03 September 2015

Alton Brown's Homemade Soft Pretzels

There is nothing like a warm soft pretzel.  There is also no time I realize this more than when I get one at a sporting event that's rock hard and dry.  They always look good, golden brown and salty, slowly rotating in a glass walled metal box.  But, the execution is sorely lacking, at least at the venue's I've been to.  Definitely not good eats. 
Thankfully, Alton Brown and Good Eats is here to save the day.  Sure, it's not very practical to make and take these to the stadium, but you could save that pretzel craving for when you get home and get a hot dog or nachos at the game.  Don't get me wrong, ballpark food has come a long way, maybe they'll work on a better pretzel next, but for now, we have our ovens at home!
These pretzels have it all.  Crispy and salty on the outside, and soft and chewy on the inside.  They come together very quickly, too, much like a pizza dough, needing only one rising.  The most time consuming part, is rolling out each pretzel individually, but that's when the fun begins.
I don't know why, but I think there is something whimsical about making the pretzel shape out of ropes of dough.  Maybe because it's such a familiar shape that I've seen my whole life.  Watching each pretzel take shape, each one a little different, is just so much fun.
Then you get to boil them! In baking soda water, no less.  Why baking soda water?  Two reasons.  First, dropping each pretzel into boiling water for about one minute makes the interior of the pretzel quickly puff and begins the crust formation. If the pretzel isn't boiled, it wouldn't have the chewiness we all know and love from a soft pretzel.  Second, the baking soda is what gives the pretzels their brown and shiny crust and distinctive flavor.  The baking soda moves the water from neutral over to the alkaline or basic side of the scale. When this happens, the browning reactions that happen more rapidly. Without this step, the pretzel would lose out on the texture, flavor and appearance of the pretzel.  So it is very important.  Plus, if some of the baking soda water spill onto the cooktop, it cleans off any caked on grease rather nicely.
After boiling, brush the pretzel tops with some egg wash and top them to your hearts content.  Pictured above are pretzels with Hawaiian black lava salt and fleur de sel.  You could also top with regular pretzel salt, jalapeno and cheddar, or go sweet with cinnamon and sugar.  The possibilities are endless.
There you have it.  Homemade soft pretzels.  Worth it?  Yes!!
Alton Brown's Homemade Soft Pretzels

1 1/2 cups warm (110 to 115 degrees F) water
1 tablespoon sugar
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 package active dry yeast
22 ounces all-purpose flour, approximately 4 1/2 cups
2 ounces unsalted butter, melted
Vegetable oil, for pan
10 cups water
2/3 cup baking soda
1 large egg yolk beaten with 1 tablespoon water
Pretzel salt

Stir together the water, sugar and kosher salt in the bowl of a stand mixer and sprinkle the yeast on top. Let the yeast sit for 5 minutes or until the mixture starts to foam.

Using the dough hook attachment and the mixture on low speed. add the flour and butter; mix until well combined. Increase the mixer to medium speed and knead the dough until it is smooth and pulls away from the side of the bowl, 4 to 5 minutes. Remove the dough from the bowl, then coat the bowl with vegetable oil. Return the dough to the bowl, cover with plastic wrap and let it sit in a warm place until the dough has doubled in size, about 1 hour.

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F. Line 2 half-sheet pans with parchment paper and lightly brush with the vegetable oil. Bring water and the baking soda to a boil in an 8-quart saucepan or roasting pan.

Then, turn the dough out onto a slightly oiled work surface and divide into 8 equal pieces. Roll each piece of dough into a 24-inch rope. Make a U-shape with the rope, holding the ends of the rope, cross them over each other and press onto the bottom of the U in order to form the shape of a pretzel. Place onto the parchment-lined half sheet pan.

Gently drop the pretzels into the boiling water, 1 by 1, for 30 seconds each. Remove them from the water using a large flat spatula. Return to the half sheet pan, brush the top of each pretzel with the beaten egg yolk and water mixture and sprinkle with the pretzel salt. Bake until dark golden brown in color, approximately 12 to 14 minutes. Transfer to a cooling rack for at least 5 minutes before serving.

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