To lye or not to lye? That is the question when you’re making pretzels.
On the one hand, lye gives pretzels their distinctive flavor, kind of a sharp flatness, if that makes sense. It’s what keeps a pretzel from tasting like pretzel-shaped bread.
On the other hand, lye is ridiculously dangerous. It will burn you if it gets on your skin and blind you if it gets in your eyes. And if you happen to eat it, it can kill you.
That could scare some people, considering that pretzels are generally eaten.
Lye is also used for unclogging drains. It is used to strip paint. And if you’re a gangster with a body that needs to disappear, it can be used for that, too.
So obviously it should be avoided at all costs. Except for that part about it making pretzels taste so good.
As a culinary experiment, I tried making pretzels both ways, with and without lye. And then I tried it a third way, too: making the kind of pretzel that you get at a mall.
You could argue that Auntie Anne pretzels aren’t pretzels at all, they are dessert. And you would be right. But they look like pretzels and they call themselves pretzels (or at least the store calls them pretzels), so I made them out of the spirit of fair play.
Besides, who doesn’t like dessert?
I tried the pretzels with lye first; the recipe calls them German Soft Pretzels. I will be honest with you: I was not entirely happy with the way they looked. They tasted fine — even great. But I had a couple of problems with them, even though I tried them twice.
One problem was that you dip the pretzels into very hot water with lye in it, and the water (or perhaps the lye) tends to make the dough fall apart and lose its distinctive shape.
The other problem is that the pretzels did not brown as much as I thought they would or should. A solution of lye in water is supposed to give pretzels their characteristic chestnut color, but mine instead were merely tawny. That is probably because I did not dip them long enough; however, the longer I dipped them the more likely they were to fall apart.
One problem I did not have was that I poisoned anybody. I made a solution of one teaspoon of lye dissolved into one cup of water, which is a perfectly safe ratio of 1:24. Even so, I did not touch the dough with my hands after it had been dipped.
The taste was perfect. They tasted like pretzels.
Next up was pretzels made without lye, which are called Homemade Soft Pretzels. These came from a recipe by Alton Brown, who is usually pretty good with such things.
With this thing, he is excellent.
For one, he adds extra calories to the pretzels in the form of melted butter, which is never a bad thing when it comes to baked goods. He also includes a tablespoon of sugar for eight large pretzels; although the sugar is just there to feed and activate the yeast, it is nonetheless a tablespoon of sugar.
This dough is a little less stiff than the one I used to make the pretzels with lye. It also only rises once, which saves time, and it has the lovely brown color that I couldn’t get with the lye.
How? By dipping them in a solution of hot water and a lot of baking soda.
Baking soda is highly alkaline, though not nearly as alkaline as lye; it is that property that has the browning effect on the outside of a pretzel. It also affects the way it tastes, though because baking soda is not as strong as lye, its effect is not as pronounced.
Still, it’s an awfully good pretzel. Try it with mustard.
Finally, I made a knock-off of an Auntie Anne’s pretzel. Admittedly, it does not taste exactly the same as the mall pretzels, but as knock-offs go, it’s certainly close enough.
Several factors distinguish it from pretzels that are stouter, more traditional and less desserty. For one, it is made with a blend of bread flour and all-purpose flour, which should actually make it chewier than other, all-purpose-only pretzels, but somehow it doesn’t.
Another ingredient that makes these pretzels different is the milk that is used to activate the yeast, rather than the more usual water. Butter and powdered sugar are added to the milk-yeast mixture, and of course each pretzel is brushed with butter after it is baked.
Basically, it is a pastry. But it is a pretzel pastry, so it counts.
GERMAN SOFT PRETZELS
Yield: About 20 servings
2 (1/4-ounce) packages (1 1/2 tablespoons) active dry yeast
1 1/2 cups warm (110 degree) water
About 5 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons food-grade lye (if it doesn’t say “food-grade,” don’t use it), see note
2 cups water
Coarse sea, kosher or pretzel salt
Note: We have only been able to find food-grade lye online.
1. In the bowl of an electric mixer or another large bowl, sprinkle the yeast over the warm water and set aside to proof until foamy, about 5 minutes. With the paddle attachment or wooden spoon, beat in enough of the flour, 1 cup at a time, until you have a stiff dough.
2. Switch to the dough hook and knead the dough for 5 to 8 minutes, until smooth and elastic, adding more flour if necessary. Or turn out the dough onto a floured surface and knead by hand. Place the dough in a large oiled bowl and turn to coat. Cover with plastic wrap and let rise in a warm place until doubled in bulk, 1 to 1 1/2 hours.
3. Line 2 baking sheets with aluminum foil (not parchment paper), grease the foil and set aside. Punch down the dough and turn it out onto a floured surface. With a serrated knife or bench scraper, cut the dough in half. Roll one half of the dough into a 1-inch-thick rectangle. With the serrated knife or a pizza wheel, cut the dough the short way across into 1-inch-wide strips. Form each strip into a pretzel shape and place on the prepared baking sheet. Repeat with the remaining dough. Cover with plastic wrap and let rise in a warm place until doubled in bulk, 45 minutes to 1 hour.
4. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. In a small enameled or other noncorrosive saucepan (do not use aluminum), mix the lye and water together. Bring to a boil, then immediately remove from the heat. Using tongs, dip each pretzel into the lye solution momentarily, but so that it is completely coated, then return to the baking sheet.
5. Sprinkle the pretzels with coarse salt and bake for 15 to 18 minutes, or until browned. Transfer to wire racks to cool.
Per serving: 116 calories; no fat; no saturated fat; no cholesterol; no protein; 24 g carbohydrate; no sugar; 1 g fiber; 58 mg sodium; 6 mg calcium
Lightly adapted from “Prairie Home Breads,” by Judith M. Fertig
HOMEMADE SOFT PRETZELS
Yield: 8 servings
1 1/2 cups warm water (110 to 115 degrees)
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 package (2 1/4 teaspoons) active dry yeast
41/2 cups (22 ounces) all-purpose flour
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
Vegetable oil, for pan
10 cups water
2/3 cup baking soda
1 large egg beaten with 1 tablespoon water
Pretzel salt or other coarse salt
1. Combine the water, sugar and kosher salt in the bowl of a stand mixer and sprinkle the yeast on top. Allow to sit for 5 minutes or until the mixture begins to foam. Add the flour and butter and, using the dough hook attachment, mix on low speed until well-combined. Change to medium speed and knead until the dough is smooth and pulls away from the side of the bowl, approximately 4 to 5 minutes.
2. Remove the dough from the bowl, clean the bowl and oil it well with vegetable oil. Return the dough to the bowl, cover with plastic wrap and sit in a warm place for approximately 50 to 55 minutes or until the dough has doubled in size.
3. Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper and lightly brush with the vegetable oil. Set aside.
4. Bring the 10 cups of water and the baking soda to a rolling boil in a nonreactive 8-quart saucepan or roasting pan.
5. In the meantime, turn the dough out onto a slightly oiled work surface and divide into 8 equal pieces. Roll out each piece of dough into a 24-inch rope. Make a U-shape with the rope, holding the ends of the rope, cross them over each other and press onto the bottom of the U in order to form the shape of a pretzel. Place onto the prepared baking sheets.
6. Place the pretzels into the boiling water one by one, for about 25 seconds. Remove them from the water using a large, flat spatula. Return to the half-sheet pan, brush the top of each pretzel with the beaten egg yolk and water mixture and sprinkle with the pretzel salt. Bake until dark golden brown in color, approximately 12 to 14 minutes. Transfer to a cooling rack for at least 5 minutes before serving.
Per serving: 331 calories; 8 g fat; 5 g saturated fat; 39 mg cholesterol; 8g protein; 56 g carbohydrate; 2 g sugar; 2 g fiber; 1,160 mg sodium; 26 mg calcium
Recipe by Alton Brown, via Food Network
KNOCK-OFF AUNTIE ANNE’S PRETZELS
Yield: 12 servings
1 1/2 cups milk
1 package (21/4 teaspoons) active dry yeast
2 tablespoons plus a pinch or two of powdered sugar, divided
6 tablespoons (¾ stick) melted butter, divided
1 1/4 teaspoons salt
1 1/2 cups bread flour
2 cups all-purpose flour
4 cups very hot water
6 tablespoons baking soda
1. In a large, nonreactive bowl, heat the milk in a microwave until warm, about 110 degrees. Add the yeast, stir and let it activate, about 3 minutes. Add 2 tablespoons of the powdered sugar and 4 tablespoons of the butter, and stir to combine.
2. Sift together the salt, bread flour and all-purpose flour. Add to the yeast mixture and knead for 8 to 10 minutes, using either the dough hook attachment on a stand mixer or your hands. Add the dough to a greased bowl and cover with plastic wrap; let rise in a warm environment until it doubles in size, about 1 hour. Meanwhile, preheat oven to 425 degrees.
3. After the dough has doubled, divide it into 12 equal portions. Use your hands to roll each portion into a long, thin rope, starting in the middle and working your way to the ends; each rope should be about 36 inches long and 1/2 inch high.
4. To form the pretzel, hold the dough at each end so it forms a U. Keeping your left hand still, cross your right hand in front of your left with enough speed to swing the dough around twice; you can use the counter to stop its momentum, if necessary. Alternatively, form a pretzel shape out of the rope on the counter. Seal the ends into the bottom to complete the pretzel.
5. Dissolve the baking soda into the very hot water and oil 2 baking sheets. Take each pretzel and dip it into the baking soda-water bath and then place, seam side down, onto the oiled baking sheets — about 6 to each sheet. Sprinkle each pretzel with coarse salt and bake in the oven until golden brown and puffy, about 8 to 10 minutes. Rotate the pans 180 degrees halfway through cooking.
6. While the pretzels are baking, melt the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter. Add a pinch or two of the powdered sugar, and stir. Brush each pretzel with butter, and serve.
Per serving: 209 calories; 7 g fat; 4 g saturated fat; 17 mg cholesterol; 5 g protein; 31 g carbohydrate; 3 g sugar; 1 g fiber; 660 mg sodium; 33 mg calcium
Adapted from a recipe by Anne Dolce in thedailymeal.com