In praise of pretzels: Making those mall treats of yesteryear at home

Steve Peters / Photo

Steve Peters / Photo

Steve Peters

It’s been years since I’ve had a decent soft pretzel. As a kid, I’d get one on the occasional trip to the mall. They’d rotate under the red glow of a heat lamp machine, and it was the first thing you would smell as you walked through the mall doors.

I always wondered if malls pumped fresh baked pretzel scent through their air circulation systems to keep you going like a mouse in a maze of shops. The actual pretzel counter is always tucked away in some hard-to-find back corner. How the pretzel scent permeates such a wide space just doesn’t add up.

Considering my mall visits are even less frequent these days, and considering the lack of food counters in our local mall, I don’t have to worry about the seduction of the mall pretzels. Which, let’s be honest, just come frozen from a box. Yet it doesn’t mean I don’t get a craving for their soft chewiness and that blast of saltiness when you crunch into a piece of pretzel salt.

I made pretzels for the third or fourth time this past week. And when that batch didn’t go as planned, I made them once again. More on that in a minute. First, you should know that pretzel dough is just like making bread dough. The result is quite like a bagel, too. Yeast, salt, sugar, butter and flour is all you really need. It’s simple.

What sets pretzels apart from feeling like you’re just chewing on a piece of bread is the crust. After rising and before baking, pretzels are dipped in an alkaline solution that causes the exterior of the pretzel to brown while baking. It also lends a slightly bitter flavor to the dough that sets it apart just enough from tasting like a bagel.

Traditionally, the alkaline mixture that pretzels were dipped in was a mix of water and lye. Although available in food grade, lye is still what you find in drain cleaner. It’s corrosive and certainly toxic. However, the lye is greatly diluted in the water and the baking of the pretzels prevents it from killing you. On the other hand, you could just use baking soda for a mostly similar result, even if it is a bit less acidic. Unlike lye, most of us probably keep baking soda on hand anyway.

I brought a batch of these pretzels to what I determined was a Philadelphia-themed dinner. We were having Philly Cheesesteak, after all. In Philly, soft pretzels are sold by street vendors rather than mall vendors, the first instance of which dates to the early 1800s. The first pretzels, on the other hand, go back hundreds of years prior, to French monks.

Unfortunately, I missed the part about how a Philadelphia pretzel is shaped in a figure eight rather than the traditional crossed formation. They’re also supposed to be chewy, not crunchy. My pretzels, on the other hand, were just sloppy. The dough didn’t want to stretch, and every time I pulled it out in a rope, it tore apart. The original plan was for me to demonstrate how to make a pretzel. But it was more of an embarrassment to my friends, who lived for several years under the influence of Philly pretzels.

The next day I tried again at home, and I think I figured out my problem. The dough was too warm. I let my second batch of dough spend some time in the fridge after rising, and it was much easier to shape. That said, my pretzels still didn’t look prefect and I doubt they ever will. But taste wise, they’re a winner.

Soft pretzels
Makes 8 pretzels
Adapted from Alton Brown

  • 1 1/2 cups warm water, about 110 degrees F
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • 1 envelope or ¼ ounce active dry yeast
  • 22 ounces all-purpose flour
  • 2 ounces unsalted butter, melted
  • vegetable oil, for the bowl and pan
  • 8 cups water
  • 1 tablespoon brown sugar
  • 1/3 cup baking soda
  • 1 egg, beaten, with a splash of water
  • Coarse sea salt or kosher salt

In a mixing bowl, combine the water, sugar and salt. Sprinkle the yeast over top and let sit for a few minutes until foaming. Add the flour and butter and use the dough hook of your mixer, if you have one, to mix on low speed. Increase the speed once combined, and let the mixer knead the dough until smooth, about 5 minutes. Otherwise, you can mix and knead by hand.

Remove the dough from the bowl for a minute, wipe out the bowl, and coat it in oil to prevent sticking. Return the dough to the bowl, cover with a clean kitchen towel and let sit in a warm spot for about an hour or until doubled in size. Afterwards, refrigerate the dough for at least 30 minutes or up to overnight.

When ready to shape, heat the oven to 450 degrees F. Line two half sheet pans with parchment paper and set aside. Bring the eight cups water, the brown sugar and the baking soda to a boil in a wide, yet deep, pan. I used my Dutch oven.

Meanwhile, turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and divide into 8 equal pieces. Roll out each piece of dough into a 20-inch rope.

Make a U-shape with the rope, and, holding each end, cross them over each other and fold them down onto the bottom of the U to form the shape of a pretzel. Shape the remaining pretzels and place them on the baking sheet. Let them rest for 15 minutes until they’ve puffed up slightly.

Two at a time, gently lift and submerge the pretzels into the boiling water for 30 seconds. Remove them from the water using a large slotted spoon. Place them back on the pans, brush the top of each pretzel with the beaten egg mixture, and sprinkle with salt.

Bake until dark golden brown in color, about 14 minutes. Dip in mustard and enjoy.

Steve Peters

Steve Peters is a cook, gardener and baker living in Rutland.

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