If there ever was a snack epitome, soft pretzels would be it. They are easily transported, deliciously warm, satisfyingly dense and perfectly salty. Their rich chewy texture yields no crumbs when eaten. They are readily and frequently shared. They can even be used as the bread for sandwiches and burgers surpassing many a bun in durability and taste. Marge Simpson sold soft pretzels out of a wagon for most of an episode, albeit with the help of Fat Tony and the Mob. With such a robust variety of uses and storied history, why haven’t pretzels become a home cook’s go to finger food?
Are they thought to be too difficult to make? Pretzel dough is pretty much just a dense dinner roll. The liquid is milk rather than water, and there is a bit of vegetable oil in the mix to keep the pretzels from becoming hard after baking. But anyone with even a modest understanding of bread baking can easily master pretzel dough.
Is attainment of the perfect knot thought to be impossible? Technically, it’s not a knot, but a twist. The dough is rolled into a rectangle and then cut into ½-inch long strips. Each strip is rolled into a long-ish rope where it’s ready to be twisted. The ends are held and the loop is double twisted in one fluid motion. The twisted hairpin is then just folded on itself into that iconic shape. It might take a few recipes of dough before you’re twisting and schlepping pretzels like a pro, but since they taste so good, a few recipes won’t be a bother.
Is the cooking process too complex or mysterious? Unlike most baked breads, pretzels, like bagels, are treated to some “spa” time. More to the point, they are boiled for part of their baking process. Introducing water to baking bread intensifies the chewiness of the crust. Have you ever wondered how French baguettes have such a chewy crust and a light center? They are spritzed with water during their baking time. Pretzels take that a step further and go for a few minutes dunk in boiling water. Their initial baking is in a very hot oven for just a few minutes to set the outside of the crust and prevent the pretzels from rising any further. After their dunk, they bake at a more reasonable temperature to finish the cooking and attain that beautiful brown color.
Are the toppings too difficult to come by? Unless you live like a hermit, secluded from civilization, your local grocer carries a variety of baking and finishing salts. Coarse sea salt is all that is needed for that perfect state fair sustenance. And if you make them yourself, you won’t have to rub off 90% of the salt from the top of the pretzel. You can control how much, or how little, of it you want on your twist.
Baking bread is a learned skill. But the pretzels are so good, you’ll be able to hone your pretzel-making skills without complaint from the peanut gallery.
- 4 – 4½ cups all purpose flour
- 1 tablespoon instant yeast
- 1½ cups milk
- ¼ cup white sugar
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 egg white, 1 tablespoon water
- coarse salt, poppy seeds, sesame seeds, etc. for topping
Heat the milk to 120° – 130°F. Dissolve the sugar and salt in the milk. Add 1½ cups flour and the yeast to a stand mixer’s mixing bowl. Stir to combine. Pour the milk mixture and oil into the flour and mix with the paddle attachment for 3-4 minutes. Add 1 cup flour and continue mixing with the paddle attachment for 2-3 minutes more.
Remove the bowl and scrape down the sides. Add in 1½ cups more flour and change over to the dough hook. Mix on low (speed 2) for several minutes. Add in the remaining flour, if needed. The dough should be dense and no longer sticky to the touch. Turn out onto a dry surface and knead into a ball shape. Place the dough in a bowl coated with non stick cooking spray. Grease both sides of the dough ball and allow it to rise until doubled, about 1¼ hours. Punch down dough and allow it to rest for 10 minutes. Preheat oven to 475°F.
Shape the dough into a 12 x 10-inch rectangle. Cut dough into 20, 12 x ½ inch strips. Roll each strip into a rope and twist the dough into a knot by brining the ends together and twisting twice. Fold the twist in half to create the pretzel shape. Heat 3 quarts of water in a large skillet with 2 tablespoons of salt to boiling.
Bake pretzels for 4 minutes at 475°F. Remove from the heat. Turn oven down to 350°F. Boil pretzels, 3-4 at a time, for 2 minutes, turning once half way through. Remove pretzels to a wire rack to drain. Brush boiled pretzels with egg white and sprinkle with the topping of your choice. Bake pretzels for 20-25 minutes or until they are brown.
Cool on a wire rack. Serve warm.