Pretzels, or brezel or brezen in German, are the most iconic German food. Ornaments of pretzels adorn every bakery, and images of them can be found on medieval church windows in Freiburg, where I come from,” says former contestant on The Great British Bake Off, Jurgen Krauss.
“Often, a pretzel works better as a soother for an upset baby than a dummy. They are a part of my upbringing and heritage. And still, there is no better snack after a long shopping spree through my hometown of Freiburg than a brezel from the bakery at the tram stop.
“Disclaimer about lye: I am giving two options for the finish. One is using lye, which involves a very dangerous chemical, solid sodium hydroxide. The other option uses baking soda, which is bicarbonate of soda, and is not dangerous at all. The results are different in colour and taste, but without a direct comparison, the bicarbonate of soda pretzel can stand its ground. If you intend to use lye, I’d recommend baking a few batches of pretzels with bicarbonate of soda, but treat it as if it was lye, to practise the handling and have everything in the right place before starting.”
For the starter:
100g bread flour
1⁄8 tsp instant yeast
For the dough:
400g bread flour
5g instant yeast
25g unsalted butter, room temperature
Coarse salt crystals, for sprinkling
For the lye or bicarb dipping solution:
80g bicarbonate of soda or 80g sodium hydroxide pellets
1. Prepare the starter the day before baking. Combine all the ingredients in a bowl and mix with your hand or a spatula until all the flour is incorporated. Cover with clingfilm and leave to stand at room temperature for about two hours. Then put the starter in the fridge overnight until you need it – it will be good to use for up to three days.
2. About one hour before making the main dough, take the starter out of the fridge.
3. To make the main dough, combine all the ingredients except the salt crystals and the starter in a bowl and mix with your hand or a spatula. The resulting dough will be very stiff. Knead the dough on a work surface for about 10 minutes. Don’t use any additional flour, you won’t need it anyway. The resulting dough should be smooth and a bit elastic. Put the dough into a bowl, cover and prove at room temperature for about two hours. Fold the dough once after one hour.
4. Meanwhile, prepare the dipping solution. Use a big stainless-steel pan and stainless-steel spoons for dipping. Cover your normal work surfaces in case the lye spills. When dipping, keep the baking sheets very close to the lye pan and the oven. Always wear protective gloves and goggles when working with sodium hydroxide and lye. Never ever touch sodium hydroxide pellets with your skin.
5. If using bicarbonate of soda, bring the water to boil. Switch off the heat, add the salt and stir. Then add the bicarbonate of soda – there will be a bit of frothing and splashing, so be careful. Leave to cool.
6. If using sodium hydroxide, put the water in the pan and then add the sodium hydroxide pellets. Sodium hydroxide creates a lot of heat when it dissolves.
7. Once the dough has proved, divide it into pieces weighing 85 grams each. Roll each piece of dough into a cylinder. Once all the pieces have been rolled, start again with the first piece, to roll it into a long strand with thin ends and a belly in the middle. Aim for a length of 60 centimetres. Make sure you don’t tear your strands – if there is too much resistance in the dough, move on to the next strand. You will need several cycles to reach the length required.
8. Now shape the pretzels – the bakers use a slinging method, but there is a simpler, slower way to do this. Make sure the ends of the little arms are well attached to the middle bit.
9. Place the pretzels onto lined baking trays, cover and leave to prove at room temperature for about 45 minutes. Uncover the pretzels and put them in the fridge for 30 minutes, so that a skin can form. Preheat the oven to 230C fan/gas mark 9.
10. Take the pretzels out of the fridge. Dip each pretzel in lye or sodium carbonate solution for about five seconds. Transfer the pretzel back onto the lined baking sheet. One sheet will hold four to five pretzels. Once the sheet is full, slash the thickest part of the pretzels with a sharp serrated knife and sprinkle with salt crystals. Transfer to the oven immediately and bake for 12–15 minutes. Leave to cool on a wire rack. Repeat with the remaining pretzels.
11. Because of the salt, these pretzels are best eaten fresh.
‘German Baking: Cakes, Tarts, Traybakes And Breads From The Black Forest And Beyond’ by Jurgen Krauss (published by Kyle Books on 31 August, £26).
Join our commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies