I have begun a new venture with Suzie & Jay Trexler: Tunitas Creek Kitchen!

The Trexlers are the proud farmers of the beautiful coastal Potrero Nuevo Farm and I’m their chef. Featuring locally brewed Cypress beer at our first farm-to-fork dinner, we decide that we really need pretzels. Pretzels go with beer: warm, soft, chewy, brown pretzels with crunchy salt – like the kind you can buy from a street-vendor!

pretzels, Todd Parsons

Napa Cabbage Slaw with warm Pretzels: Todd Parsons Photography

In the middle of researching how exactly to make pretzels, my husband takes me to the French Laundry for my birthday. And guess what kind of bread they are serving? Pretzels! Man, what is going on here? Is there a transcendental pretzel wave that I am vibe-ing off of?

I ask the server if they are cooked in lye. Not sure he returns to ask the kitchen and then informs me: “Yes, they are cooked in lye – you’re the only one who has ever asked that question!”  I enjoy keeping servers on their toes, and he seems to enjoy refilling my empty bread plate with beautiful mini pretzels. No complaints here.

So what is lye and why are pretzels traditionally cooked in it? Let me quote Wikipedia because I think this is fascinating:

“Lye is a corosive alkaline substance, commonly sodium hydroxide, or historically potassium hydroxide. Previously, lye was among the many different alkalis leached from hardwood ashes. Today lye is commercially maufactured using a membrane cell method.

Solid dry lye is commonly available as flakes, pellets, microbeads, and coarse powser. It is also available as solution often dissolved in water. Lye is valued for its use in food preparation, soap making, biodiesel productions, household uses, such as oven cleaner and drain opener, and the clandestine production of the illicit psycho-stimulant drug methamphetamine.

Lye is used to cure many types of food, such as lutefisk, black olives, canned mandarin oranges, hominy, lye rolls, century eggs, and pretzels. It is also used as a tenderizer in the crust of baked Cantonese moon cakes and in lye-water “zongzi”. In the United States, food-grade lye must meet the requirements outlined in the Food Chemicals Codex. Lower grades of lye are commonly used as drain openers and oven cleaners.”

Huh, so lye is also used to open drains, clean ovens, and make crystal meth. Fascinating….

Pretzel dough is boiled in a lye solution before heading to the oven. That’s what seals them and makes ‘em last oh-so-long. The lye also departs that characteristic slightly alkali flavor and deep brown crust. But I just don’t think lye sounds good. No. I think it sounds poisonous. What to do? In fact I’m not even sure that I want it in my soap bar either.

I research all sorts of recipes online and then turn to my very old edition of the Joy of Cooking. I often find great recipes in here like how to skin & cook squirrel or boil boar’s head to perfection. Not to mention great hostess advice like how to set up a champagne tower and pour the bubbly over just right so it cascades into every flute.

The old Joy of Cooking pretzel recipe makes the most sense in terms of ratios and it calls for baking soda otherwise known as Sodium Bicarbonate, instead of lye, which has a slightly salty and alkaline taste – a great replacement.

I find that adding baking soda to the water gives the taste and the look I’m hoping for. But note: adding baking soda to an aluminum pan will react with the metal and leach it out into the food.  (This is a bad thing, use a nonreactive pan or stainless steel.)

Kat, my friend and event planner extraordinaire, helps me to make hundreds of twists for the upcoming dinner. We knead the dough, let it rest and rise, punch it down, then roll it out into twists and proof it one more time before dunking the pretzels into a boiling baking soda-water solution, brushing with egg wash and sending off to the ovens.

During the Farm to Table dinner, the pretzels disappear quickly from peoples plates. There are none left over for the kitchen staff. I guess they were good!

And I’m happy to admit that even though Thomas Keller features them at his restaurant, this recipe is very easy (probably much easier than his) and would be fun to do with kids. Give it a shot and let me know how it turns out!

 

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Ingredients

  • 1 cup 105˚ – 115˚F water
  • 1 package active dry yeast
  • 2 3/4's cup sifted all-purpose flour
  • 2 tablespoons soft butter
  • 1 egg + 3 tablepoons water mixed (egg wash)
  • Coarse salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 4 cups water
  • 5 teaspoons baking soda
  • Coarse salt

Pretzel Recipe adapted from the 1962 Edition of the Joy of Cooking

In a mixer bowl, pour the active dry yeast over the warm water. Once it dissolves and the yeast begins to bloom add and beat for 3 minutes:

1 1/2 cups sifted all-purpose flour

2 tablespoons softened butter

1 tablespoon sugar

Sprinkle salt over mixture and stir in:

1 1/4 cups sifted all-purpose flour

Knead until the dough loses its stickiness. Let rise in a covered greased bowl until doubled in bulk. Punch down and divide into 12 pieces for pretzels or 36 smaller pieces for sticks.

With your palms, roll the 12 pretzels pieces into 18-inch lengths about pencil thickness, tapering the ends slightly. Loop into a twisted oval as shown above. Place on a greased baking sheet and let rise until almost doubled in bulk. Preheat oven to 475˚F.

Have a boiling solution of the water and baking soda solution ready – and do not use an aluminum pot because it will cause a reaction with the baking soda and the metal will leach out into the food. Use Stainless. With a slotted spoon carefully lower the pretzels into the water, about 1 minute, or until they float to the top. Return them to the greased sheet. Brush with egg mixture and sprinkle with coarse sea salt.

Bake until crispy and browned, about 12 minutes for the pretzels and less for the sticks. They are best served at once, but will keep about one week in an airtight container. Cool before storing.

Note: if storing, it helps to add a freshness packet. Otherwise the pretzels will be slightly chewy the next day and the coarse salt tends to dissolve into the bread. They can be warmed and crisped in the oven no problem and even re-salted if necessary.

Note: The original pretzel recipe from the Joy of Cooking does not call for an egg wash, but many others I researched online do. Either way they will still have a shine due to the boiling process, but it just adds a little extra magpie appeal.