With more aliases than the late lamented Artist Formerly Known as Prince, known variously as brezel, bretzel, brezn and breze as well as the more familiar Anglophone pretzel, the correct spelling isn’t the only thing that’s a bit twisted about this ancient bread. Named originally for the Latin brachium, thanks to its (slight) resemblance to folded arms, and often credited to monastic bakers, perhaps because children were taught to pray with their arms crossed across their chests, in the US a pretzel is often assumed to be a crisp, salted biscuit, while in Europe, it tends to refer to a fresh, chewy bread.
In short, the pretzel is a decidedly knotty topic. What isn’t, however, is that whatever form they take, they’re delicious – and while the crunchy snack is readily available in the snack aisle, it’s harder to find the soft sort in the UK, which is why, if you have a taste for them, you’ll need to get baking. Fortunately, now I’ve negotiated the surprisingly complex chemistry for you, making pretzels is considerably less complicated than deciding how you’re going to pronounce them.
Where to start(er)
That said, the recipe in Bouchon Bakery by Sebastien Rouxel and Thomas Keller takes a good week from start to finish, thanks to the addition of a liquid levain, a mixture of flour and water, leavened with wild yeasts, which sits on top of the fridge for five days, eating vast amounts of flour, and clogging up the compost bin with excess dough, which spills forth alarmingly each time the lid is opened. A tiny amount of this bubbling behemoth is then mixed with more flour and water to make a stiff levain, which, after a night on the counter, is ready to be incorporated into the actual dough. Frankly, I’m exhausted just remembering the whole process.
Richard Bertinet’s Crust gives a rather easier method, involving a 24-hour pre-ferment, which seems like the equivalent of a ready meal in comparison. Both have a great flavour, but, after trying several other recipes, I don’t think such efforts are strictly necessary for pretzel perfection. After all, they barely last the day, so unless you have a sourdough starter on the go already, it would seem a colossal waste of time to make one specially; the versions I try, using commercial yeast, are pretty damn delicious.
However, if you do have time to allow your dough to sit for 12 hours before baking, as Julia Moskin’s recipe in the New York Times suggests, the flavour will only improve – I try hers after an hour, and then 24, and the second batch is deemed better. Ruth Joseph’s Warm Bagels and Apple Strudel rests the dough before shaping, but doing it this way round allows the raw pretzel to develop the skin that will help it to keep its shape when it is dunked in liquid later.
Pretzel dough should have a fairly low hydration – in other words, it should be much drier than the sloppier, liquid batters of ciabatta, both because ciabatta dough would be impossible to knot into loops, and because this is what gives the finished article its characteristic firm, chewy texture. A hydration of between 50% and 55% is more common, and will be much easier to work with – Ihave based mine on Anne Shooter’s excellent Sesame & Spice. I wouldn’t be tempted to cut the water with milk, as Bertinet suggests, however; his pretzels are delicious, but as soft and fluffy as rolls.
Though they’re more salty than sweet, most pretzel doughs include sugar of some sort to help give them their distinctive, bronzed colour. Bertinet uses caster and Joseph soft brown, but it’s more traditional to go for malt of some sort, either in the form of the malt syrup favoured by Shooter and Moskin, or the diastatic malt powder used by Rouxel. It tastes more interesting and pairs far better with beer.
Old-school recipes like Joseph’s are fat free, but a little butter, oil, or – if you’re feeling particularly Germanic – lard will improve the flavour, and make the stiff dough somewhat more amenable to shaping. Butter is the most popular with testers, but feel free to substitute either of the alternatives as you wish.
Rouxel’s is the only recipe to use plain rather than strong flour. This may be because plain flour has a higher protein content in the US but, for maximum gluten development, and thus chewiness, I’d recommend bread flour. He also is the only one to knead his dough for 30 minutes. This is perhaps a little excessive, especially if you don’t have an electric mixer, but a little elbow grease will yield good results later on.
