Recently I have been hankering after pretzels. I don’t mean those small dried crispy kind, but the big, doughy, wonderfully chewy kind. The only problem is that they don’t seem to exist in the UK (apart from maybe in London which isn’t exactly nearby). I’ve only ever had two, what I consider, genuine pretzels – once in Germany on a school exchange trip and one last year in Chicago. They were so good and I’ve been longing to taste one again but although I’ve searched, I’ve never found one. On reflection though this could be a good thing as mass produced pretzels in the UK would probably result in some horrible dry cardboard tasting pretzel shaped bread – sort of like our bagels. A dense piece of bread with a hole it in, that has to be toasted to be edible, isn’t a proper bagel people – unless you’ve tasted freshly made genuine bagels you don’t understand the pure joy of a true bagel – again I have America envy. Ok, enough about bagels (but grrr it does annoy me) anyway back to pretzels. Unable to get my pretzel fix I decided the only option left was to make them myself.
I spent an interesting few hours sifting through many pretzel recipes online and finally settled on one by Alton Brown which had good reviews. Of course me being me I decided to adjust the recipe slightly to make use of my sourdough starter which I started a few months back.
The dough came together well and was quite sticky before its prebaking swim in a pot of boiling water. This is the same technique used for bagels; it tightens the gluten in the flour and results in a wonderfully chewy texture and glossy appearance.
Some of my pretzels came out a little misshaped but this made each one unique and obviously homemade which I loved. Once baked I took a bite and was rewarded with the taste and texture I had been hankering after for so long. A crisp golden surface and a soft, chewy interior with little hits of saltiness from the sea salt on top. Heaven!
I ate my first one dipping it in mustard – a tip I was shown in Chicago and then another one split in half and filled with a little cheese for lunch. The only problem is I was so excited about how they tasted like ‘real’ pretzels that I made my family taste them too and now there’s none left! Better go make some more…
Soft & Chewy Sourdough Pretzels
(Modified from pretzel recipe by Alton Brown)
200g sourdough starter
250ml warm water
475g strong white bread flour
1 tbsp caster sugar
2 tsp salt
50g unsalted butter
2.5 litres water
1 tbsp bicarbonate of soda
1 egg yolk
1 tbsp water
Coarse sea salt
*If you want to make non sourdough pretzels then add an extra 100ml water, 100g flour and 7g dried yeast.
Combine the water, sugar, flour, sourdough starter and salt in a large bowl. Melt the butter and drizzle this over the top.
Use a wooden spoon or spatula to start to bring everything together but then switch to your hands when it gets thicker. Mix the dough well, kneading it as well as you can until it begins to form a dough. Turn the dough out onto a work surface and knead for 5-8 minutes until the dough becomes smooth and tacky to the touch rather than wet and sticky.
Lightly oil a large bowl and place the dough inside. Cover with clingfilm and leave to rise in a warm place until doubled in size. This will take about 1 – 1½ hours.
Preheat the oven to 230C. Line 2 baking trays with greaseproof paper and set aside. Bring the 2.5 litres of water and the bicarbonate of soda to a rolling boil in large saucepan.
Meanwhile, turn the dough out onto a slightly oiled work surface and divide into 8 equal pieces. Roll out each piece of dough into a long rope, about 2 foot long/60cm. Make an upside down U-shape with the rope, holding each end in your hands. Cross the ends over each other twice, holding them above the bottom of the U. Then take the ends and press them into the base of the U to form a pretzel shape. Place them on the baking tray while you shape them all.
Lift each pretzel and place it gently, but quickly, into the pan of boiling water. Only do one at a time. It will sink to the bottom of the pan but after 30 seconds it should rise up and float to the top. Lift out using a large spatula and repeat with the rest of the pretzels. (This is what makes them lovely and chewy. They should be a little firmer and slightly glossy in appearance).
Beat the egg yolk and water together and brush over the tops of each pretzel. Sprinkle with a little sea salt.
Bake for 12-15 minutes until a rich golden brown colour.
Once baked, transfer to a wire rack to cool slightly before enjoying warm – either on their own, dipped in mustard or split in half and filled.
Makes 8 large chewy pretzels
Note: Click here to see a video on how to shape pretzels. Here they’re making cookies, but technique applies to dough pretzels too.