I’m always looking for interesting or unusual breads to bake, and this time the We Knead To Bake group is baking Pretzels. Having baked Soft Pretzels/ Laugenbrezhen before, I chose to try my hand the crisper and crunchier version of Pretzels. We all had the option of choosing to bake either soft ones or the crunchier ones, and most of the bread bakers in the group chose to bake Laughenbrezel, the softer ones
What’s really interesting about the Pretzel, whether hard or soft, is that it gets cooked twice. First the Pretzel dough is shaped and boiled in a soda bath and then baked in the oven till it turns a beautiful brown.
Traditionally, Pretzels were boiled in a lye bath (sodium hydroxide and water) which is what causes the browning and the distinctive taste, but working with lye is dangerous and requires safety precautions like wearing goggles and rubber gloves to prevent contact with the solution!
That’s a scary thought and a soda bath (2 tablespoon baking soda for 6 cups of water) is less dangerous, easier to work with and produces much the same result. An added bonus is that after the Pretzels have been boiled, the hot solution is a good drain cleaner if poured down your kitchen sink!
Pretzels are usually topped with flaked or coarse salt, but sesame seeds and poppy seeds are also used. The ideal German Pretzel has a dark brown, crispy, salty crust, and a soft bready interior. The top of the Pretzel (where the “arms” cross/ twist) is thinner while the bottom is usually plump.
Hard pretzels are not German but an American creation. The Laugenbrezel is supposedly Bavarian in origin and thought to have been created by accident.
Apparently, one morning sometime in the early 1800s, one Anton Pfanenbrenner who was a baker at the Munich Royal Café, was making sweet Pretzels. Instead of using a sugar solution to brush the dough, he accidentally brushed them with a sodium hydroxide solution used to clean and disinfect the bakery countertops! He decided to bake the pretzels anyway.
The Pretzels came out of the oven with a lovely brown crust and delighted his customers. I hate to think what would have happened if ended up poisoning his customers and killing them instead! One does not expect kitchen cleaners and disinfectants to be edible…
As for the reason why Pretzels are shaped the way they are, there are a few theories. Some say the shape comes from the Roman ring-bread which was a small, circular-shaped bread, while others believe that Pretzels were shaped to resemble a praying monk (back then the praying position was arms crossed with the hands on the shoulders)
All across Germany, Pretzels vary slightly in shape. In Bavaria, the arms of the Pretzel are shorter and attached closer to the top (thin part) of the pretzel and in Schwaben, the arms of the Pretzel sit very low on the body.
There are different types of German Pretzels like the Wiesnzeit/Oktoberfest Pretzel (made for the Munich Oktoberfest – larger, not so brown and more like bread), Neujahrsbrezel/ New Year Pretzels made in Baden and Schwaben (with milk dough or sweet yeasted dough and no boiling in lye bath), Nussbrezel/ Nut-Pretzel (sweet and made from flaky puff pastry), and the Fastenbrezeln/ Lent Pretzel (made during Lent, light coloured and boiled in water only before baking)
There are also other breads made in Germany using the same dough as Pretzel dough and the lye/ soda bath technique and these breads are collectively referred to as Laugengebäck. Some of these include Laugenstangen (Pretzel Bread Sticks), Laugenbrötchen (Pretzel Rolls), and the Käse-Brezel (Cheese Pretzel)
This recipe is for hard/ crunchy pretzels and the dough can be shaped to make Pretzel Bites, Sticks or the regular shaped Pretzels. The pretzels will be rather crunchy on the outside with a slightly bready middle. The important thing here is to make sure the dough is rolled out quite thin if you want them really crunchy. Serve them with dipping sauces for an enjoyable snack.
If you should like the idea of the shape of the Pretzel but don’t want the bother of dunking your dough in soda baths you could always try making this Cheese Onion Pretzel Bread. Of course, you wouldn’t find the distinctive taste of the Pretzel in this one, but its a pretty good bread!
Pretzels are not too difficult to make and it’s probably the shaping that will take your time, unless you are already quite good at it. These videos on shaping Pretzels and making them are quite self-explanatory and will be a great help if this is your first attempt at making them. You will find that my Pretzels look rather plain and a bit dull. That’s because I didn’t have coarse salt to sprinkle on them, and I didn’t use an egg wash on my Pretzels.
Crunchy/ Hard Pretzels.
(Adapted from Alton Brown’s recipe)