I whipped up a batch of German soft pretzels last night, using the recipe from Jeffrey Hamelman’s Bread. I think they came out pretty good, in case you were wondering. It’s surprising how quickly a more than a pound of dough can be consumed when it is formed into hot little twists. I ate three of them myself before they’d even had time to cool down.
I didn’t have pretzel salt on hand, so I used Hawaiian pink salt, which has crystals about the right shape and size. It tasted fine, but as you can see it turned a cruddy grey color. I need to make a trip down to the salt district to get the right stuff before the next time I bake these.
My favorite thing about making pretzels (aside from eating them, that is) is that before baking they are briefly dipped in a 4% solution of lye (sodium hydroxide). This serves a number of purposes: the moisture itself gelates the surface starches, resulting in a shiny crust, while the lye promotes browning reactions and creates that unique “pretzel” flavor.
A 4% lye solution has a pH of 14, meaning it is as alkaline a solution as you can get, i.e., it can burn the shit out of you if you’re not careful. Fortunately for pretzel lovers, the lye on the dough reacts with carbon dioxide in the oven to form harmless carbonates. (As always, the skinny on all this can be found in Harold McGee’s essential reference On Food and Cooking.)
UPDATE (8/5/08): For those of you who are looking for lye to use, please don’t use hardware store grade, who knows what crud is in that stuff. What you want is FOOD GRADE LYE, which can be had here, for the low low price of $239 for 128 pounds, which should last you a while. (Okay, yes, they sell smaller quantities if you don’t have the cupboard space for that much.)
Also, this kind fellow posted the Hamelman recipe so I wouldn’t have to. Enjoy!