The Pretzel Man

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Growing up in Lancaster, PA, pretzels were everywhere. We always had a giant tin of hard pretzels in the pantry to snack on and to munch along side our traditional Sunday night pizza dinner before settling in to watch “Wild Kingdom” and “The Wonderful World of Color.”

Pretzel bakeries were everywhere, and everyone had their favorite one. I pretty much liked them all, and appreciated each for its different qualities. Some hard and crunchy, some with a more crumbly texture. Some really salty others devoid of salt. Every shade from pale golden color to almost burnt. Bickel’s pretzels were usually in our house. My grandmother preferred Hammond’s or Tom Sturgis pretzels. We had school and Cub Scout field trips to the Anderson Pretzel Bakery; they were unique because they used machines to turn out pretzels on a massive conveyor belt. The smaller places did it by hand. A row of women in hair nets would move their hands in a blur rolling the dough and twisting it into pretzels so fast it was hard to believe.

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Cub Scouts at the Anderson Pretzel Factory in 1971.  I am 3rd from the right.

We learned about pretzels in school. They were invented around 400-500 A.D. in what is now Southern France or Northern Italy. Monks would take leftover scraps of dough and bake them into the shape of a child’s arms folded in prayer. They were given as rewards to children. They were called “pretiola” which means “little reward” in Latin. As with anything good, these treats caught on and upon making it to present day Germany they were called Bretzeln, and of course we now call them pretzels.

We learned that hard pretzels were invented by mistake when a baker left them in the oven too long. The best pretzels were the soft pretzels though. Back in my childhood days they were a nickel, sold by men wearing Gatsby hats carrying a big picnic basket of freshly baked pretzels. Depending on how many you bought, he would put them in an appropriately sized brown bag and you had a delicious treat in an instant. We were always on the lookout for the prezel man when we went into town for an errand. The tip off was the hat. We took to calling it the “Pretzel Man Hat.”

The pretzel men sometimes came door-to-door selling the salty treats. They would come by my dad’s cabinet making shop to sell us pretzels. Pretzels were always close at hand, and I never recall turning one down.

Off I went to college in Northeastern Pennsylvania. Still in Pennsylvania Dutch country, but no pretzel bakeries! No pretzel men! Interestingly, in Lancaster, where spices and bulk foods are sold, there is pretzel salt. These self-sufficient “Dutch” have to do everything themselves, you know! OK, I can do this.

Pretzels are perfect student food. Cheap, all you need is flour, yeast, and salt. Filling, a few pretzels and you are full. Salty, goes perfect with beer! We made a lot of pretzels. They weren’t great, but they were good enough to get by.

I recently started thinking about those olden times and how we loved to make and eat freshly baked pretzels. I have gotten pretty good at making sourdough bread, so wanted to give those pretzels a new “twist.” It took me a few tries, but I have it down now.

Sourdough Soft Pretzels

440g active sourdough starter made with 220g each Tipo 00 flour and water (you may substitute all purpose flour in this recipe)
1000g Tipo 00 flour
512g water
20g salt
25g dried malt extract
50g butter

Start by activating the enzymes and fully hydrating the flour. Mix the 1000g flour with the 512g water and 10% of the sourdough (44g). Cover and let this rest for at least two hours.

Add the rest of the sourdough starter, the salt, the malt extract, and the butter. You can get dried malt extract anywhere they sell brewing supplies. If they have it, ask for “diastatic” malt extract which helps with the enzymatic reactions that form the dough. Seal any leftover malt extract well because it will absorb moisture and get hard as a rock.

Knead the dough in a stand mixer with the dough hook on low speed until everything is incorporated. Then turn the mixer up to a medium speed and let it go until the gluten forms and the dough no longer sticks to the bowl. You can stretch the dough and see that it is very extensible to form a thin sheet without tearing. That is the sign it is ready.

Place the dough in an oiled container. Cover and let rest at room temperature. Every 45 minutes, stretch the dough by hand and fold it over a few times. Do this 3 times.  Then let the dough rest for 3 hours.

Turn the dough out on a floured counter. Divide into about 16 even pieces. Roll each piece into a long cylinder about 24″ long and 3/4″ thick. taper the ends. Let these rest for 15 minutes. Twist into pretzel shape and place on parchment lined sheet pans.

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I put an inverted shot glass in each corner of each sheet pan to serve as a spacer. Stack the pans and seal them up with plastic. Put the stack of pans in the refridgerator overnight (at least 12 hours).

Here is the tricky part. Obtain some food grade lye (NaOH). Make a 4% solution. I used 40g laye in 1000g water. Lye is very dangerous, so use extreme caution. Add the lye to the water slowly. DO NOT add water to the lye or it can erupt. Weare eye protection. Wear resistant gloves.

If you prefer not to use lye, a reasonable substitute is to make sodium carbonate. Place 2 cups of baking soda in the oven and bake at 200F for an hour. This drives CO2 off the bicarbonate and leaves sodium carbonate. Dissolve the 2 cups of sodium carbonate in a liter of water. Make a saturated solution; not all of the carbonate will dissolve; it’s ok.

The purpose of this solution is to gelatinize the surface of the pretzel dough to give it its shiny appearance and a familiar pretzel taste. Whichever solution you use, take the cold pretzel doughs from the fridge and give them a dunk in the solution. I use a stainless steel spider for this so they can drain before going onto the baking sheet.

Sprinkle with pretzel salt (or if you are avoiding salt, you may use caraway or sesame seeds). Bake 13 minutes in a 450F convection oven (15 minutes for conventional).

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Now all you need is beer and mustard! Enjoy!

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