Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Soft Pretzels & Chem 101

I've made soft pretzels twice in the past two days, and I'd make more tomorrow if I hadn't run out of flour out here in the middle of nowhere where the local mini-market is open at 6:45 but closed by noon.

But not to worry, these pretzels are so fun to make that I don't even mind being baking handicapped. They are chewy and salty and delicious, and easy enough for a 4-year-old to make

The first thing you do is proof your yeast. This step isn't essential- if you continued and added all the ingredients, the yeast would still multiply and make your dough rise. But it does make sure that you know your yeast works and that you didn't use water that was too hot.

Then add your flour, salt, more sugar, and oil, and grab a nearby 4-year-old to mix it up for you. It's good for them. Builds character. And muscle tone.

Then let it rise for an hour till doubled in size. What, not so good with fractions? Neither is my 4-year-old. Lucky for you I took pictures.

Original Size                                                                                     Original Size x 2

Then separate into 16 equally sized dough balls (fraction test time!!) and roll into long ropes. 

Fold each rope in half, twist twice, and fold back on itself to make a pretzel (yeah that didn't make any sense. see the pics). 

So you've probably heard about boiling pretzels in lye. What is that? Why would you do that? What totally easy thing could you do instead? Good thing you asked Dr. Country Mouse.

*dum dum dum* Chemistry time!!

Lye is a strong base, and is traditionally either NaOH (Sodium Hydroxide) or KOH (Potassium Hydroxide). 

It is used in this case to accelerate the Maillard Reaction which takes place between sugars and amino acids in the dough, and forms a great caramel color and lovely taste. For this you also need really high temperatures (we will bake at 230C).

Now, there is no need to start looking for strong, highly toxic bases.

Lucky for us, I have a bunch of baking soda lying around the house (or rather, packaged neatly in the cabinet). Baking soda= sodium carbonate = Na2CO3

And if you add Na2CO3 + H2O + Heat ----> CO2 (carbon dioxide) + 2 NaOH

There we go, that's the strong base (NaOH, aka lye) that we need to make our lovely little Maillard reaction go.

This is also why when you take your baking soda and dissolve it in warm water, it foams up A TON. That's all the carbon dioxide gas escaping.

Wanna see?

So anyways the rest is history. Dip your pretzels in your baking soda mixture, bake in an incredibly hot oven, and enjoy.

Here's the final product, with and without our chemistry experiment.

Soft Pretzels for the Whole Family 
adapted from All Recipes

1.25 cups warm water
4 teaspoons yeast
2 teaspoons sugar
1/2 cup sugar
1.5 teaspoons salt
1 Tablespoon oil
5 cups flour (either white or 1/2 wheat)

Mix water, yeast, and 2 teaspoons sugar; let rest until foamy.

Add rest of ingredients. Mix well. Will form a very stiff dough. Knead ~ 10 minutes. Let rise 1h or until doubled in size.

Shape into 16 pretzels. 
Dissolve a packet (~1/4c) baking soda in hot water. Dip your pretzels in this mixture. Bake 8 minutes at 450F/230C.


  1. So you are basically making lye? Scarey. I didn't realize you just needed to dip the pretzels, not boil them. You're better than Alton Brown! Can't wait to try these. Now all I need is some nice chunky salt.

    What's up with putting sesame seeds instead of salt on pretzels? Yes, they look normal and are healthier, but it's not the same! And why can't they stock mustard where soft pretzels are sold? They sell "Grandma's" soft pretzels in the hospital where I spend way too much time.

  2. Ah, yes but it is MUCH less concentrated and therefore not nearly as dangerous. If I can get a hold of some pH strips, I'll let you know just how different it is :)

    I've read that it tastes much better with actual lye, but I don't know about that.