traditional german pretzels
Thu, 11 June, 2020
Pretzels: brown, glossy and crunchy with salt, coiled into a praying monk’s figure are almost fit for Hofbrauhaus next Oktoberfest!
Hofbräuhaus in Munich is a vast hangar of a tavern. Beer flows by gallon-sized steins, there’s Bratwurst and Weißwurst, Sauerkraut and schnitzeln, Bratkartoffeln and Spreewälder Gurken but my best food memory is pretzels – or Laugenbretzeln as they should properly be known as. Carried around by buxom waitresses capable of holding a string of those in one hand and a large bunch of 2-litre steins in the other.
Crusted with salt and a lot of it, shiny and brown-glossy with perfect chewiness inside, those pretzels were nothing like my childhood memories of church fêtes with dry, tooth breaking and bland twists the size of a car wheel; or cracker selection boxes with the mini pretzels compartment the only one always left intact. Hofbräuhaus diametrically changed my pretzel perception.
Laugenbretzeln, literally ‘lye pretzels’ are called thus because the glossy brown colour and incomparable flavour come from dipping the breads in a sodium hydroxide solution before baking; which of course must be my favourite kind of food story of a horrible accident ending in a culinary triumph. Lye, being a strong alkaline, is such a risky substance to work with that we home cooks often resort to sodium bicarbonate pretending it’s the same thing. It isn’t and it won’t give you the same exact wonderful results but it’s an acceptable half-measure. Especially considering my only previous experience with lye ended with having to replace bathroom sink (don’t ask – but don’t pour UNDILUTED lye down the sink to unblock it), I’d rather be safe and inauthentic.
Pretzels are made from bread dough, using baker’s yeast or a sourdough starter. This here is a simple, yeasted dough recipe but if you’re in the know and have sour starter in supply, use it instead of yeast, refreshed at 100% hydration with wheat flour, in amount of up to 25% of total bulk.
And finally, the twisting. It’s supposed to represent a praying figure, with arms crossed over the chest rather than clasped together, obviously. All the instructions show a rope of dough looped, twisted and the ends brought upwards but I found my way much easier: cross ends, twist belly and bring it down over the ends. Baker’s choice.
traditional german pretzelsServings: makes 12 pretzelsTime: 2 hours plus proving overnight
- For the ferment:
- 50g strong bread flour
- 20g fresh or 2 tsp instant yeast
- 130g water at room temperature
- For the dough:
- ferment, from above
- 130g water, at room temperature
- 450g strong bread flour
- 1 tbsp. malt extract (liquid or dried, or brown sugar)
- 1 tbsp. sea salt
- 40g unsalted butter, softened
- For cooking and sprinkling:
- 3-4 tbsp. bicarbonate of soda
- 2 tbsp. coarse sea salt crystals
1. Mix the ferment in a bowl, cover with cling film and leave to rest in warm room temperature for 5 hours or overnight. It will bubble up slightly.
2. Add the rest of the water, flour, malt extract, salt and butter to the ferment and knead or mix in a standing mixer with a dough hook attachment until the dough is smooth, elastic and not sticky. Leave it in the bowl to rest for 15 minutes.
3. Turn the dough out onto a work surface and divide into 6 pieces. Roll each one into a long rope; if the dough keeps springing back, leave it for 5 minutes, then continue.
4. Shape each rope into a pretzel shape, as shown, place them on a tray and leave covered with cling film or a tea towel for 30 minutes in a warm place. Transfer to the fridge, uncovered, and chill overnight.
5. The next day bring a large pot with at least 2l of water to a boil. Stir in the baking soda and keep it on low simmer. Lightly grease a baking sheet (don’t line with parchment – the pretzels will stick). Preheat the oven to 220C (fan if available)/425F/gas 7.
6. Drop the chilled pretzels into the water, at most two at a time, for 30 seconds or until they float. Remove onto the greased sheet with a slotted spoon. When all has been cooked, sprinkle generously with coarse salt and make an incision in the thickest part of each pretzel with a sharp knife or baker’s lame.
7. Bake for 12-13 minutes in the upper part of the oven until deep brown.
8. Cool on a wire rack. They are the best on the day they're baked but will keep reasonably well overnight in a bread bag, going quite dry on the third day.