Notes on making pretzels
The dough and recipe parts of this post have been superseded by this excellent pretzel recipe, which also has a great sauce
I’ve been making these for the past few weeks. I’ve definitely gotten better at it over this time. Here are some notes for future me:
I like to go for a 55% - 58% hydration. There’s a good calulator. I find less than 55% tends to fall apart, and more than 58% is totally fine but just takes more kneading and doesn’t really get you anything. Pretzel dough is supposed to be stiff. There’s no need for high-hydration sourdough heroics here.
You can use a small amount of non-white flour (my sourdough starter is wholemeal) but I don’t think wholemeal pretzels are particularly good, so I wouldn’t go too overboard with other types of flour (though obviously this is subjective, and maybe rye flour would be interesting)
You do need to knead the dough, but really only for a few minutes. If you’re using the hydration range I mentioned you shouldn’t be dealing with a wet or sticky dough, so it’s pretty easy kneading and isn’t going to go everywhere. I usually don’t even bother flouring the kneading surface.
Rest the dough in an oiled bowl with something covering it. The dough should tip right out of the bowl, thanks to the oil.
Dipping the formed pretzel in baked baking soda or lye is essential. Having used both I’m not sure there’s much advantage to lye, and it definitely comes with some handling downsides. I’ve used lye in cold water, and always used the baked baking soda in boiling water, so maybe baked baking soda in cold water wouldn’t work as well as the lye does. Normal baking soda doesn’t do as good of a job, and it’s so easy to make baked baking soda that there’s no reason not to (but don’t get it mixed up with normal baking soda: once it’s been baked it’s got a different chemical composition, and is not a substitute for regular baking soda)
I haven’t used an egg wash after the alkaline dip. My impression is that the egg wash is there to fake the browness you get from doing the alkaline dip. So if you do the dip then you don’t need the egg wash?
You do need salt flakes. The drier the pretzels are after dipping the better, otherwise your salt is going to dissolve and absorb into the dough. You’ll end up putting a fair amount of salt on if this happens, and that might not be desirable - you really just need salt on the outside.
Quick vs Slow Recipes
There’s a recipe at the top of Google’s results for “pretzel recipe” that promises pretzels in 30 minutes. The problem with this recipe (like all quick-bread recipes I’ve tried) is that the bread either tastes like nothing, or has a not-so-nice after taste. Better to let your dough rise longer: an hour or more. Don’t worry about over-proofing it, you’re going to squish it down before you roll out the pretzel anyway.
Pretzels made with sourdough starter discard are the way I usually do it - you get the sourness and body from the discard, while using yeast and sugar to still get a fairly quick rise. Overall best results are to make a true sourdough pretzel, but for that you’re likely waiting overnight. Using the discard is a good compromise and gets you 90% of the way there. There’s a pretty good recipe here though I don’t bother with the milk powder. I halve that recipe and it’s just right for 2 people.
Beer vs Water
I think substituting beer for water does make for a small flavour improvement. If you’ve got some sacrificial beer on hand then I think it’s worth doing. Use something cheap.
It’s easy once you get the hang of it - which shouldn’t take long. Your dough should have plenty of elasticity and you’ll be surprised how long of a rope you can get from a smallish piece. If the rope is shrinking after rolling then give it a brief rest and roll it out again.
If you can’t be bothered tying the knot (though seriously: it’s really easy) you can just twist the rope up, or even just cut it into sticks. It’s not going to make any difference to the flavour.
Make sure to squish the dough fairly well before you start shaping - if you don’t get the air out your pretzels are going to puff up when you bake them. It’s not a problem, really, but they’ll be a little less like real pretzels if this happens. You shouldn’t be having air pockets in your baked pretzels.
Makes handling the pretzel a lot easier, they’re less likely to come apart. Definitely recommend chilling the shaped pretzels before dipping them, if you have time. Freezer or fridge, doesn’t matter which.
I tried mixing grated cheddar into the dough. It was fine to handle, and to bake, but was pretty much unnoticeable in the finished product. So I don’t bother with that anymore.
I also tried stuffing the pretzels with cheese. Initially I used grated cheddar again and it kind of half worked. Then I learned that it’s better to use a solid chunk of cheese. That worked pretty well - when the pretzel was torn there was melted cheese in the middle - but the cheesiness was lost in the mustard and so I don’t usually bother doing it.
I think putting grated cheddar (and jalapeños?!) on top before baking might be the way to go.
Make sure to use a recipe that gives measurements by weight, not by volume. This is true for all breadmaking. Buy some cheap digital scales, and measure accurately.