I'm living in India, hail from Belgium and my paternal grandmother was German. This (especially the latter part) might explain my love for Laugenbrezel (pretzels made with lye). Whenever I'm in Germany I just HAVE to sample at least one. I've always wanted to try and produce these and a recently recurring bout of insomnia provided me with the time to do some nighttime baking.
But first a confession that explains the 'coward' bit in the title: I didn't use the traditional 3-4% sodium hydroxide solution to boil the pretzel dough in. I know it's the way it's supposed to be done, I was trained (previous lifetime) to handle hazardous chemicals but I've also seen what hot lye can do to human tissue when (not if) things go wrong and for me it's not worth taking the risk. So I opted instead for a 5% baking soda solution.
The recipe I followed is a slightly modified version of the one described by Jeffrey Hamelman in 'Bread', check pages 269-272 for detailed instructions. I diverged somewhat from his recipe so I guess it's ok to describe how I went about making them.
- 25 gr. of white sourdough starter at 100% hydration
- 175 gr. of white bread flour
- 110 gr. water, room temperature
I mixed up the above and let stand in my kitchen, which was 18 centigrade. Presumably the sourdough wild yeast and bacteria had to adapt to the relatively dry environment because it took a full 24 hours to reach maturity.
- All of the preferment
- 400 gr. White bread flour
- 20 gr. butter, softened
- 8 gr. salt
- 2 gr. bread machine yeast
- 15 gr. of demerara sugar
- 225 gr. water, room temperature
(As mentioned, developing the preferment took a VERY long time. In the book ordinary yeast is used and hydration is somewhat different + fermentation temperature a bit higher, leading to a drastically reduced fermentation time.)
- Place flour in a bowl, add the preferment, butter, bread machine yeast, salt and water.
- Mix at slow speed until a rough dough is formed. Autolyse for 30 minutes.
- Mix at speed 2 for 3 minutes, followed by 5 minutes at speed 3, dough temp should be between 21 and 24 centigrade. I ended up with a very supple but relatively slack dough, despite an overall hydration of just 58-60%, possibly due to the fat and sugar present. It's sticky, this is normal.
- Bulk fermentation in a lidded bowl at 25 centigrade for 2 hours, one fold on a floured surface after 1.5 hours.
- Meanwhile, put on a big pot of water to which you add 5% baking soda. Caution: add baking soda when starting, if you wait until boiling it'll foam up.
- After bulk fermentation, place the dough on a floured silpad and give one more fold, flatten a bit and divide. I aimed for 70 gr. chunks but was not overly precise. This turned out not to matter a lot. Shape these into rolls (mini boules let's say) and place them on a floured surface.
- Proof for 40 minutes, if your dough was at 25 centigrade, ambient temperature doesn't really matter. Do not cover the proofing dough, for once you actually want the surface to dry out a bit.
- Take a slotted spoon and (one by one unless you have a pot far bigger than what I had), using a slotted spoon, immerse the rolls into the boiling solution. They will immediately release from the spoon and float to the surface while the dough expands a bit and at the same time darkens a little and develops a leathery skin. Push them under gently and keep them in the solution for about 5 seconds. Remove, allow most of the water to drip off and place on a floured silpad which you've arranged on a baking tray. Don't worry, they won't fall apart. Oh, yeah, by this time, your oven should be at 220-230 centigrade, else you might have a problem.
- Then, quickly score the rolls. I forgot this step.
- Insert into oven, keep temperature at 220-230 centigrade and switch to convection mode, you want good air flow and high temperature.
- After 2 minutes, briefly open the oven door to let the hot steam escape (no steaming required, btw).
- Total baking time was 13 minutes, remove from oven and place on a rack to cool.
Surprisingly, there was quite bit of oven spring in the dough, I hadn't expected this. The tops were nicely browned due to the bicarbonate solution dip, initially they felt quite crusty (not a good thing in pretzels) but they quickly softened up and obtained the typical pretzel texture, between soft and hard with a leathery bite feel (apologies for the description but this is the best I can do). The crumb was nice and chewy, taste more developed due to the preferment and very close to the original as far as taste goes. The crumb was a bit more open than what you might expect from a German pretzel but still close enough, dense and chewy. Texture wise I'd guess I got to about 85-90% of the original. Most importantly: when tasting and despite the use of soda instead of lye solution, you still got this 'tingling/astringent' feeling on the tongue that's typical for a pretzel.
In summary I was happy with the result, despite having forgotten about the scoring. I believe using soda is a viable alternative to using lye solution. Should you wish to use lye, be sure to know EXACTLY what the risks and way of handling are and whatever you do, safely discard the used solution. Don't bottle it up for subsequent use and keep the lye crystals away from kids/pets. A moment of inattention can carry a lifetime of consequences.
Apologies for the picture quality; as always it was snapped with my phone under less than ideal conditions.