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Photo by Donna

My obsession with pretzels began with olives and the lye, but I was only moved to actually figure pretzels out after a comically disastrous demo at the Fabulous Food Show on Saturday.  (Before the demo, hanging out with Symon and Jonathan Sawyer, I mentioned my demo and said, "It’s a no brainer, it’s so simple nothing can go wrong." Symon clutched his bald head and shout, "DON’T SAY THAT!!!")

Half my demo was on baking and making a 5:3 bread dough into several products, and I also wanted to bake gougeres, cheese puffs, so I went early to make sure the ovens were cranked. I was assured by the very efficient woman running that stage that it was.  Thirty seconds into the demo, I went to put a loaf that had risen into the oven, and realized it was stone cold. It went down hill from there.  Bread that didn’t bake, fritters that didn’t cook through, pate a choux flying all over the place. A real mess.  Even the pretzels, baked backstage, came out albino.

For my atonement, and to prove to myself that I hadn’t entered an alternate universe, I re-made pretzels. The whole point of my demo was to show that fundamental preparations such as dough and batter have infinite variations. A basic batter can be turned into pancakes or spicy corn fritters.  A basic bread dough can be a country-style boule, a pizza dough, or even pretzels.  Certainly you can bring all manor of additions, tweaks, flavorings, and nuances to your cooking, but the fundamental preparations have a basic structure, described by a culinary ratio, and if you know that ratio you’re free to improvise. (Here’s the book, essential reading for all cooks!)

For example, to those who have embraced ratios, I can simply say, to make pretzels, mix a 5:3 bread dough, shape pretzels, brush with a lye solution, add salt, bake you’re good to go.

It’s that lye solution you have to know about.  I found that one teaspoon per cup of water worked fine. It’s a powerful base and can burn just as well as an acid so be careful when working with it. I’ve made them by brushing the lye on but yesterday I gave them a 15 second soak in a hot, but not boiling solution, then salted and baked them.  The heat and water gel the surface that then becomes a beautiful brown with that distinctive pretzel flavor.  According to McGee, the lye "reacts with carbon dioxide in the oven to form a harmless, edible carbonate." McGee also notes that commercial pretzels are sprayed with a 1% lye solution, baked, then dried till crunchy, and that you can also simply use baking soda to achieve the same result you get from lye. How much baking soda, I don’t know—anyone who wants to experiment with baking soda using the method below, I’d love to know your results. (Calling del Grosso!)

The following recipe will make about 10 pretzels

Homemade Soft Pretzels

20 ounces of flour (about 4 cups)

12 ounces water

1 or 2 teaspoons dry yeast (I use 3 grams)

2 teaspoons kosher salt (I use 12 grams)

4 teaspoons food grade lye dissolved in a quart of water

vegetable oil or spray

very coarse sea salt (or kosher salt) as needed

Mix the flour, water, yeast and salt until you have a smooth elastic dough. Cover it and let it rise to about double it’s volume, 2 to 4 hours depending on how much yeast you’ve used.  Beat it down manfully to release the gas and redistribute the yeast.  Divide the dough into roughly 3-ounce portions.

Preheat your oven to 425 degrees.

Roll the portions into a cylinder about ten inches long. Cover them with a towel while you prepare the lye and ready your non-reactive baking sheets (it’s best to use a non-reactive surface; don’t use aluminum, the lye can do funny things to it).  Heat the lye solution in a pan that will allow you do dip your pretzels and retrieve them with a wide, slotted spatula. Coat your baking surfaces with vegetable oil.

After the dough pieces have rested for 10 minutes, roll them out into 25-inch long cylinders. To make the pretzel shape, lift either end, make one complete twist, then fold them over into the traditional pretzel shape. (If this proves too difficult, shape them as you wish, keeping in mind they’ll double in size.)

When the lye solution is hot, just below a simmer, dip each pretzel in the lye solution for 10 or 15 seconds, then remove to your baking pan. Repeat with the others, sprinkle them with salt and bake for 12 to 15 minutes.

There’s no end to the fun when you know the basic bread dough ratio!