Pretzels are traditionally dipped into a strong alkali to help achieve that crispy, burnished crust, as well as the attendant slightly soapy flavour – the stronger the alkali the more it will break down the starches in the flour into sugars, which brown in the heat of the oven. This crust will also prevent the dough from puffing up too much – light and fluffy are not desirable qualities in a pretzel.
If you just want the colour, then you can, like Bertinet, simply brush them with egg and coffee before baking, but for the full flavour, you’ll need to bathe them in a high pH liquid. Unfortunately, despite my very best efforts, it seems impossible to purchase the food-grade sodium hydroxide here that’s freely available for the purpose in Germany (it’s on a list of “reportable substances”). I do find some “lye water”, sold in Oriental supermarkets for the preparation of ramen noodles, among other things, but a keen-eyed chemist friend observes that this is made from potassium carbonate rather than sodium hydroxide, and the staff of Chemistry World magazine generously calculate it measures only 9 on the pH scale: more than ordinary water, but rather less than the 13-14 claimed for lye.
The solution many recipes recommend involves dissolving bicarbonate of soda in boiling water, which will give you a solution with a pH of 8-9 – but bake it in the oven instead, and as Harold McGee explains, you’ll end up with sodium carbonate, which has a pH of about 10.5, and will give you a much browner result. Not quite as shiny and conker-like as the real thing, perhaps, but certainly better than you’ll get with the alternatives. It’s still a strong alkali, so make sure you use protective gloves, banish children and pets from the room, and ditch the non-stick cookware for this one. (If you live somewhere where lye is more readily available, assume the same precautions, dilute it with 20 parts water, and dunk each pretzel in it for 12-15 seconds before draining well.)
The baking and topping
Pretzels should be baked at a high temperature to encourage browning – Bertinet suggests a 250C oven turned down to 230C once the goods are in there, and Joseph and Moskin an only slightly more moderate 220C, which seems safer if they are to cook through before they burn. This will also be helpful if you decide to scatter them with something more interesting than the traditional rock salt – Shooter recommends poppy seeds or za’atar, and Joseph black onion seeds or softened onion, but, really, the world is your pretzel. Serve with butter, sausages, cured meat and mustard, or just a large, cold beer.
The perfect pretzels
500g strong, white bread flour
1 tsp/5g quick-action yeast
1 tsp fine salt
25g room-temperature butter, cut into small pieces
1 tbsp malt syrup
255ml warm water
150g bicarbonate of soda
Rock salt, to scatter
Whisk together the flour, yeast and salt in a large mixing bowl or the bowl of a food mixer and then mix in the butter. Whisk together the syrup and warm water, then stir in to make a firm, dryish dough – it should just come together to leave the bowl clean, without being damp, so add a few more drops if necessary. Knead on a low speed for about 15 minutes, or on a clean surface by hand for about 20-25 minutes, until smooth and very elastic. Rest under a cloth for 15 minutes, then divide into 10 pieces of about 75g each. Meanwhile, line two baking sheets with lightly greased greaseproof paper.
Keeping the remainder covered, roll out one of the pieces into a sausage about 35cm long (don’t worry if it’s fatter in the middle, just call it Bavarian-style). Form into a circle, crossing the two ends at the top, then twist them round each other again and bring down across the middle and stick down firmly at about four and eight o’clock on the circle. Put on to the baking tray and repeat. Leave covered at room temperature for 30 minutes, then uncover and put in the fridge for between two and 24 hours.
An hour before you want to bake, heat the oven to 160C/320F/gas mark 3 and bake the bicarbonate of soda for one hour. Allow to cool, and turn the oven up to 220C/425F/gas mark seven.
Wearing rubber gloves, mix 100g of the bicarbonate of soda with 500ml water in a large glass dish. Carefully dip the pretzels in the solution for four minutes each (you’ll need to do this in several batches), then drain very well and arrange, well spaced out on the baking sheets. Scatter with salt, then bake for 12-15 minutes until well browned. Eat while warm.