Cooking with chemistry: basic stuff

Let’s start off #RealTimeChem cook-off weekend with some basic stuff (excuse this so not funny pun): making pretzels – the lye pastry that is ubiquitous in Germany. I don’t know who first came up with the idea to dunk shaped dough into a boiling alkaline solution before baking it, but kudos to them. Here’s a quick run-down of my pretzel-making adventure.

Bla bla bla, give me the recipe already.

Pretzels start off their life as liquid, yeasty mash. This starting mixture contains a lot of yeast and very little flour. Leaving the little fungi to do their work for several hours gives the resulting dough a particularly yeasty flavour (which is a lot better than it sounds).

After around six hours, it’s shaping time, which in theory is pretty straightforward: make a long thin dough rope with a bulge in the middle. Lay the dough out in a horseshoe shape, then cross the thin ends one over the other. Give the ends a twist, then fold them back towards the round top part of the horseshoe, securing the ends on the side of the shape. Simple, right? Of course, you could always get a pretzel-shaping machine.

After leaving the shaped pretzels to rise one last time, and then putting them in a cold place (which in my case was outside) for around 15 minutes, it’s time to drop them into the base. Sadly, it is very difficult to get food grade lye aka sodium hydroxide in the UK. The only one I found on Amazon was too expensive, so I had to result to baking sodium aka sodium hydrogen carbonate aka bicarb. Since the bicarb solution, which triggers a Maillard reaction once the dough is being heated, is not as basic as sodium hydroxide, the resulting pretzels don’t get as dark.

In Germany you can buy food-grade NaOH for a few euro, so I ordered some to my family’s place, hoping to get round to making some pretzel when I’m visiting over Christmas. I’m excited to see how much of a difference this makes!

Pretzels (bicarb version)

Adapted from here. Makes around 16

  • 1kg flour
  • 260ml water
  • 2 tsp dried yeast (or 42g fresh yeast)
  • 260ml milk
  • 80g melted butter
  • 1 tbsp brown sugar
  • 2tbsp salt
  • for the base solution: water and baking soda
  • crude sea salt for sprinkling

Mix 100g flour, the water and the yeast. Cover with cling film and leave in a warm place for 5 hours. Add the remaining flour, milk, butter, sugar, salt. Knead for 5-10 minutes (great workout if you don’t use a kitchen aid) and leave to rise in a warm place for another 1.5 hours.

Knead again and shape pretzels and set on baking tray lined with baking paper. Leave to rise for another 30 minutes, then put in a cold place (outside/fridge/near a fan) for 15 minutes.

Bring water to boil in a deep pan, add a few spoonfuls of baking soda. Carefully lift each pretzel and drop into the boiling solution until it floats after a few seconds. A large slotted spoon and/or strainer will help you lift the pretzel out of the solution without it falling apart.

Set back onto baking tray, slash the thickest part 1cm deep, sprinkle with salt and bake at 200°C (fan) for 15-20 minutes.

Amazing when fresh! After a day or so you can always re-heat them in the toaster. You can also bake them only half the time, freeze them and then finish baking them whenever you want fresh pretzels.

Top tip: Start the dough early so you can use it straight away. I started too late, so I had to leave it in the fridge overnight, making it quite soft and very difficult to shape – I almost despaired until my pretzel-shaping expert housemate came to the rescue.

Finally, many thanks to indie game developer Matt Thorson for letting me use a piece of music from his game An untitled story. It’s one of the late game boss music, which I felt was very fitting for my personal battle with the pretzels.

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