fuzzy notepad

[blog] I made pretzels

@amazingant has bought a day of my time, and requested that I spend it on:

Cook something! Don’t make one of those meal-in-a-box (or can) things (e.g. hamburger helper, “manwich” sandwiches, etc.), no frozen dinners, and heating something with the stove or oven must be involved.

Don’t worry, I do know what “cook” means! It includes baking, right? I’m going to say it includes baking.

I should mention that I’m not a complete stranger to cooking. I’ve converted a few things from cold to hot. I wouldn’t claim to be particularly good at it, but I can at least fumble my way through a kitchen. Plus I’ve watched a bunch of Food Network while out of town and trapped in a hotel room by myself.

I also have a secret weapon in the form of Mel’s husband, Marl, who actually knows how to cook. Conveniently, that means we also have a moderately well-stocked kitchen.

Picking a thing

The obvious place to look for inspiration was Alton Brown, a food nerd I would trust with my life, if for some reason I were in a life-or-death situation that could only be escaped by making crepes with a coathanger.

I pretty easily found this list of the most popular recipes from Good Eats, and glanced through for some baked goods. That still left a lot of options: french toast, sugar cookies, chewy chocolate chip cookies, soft pretzels, granola, tres leche cake, cinnamon rolls, pumpkin bread, cocoa brownies, …

I’ve made his cookies before. Actually, I think cookies and cake are the only things I’ve baked before, and they’re both pretty easy. You put stuff in a bowl, stir it, and put it in the oven. Given that someone’s paying me to do this, that seems a little too easy. So I filtered those options down to those listed as “intermediate” difficulty: soft pretzels, tres leche cake, and cinnamon rolls.

Soft pretzels or cinnamon rolls? I love you both so much. How can I possibly choose?

Okay well the cinnamon rolls involve waiting overnight, and I don’t have that kind of time, so let’s do the pretzels. If I could have only one baked-goods-related superpower, I would be pretty okay with the ability to summon soft pretzels whenever I please.

Making dough

Per the recipe:

Combine the water, sugar and kosher salt in the bowl of a stand mixer and sprinkle the yeast on top. Allow to sit for 5 minutes or until the mixture begins to foam. Add the flour and butter and, using the dough hook attachment, mix on low speed until well combined.

The butter needs melting first. I threw a measuring cup with the 1½ cups of water and a smaller measuring cup with half a stick of butter in the microwave, and nuked them for a minute on high, a time I completely pulled out of my ass.

Marl informed me that putting yeast on top of warm water and waiting for it to foam is called “proofing“, and that I could skip that step, because we have magical instant yeast that doesn’t need to be proofed. Nice. I’m kind of sad that I had to ruin this amazing vacuum-sealed brick of yeast, though.

We've had this for ages, and I destroyed it.

I measured out 22 oz of flour with our teeny scale, like a boss. Weighing flour is great and I love it. Atop that went the kosher salt, sugar, water, and butter.

Here are some exciting photos of this process. In the background you can see a box of Hamburger Helper™, plotting its revenge for being explicitly disqualified from this quest.

I love our comically massive bag of flour. Kosher salt, so named because it doesn't contain any bacon. This sugar looks slightly suspicious because it's organic, I guess? How appetizing.

At this point, it already smelled like pretzels!

So, ah. Now I ran into a slight problem. Alton Brown assumes I have a stand mixer. I do not have a stand mixer. I’m not sure I’ve ever known anyone who has a stand mixer. Those things are surprisingly expensive for what boils down to a whisk attached to a little motor.

What I do have is a wooden spoon. And legs. So I became the stand mixer.

Stirring... More stirring...

Eventually I hit the point where the spoon could stand in the dough under its own power, so I had to put my phone down for a bit and finish mixing with my bare hands.

Starting to look like something... Hey, there we go.

The hard part

Cool! Let’s see what’s up next.

Change to medium speed and knead until the dough is smooth and pulls away from the side of the bowl, approximately 4 to 5 minutes.

Ah, fuck. Guess I have to knead by hand as well. Marl tells me manual kneading works as follows:

  1. Get a big lump of dough.
  2. Flatten it out.
  3. Fold it in half.
  4. Repeat. Forever.

Big ol' lump of dough. Flattened out. Folding it over. Mashing it back down. About halfway there, I think?  It's so hard to tell.

The object of this exercise is, I believe, something like a taffy pull: you break some of the bonds in the dough to make it softer and stretchier.

This was so hard. Marl estimated it would take ten to fifteen minutes; I ended up spending twenty. At five minutes I was feeling a bit warm; at fifteen minutes I was starting to sweat; at twenty minutes I just had to stop, and found out my wrists were incredibly sore.

I’m still not even sure if I did it for long enough; it’s hard to gauge how smooth the dough is when the texture is changing so gradually over that stretch of time. Around twelve minutes, Marl pointed out that it was still breaking when bent, so I guess that’s a thing to watch out for. Or, you know, just go until you physically can’t go any more.

Also, Anise came to help.

Unheard: Sorry, babe, but you can't come up here right now.

