A Beginner’s Guide To Making Pretzels

What do baseball games, carnivals and your local pier all have in common? More than endless fun and fresh air, all of these locales serve up soft pretzels. With a generally simple mix of salty and grainy flavors, the soft pretzel has become a signature food of American entertainment, much in the same way as hot dogs or bags of peanuts. Regardless of the occasion, pretzels are a great exercise in cooking, requiring the use of a number of skills you may have already learned in culinary academy. So, before the next big game, here is what you need to make prize-winning pretzels every time:

Key ingredients
There are a few different ways to actually cook pretzels. However, there are several core ingredients that all pretzel recipes feature. These are:

  • Salt.
  • Baking soda.
  • Large egg.
  • Coarse sea salt.
  • Warm water.
  • Yeast.
  • All-purpose flour.
  • Sugar.
  • Malt syrup, rice syrup or dark brown sugar.

As for kitchen equipment, most recipes require:

  • Slotted spoon.
  • Baking sheets.
  • A large, wide-mouthed pot.
  • Sharp knife for scraping.
  • Parchment paper.

Some chefs will use a mixer, but others prefer to knead the dough by hand as to better control quality. If you do choose to knead your dough by hand, make sure to employ a handful of flour and a few teaspoons of oil. These ingredients will make the dough more malleable and prevent it from sticking to a surface like the bowl or countertop.

A word on lye
In addition to those aforementioned ingredients, some purist chefs will also make pretzels with lye, an alkaline solution that’s also called sodium hydroxide or potassium hydroxide. It’s worth noting that as long as you have the baking soda, you don’t actually need the lye. Yet the chefs who rely most on lye say that it helps to give the dough a rich golden brown color during the cooking process. Lye is also responsible for making the dough nice and crunchy. If you decide to use lye, you’ll want to make sure you only use food-grade variety, which is much less intense and is normally used to cure olives and alkalize cocoa. Because splashing lye can burn the skin and stain your countertop, you want to make sure you’re being extra careful with this solution. That means wearing gloves and using a stainless steel bowl to hold the actual lye.

Shape your pretzels
Perhaps the biggest part of the pretzel making process is how you contort the dough into that signature shape. Despite seeming like a somewhat complex pattern to make, pretzels are actually fairly easy to bend and fold. To begin, you’ll want to roll out a piece of dough into a long, thin strand, at least 18 inches in length. From there, combine the two end pieces – so you have an almost completed circle – and then twist the ends together a couple of times. With the twisted end, take it and fold it to the bottom curve of the pretzel shape. You many want to use a little water to help the ends stick together. Once you’ve got the shape, let the dough rise for a little while, otherwise you may prevent the final pretzel from baking all the way through.

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