the knack of pretzel formation, but if you’re making these with the kidlets it’s perfectly okay to just do a single fold over the sides in an “X” shape, which they’ll have no trouble with.
Line 1-2 baking sheets with parchment paper which has been lightly oiled (non-stick spray, like PAM, works great for this). Lay the pretzels down on the parchment with enough space in between each one to allow for expansion. Cover the pretzels with a clean tea towel and allow them to rise for 45 minutes, or until they are puffed and bloated.
Preheat your oven to 450ºF with the racks in the center.
Pour 7-8 cups of water into a large sauce pan and bring it to a simmer over medium high heat. Stir in the baking soda. The pan should be bubbling but you don’t need a rolling boil. When the baking soda is dissolved, lower in one pretzel at a time for about 30-45 seconds. The pretzel will float, so spoon the hot water over the top of the pretzel as it bubbles away.
Using a wide and slotted spatula, carefully lift the pretzels out of the water and return them to the parchment lined baking sheets. They will be much bigger now then they were at the start, and you will most certainly need 2 baking sheets on the go in order to have adequate room around each one.
Whisk together the egg with one tablespoon of cold water. Brush the tops of the pretzels with this egg wash and sprinkle coarse kosher salt on top of each one.
Bake the pretzels in the center of your hot oven for 10-12 minutes, rotating the pans halfway through. The pretzels are done when the tops are a deep, rich brown color and the bottoms are golden.
I tend to be a bit liberal with the salt (owing, in part, to the fact that Mike has a deer-like affinity to sodium), but a light sprinkling of crispy, crunchy salt on top of these pillowy soft pretzels will give you the same effect.
Soft pretzels are a great way to satisfy your urge for salty, comforting snack food, with the virtuosity of something that doesn’t come deep fried.
As a nod to the German originals, I like to serve soft pretzels with a side of sweet and spicy mustard for generous dipping. That said, if you happened to have a flavorful cheese sauce on hand, I certainly wouldn’t turn up my nose.