The Results: Homemade Pretzels

Without further ado, here they are:

As you’ll see they haven’t quite turned out the glossy, deep brown colour of traditional German pretzels but there is a good reason which I’ll explain later.  First, the recipe:

Ingredients – makes 8
500g plain flour
250ml lukewarm water
21g fresh yeast or 7g dried yeast
1 tbsp salt
1 tsp sugar
Coarse salt
Lye/sodium carbonate solution

Method

  1. Place the flour, yeast, salt and sugar into a bowl and mix together.
  2. Add the water and knead for 10 minutes or until the dough is smooth and elastic.  Allow the dough to rest for 10 minutes.
  3. Cut the dough into eight pieces and roll each into a 15-20cm length.  Leave to rest for another five minutes (this will allow the gluten to relax and will make it easier to roll the dough out further).
  4. Roll each piece out again to a length of around 40-50cm and shape into pretzels.
  5. Put the pretzels in the freezer for around 10-15 minutes to strengthen the dough.
  6. Make up the sodium carbonate solution by diluting 30g of sodium carbonate in 1 litre of water.  Remove the pretzels from the freezer and dip in the solution.
  7. Place on a greased baking tray and sprinkle with salt.  Leave to rise for 20 minutes.
  8. Bake at 200 degrees for around 20 minutes or until the pretzels are golden brown.

So the reason my pretzels didn’t quite come out like traditional German pretzels is because I chickened out of using a lye solution!  It turns out that lye solution (caustic soda and water) can cause serious chemical burns if it comes into contact with the skin and can even cause blindness if it comes into contact with the eyes.  In addition, only certain types of caustic soda are suitable for use in food so I decided not to take the risk of burning or blinding myself or poisoning those around me!

Instead, I did my research to find out alternatives to lye solution.  In the process I had to brush up on my chemistry!  So here comes the science bit…  Caustic soda (or sodium hydroxide) is highly alkaline with a pH value of 14.  To replicate the deep, golden brown colour and intense flavour that a lye solution produces I had to find a solution with a similar pH value.

I tried two options:

  1. A bicarbonate of soda solution.  Bicarbonate of soda is mildly alkaline with a pH value of around 6 when dissolved in water.  It’s not quite as high as sodium hydroxide but it was certainly worth a shot as I’d heard that it gave a good crispy crust to the pretzels.
  2. A sodium carbonate, or washing soda, solution.  To create sodium carbonate, simply bake bicarbonate of soda for an hour at 150 degrees.  This process releases water and carbon dioxide and increases the pH value to around 11.  It definitely sounded like a contender for a lye replacement.

As mentioned above, neither solution produced the desired glossy, deep brown crust of the typical German pretzel but the sodium carbonate solution certainly produced a much darker and much crispier result than the bicarbonate of soda.  The pretzels themselves were also soft and doughy on the inside, the way they should be.  If you’re going to attempt making pretzels, I’d recommend the sodium carbonate solution.  I would however warn that it is still slightly caustic and will damage work surfaces if it comes into contact with them (which I found out the hard way!).

I’ll definitely be eating the pretzels I’ve made today but I’m afraid I’ll just have to go back to Germany to get the real thing.  Oh what a shame!!

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