With that done:

Remove the dough from the bowl, clean the bowl and then oil it well with vegetable oil. Return the dough to the bowl, cover with plastic wrap and sit in a warm place for approximately 50 to 55 minutes or until the dough has doubled in size.

Phew, a breather.

Goodnight, sweet prince.

A curious quirk of Food Network’s Good Eats-based recipes is that they tend to be completely stripped of Alton’s cute kitchen tricks. You can watch the actual clip on the recipe page, if you’re willing to stomach a twenty-second ad for fish sticks or whatever. Alton covers the bowl with a damp towel, but the recipe says to use plastic wrap.

I mention this only because I liked the towel idea better, but I forgot the “damp” part, and just left my dough covered with a dry towel. Apparently you’re not supposed to do that, because it dries the dough out. Oops. It wasn’t too bad — just the top surface was a little dry rather than moist and sticky. I mixed it back together and it seemed to be fine.

After the break

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F. Line 2 half-sheet pans with parchment paper and lightly brush with the vegetable oil. Set aside.

Sure thing. We have two sheet pans that have, er, been through a lot. But hey, that’s what the parchment paper is for, right?

They've seen better days.

Bring the 10 cups of water and the baking soda to a rolling boil in an 8-quart saucepan or roasting pan.

This is for giving the pretzels a basic bath, to… do some science… to their outer surface. The baking soda isn’t even a real ingredient, so it doesn’t matter exactly how much you have, but I measured it obsessively anyway. And the water too.

Look, okay, when Alton Brown tells you to use ten cups of water, you use ten cups of water. (Admittedly, I’m the kind of person who sees “6 to 8 minutes” and always goes for exactly 7 minutes.)

Also, I will need a spatula later, for recovering the pretzels from their bath. I couldn’t find a big pretzel-sized spatula, but I did find this sweet griddle spatula, so we’ll go with that.

I wish I knew how to measure anything without making a mess. Armed and dangerous.

It works pretty well as a dough… cutter… thing, too.

I feel that this is in the spirit of Good Eats.

Alright, so, now I have to actually make some pretzels.

In the meantime, turn the dough out onto a slightly oiled work surface and divide into 8 equal pieces. Roll out 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.

This sounds easy, and Alton Brown makes it look easy, but it took me a few pretzels to figure out how to do the rolling. It’s actually deceptively hard! You have to keep pressure applied at the right angle to squash the dough out the whole time without making it slide across the countertop, and you have to move your hands gradually outwards to get that excess dough to form a rope. This is much harder if your wrists are still sore from pounding dough by hand an hour earlier, too.

The first rope drove me up the wall for a while because it just would not get any longer than 18 or so inches. Several of the others ended up with big lumps in the middle or at one end that I had to roll out. I can’t believe none of my Silly Putty skills transferred over.

Eventually I succeeded in producing eight pretzel shapes.

Risen dough. Weighing out one-eighth of the dough. Using a paper towel as a length reference — it's eleven inches long. A fully-formed pretzel! Eight fully-formed pretzels!

Final stretch

Place the pretzels into the boiling water, 1 by 1, for 30 seconds. Remove them from the water using a large flat spatula.

This was, shockingly, the most difficult part — as measured by the number of ways I screwed it up.

The first problem I had, which is only obvious in retrospect by comparing the photos, is that I set the water boiling before I started rolling the dough. That would’ve been fine, but rolling the dough took ages, and a lot of the water boiled away. Oops.

That still wouldn’t have been a problem, except that the water level was so low that I had trouble getting the pretzels submerged on the spatula, and they were sticky enough that they wouldn’t come off of it on their own! As a result, the first couple pretzels lingered in the bath for much longer than thirty seconds while I strugged to get them to let go. After those, it finally occurred to me to add more water. But I also added more baking soda to match, not realizing just how much of the original water had boiled away, which is probably why several pretzels ended up with a lot of tiny baking soda pebbles stuck to them.

Oh, well. I don’t think any of this had any impact on the pretzels.

Dunking one pretzel. Pretzel in the bathtub. What a difference the bath makes! All bathed.

So, so close…

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.

We don’t have pretzel salt, and our grocery store doesn’t have pretzel salt, and I don’t know where the hell you find pretzel salt. I just used some more kosher salt instead. You can’t see it very well in the photo, but whatever, salt is salt.

Egged and salted.

Now they’re ready for the oven!


They came out beautifully. The salt was much more visible after they baked, too.


One teensy error: I put them a little too close together in the oven, and the pretzels in the lower tray were (of course) a little pale on top. I left them in for an extra minute or two, and they ended up a touch dark on the bottom.

But they are still absolutely fucking delicious.

Yes. I don't believe in tainting pretzels with dips or other such nonsense.

This is a pretty cool thing to have done. In all it took three and a half hours from start to finish, almost twice the time the recipe claims. Worth the effort, I think, but I miiight keep an eye out for a stand mixer before trying this again.

I got paid to make and eat my own pretzels, though, and that’s pretty cool! Please pay me to make myself a cheesecake next.

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(illus. by Rumwik)