Yay it’s October! My obsession with Halloween movies and decorations can finally be socially acceptable. I may or may not have screened several movies already this year… And just look at that cute ghost glass!
Though I have already spoken enough about my love for fall, so I’ll spare you! Just picture Practical Magic and Halloweentown being played non-stop for the next several weeks. Oh and you can’t forget about Hocus Pocus.
Of course the best way to celebrate Halloween movies and festivities is with snacks! Snacks will forever reign supreme in my mind during this season. I think it’s the constant get-togethers and sports-watching that does it for me. And the most impressive snack that you can bring to the table? Soft pretzels!
Soft pretzels are so cool from a food science standpoint. You’re essentially using tricks to optimize the best reactions in the book. The result? A texture and flavor that is out of this world—something you won’t find in any other food.
The key to the pretzel’s crackly, browned crust and soft, chewy inside is a bath of basic solution prior to baking. And when I say basic solution, I mean a water bath that has a pH greater than 7. Is this taking you back to high school chemistry? Classically, lye is used to create this solution because of its highly basic properties. We’re going to go the safer route and use baking soda.
Baking soda is also basic and is often used as a leavening agent for that very reason. The baking soda base acts with the acid in doughs/batters and creates carbon dioxide causing the lift that is characteristic in baked goods.
In this case, we are using baking soda specifically for its alkalinity. When we dunk our pretzel dough into a boiling baking soda bath, the change in pH creates ideal conditions for the always-magical Maillard browning! We’ve talked before about how heat can speed up the browning process, but here we are optimizing the reaction with an increase in pH. The basic concentration on the outside of the pretzel will cause the Maillard browning reaction to occur much more quickly in the oven. This fast browning maintains the soft interior while creating a rapid crispiness on the exterior. Also, that nutty flavor will be fantastic and all-over your soft pretzels.
There is a secondary reason for using a baking soda bath prior to shoving these babies in the oven. The hot, boiling water instantly gelatinizes the starch which jumpstarts that softening of the dough. That initial heat also breaks down a significant amount of protein aiding in the Maillard browning.
If you don’t dunk your pretzels in the bath before baking, it’s going to take much longer for that browning to occur. And by the time your pretzels get as dark and crackly as you want them to, the interior texture is going to be destroyed, and they’re frankly going to be just gross. Also, the wetness of the dough following the water bath allows your salt to stick. And we all know that the salt is imperative to good pretzels.
So take my word for it, and take the extra 30 seconds to bathe your pretzel dough. You won’t regret it!
Some swear by an egg wash just prior to baking in order to aid in the browning. I found this to be unnecessary, but feel free to indulge!
Adapted from Fix Feast Flair
Makes about 24 small pretzels, depending on size
2 ¼ teaspoons (1 package) active dry yeast
1 teaspoon granulated sugar
1 ¼ cup water
2 tablespoons brown sugar
5 cups all-purpose flour
1 ½ teaspoons kosher salt
3 tablespoons melted butter
½ cup baking soda
8 cups water
3 tablespoons large grain salt
- In a small saucepan, heat the water with the granulated sugar until just warm to the touch—about 90⁰F. Sprinkle the yeast on top of the water and let stand until foamy and fragrant or 5-10 minutes.
- In the bowl of a stand mixer with a dough hook, mix together the flour, brown sugar, and kosher salt. Make a well in the center and add the melted butter and yeast mixture. Mix on low until everything comes together. Do not over-mix or you will risk excessive gluten formation. We don’t need a ton of structure here, and extra mixing will create a tough, elastic dough.
- Grease a large bowl and place the dough into it. Cover loosely and let sit until doubled in size, about 1 hour.
- Preheat your oven to 450⁰F and prepare baking sheets with parchment paper. While waiting to heat, put the 8 cups of water into a large pot and bring to a boil. Add the baking soda.
- Turn your dough out onto a floured surface after risen and briefly flatten with a rolling pin. Divide it into pieces for your pretzel size of choice. Take each piece and roll between your fingers to lengthen it out. Create a loose knot (like the over-under motion used in tying your shoes) and press the ends into the pretzel to make them “disappear.”
- In small batches, dip your pretzel knots into the boiling baking soda bath for 30 seconds. Use a slotted spoon or spider to gently remove them from the bath and place them on your prepared baking sheets. Sprinkle the tops with a generous helping of salt. Bake the pretzels in the oven for about 8-10 minutes, or until golden brown and crackly.
- Enjoy your pretzels with a spicy honey mustard-style dipping sauce and a fall-flavored beer for the full effect! And Happy October all!