Confession time! I’m not much of a baker. I’ve got a few go to baked items that I’m great at and can confidently make at the drop of a hat but I stress the word few. I love to cook but that is a completely different thing than baking. For me, cooking is all about experimentation - a little of this, a dash of that and let’s see what happens. Please don’t ever do this with baked goods! Baking is an extact science. Ingredients have to be in specific proportions to get the desired results and if you’re off by a bit then your product will be off as well. That being said, who knows what possessed me to make pretzels on a Wednesday afternoon a couple weeks ago. I guess it was because I had an entire pint jar of beer mustard hanging around and taunting me every time I opened the fridge.
Truly, pretzels are relics of the baking world. There are many accounts about the first pretzels but most will agree that they have Christian origins and were most likely first invented by German monks as far back as 600ACE. I remember baking them as a child in Catholic School and the story was that a monk twisted the piece of dough to resemble the folded arms of a child in prayer. Original pretzels were soft like the large doughy pretzels in this recipe. There is no written documentation of this story but it is fact that pretzels were very popular with German monks throughout history and were given to children as rewards and also as sustenance for the poor. They may have been first called “bracellae” the Latin for “little arms” from which the Germans got the word “bretzel” or others say that they may have first been called “pretiolas” or “little rewards.” During the Middle Ages, they were a sign of luck, prosperity and spirituality. The three parts of the pretzel came to symbolize the Holy Trinity – the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It has also been used as the emblem of the German baker’s guild since at least the 12th century. Over time, the pretzel came to symbolize love and made their way into royal wedding ceremonies, used to seal the marriage. It’s possible that this is fact the origin of the saying “tying the knot.”
Pretzels came over to the US with German immigrants when they began settling parts of Pennsylvania in the early 1700s. There is even a rumor that it was actually the Pilgrims that brought pretzels with them on the Mayflower and used them to trade with the Native Americans upon arrival in the New World. In any case, the first producer of pretzels was established in 1861 in Lititz, Pennsylvania in Lancaster County. Julius Sturgis was not only the first commercial pretzel baker; he also claimed to have invented the hard pretzel. This invention was really an accident since the hard pretzel was born when soft pretzels were left to bake too long and came out hard and crispy. These new crisp pretzels stayed fresher longer and could be shipped further away from the store and manufacturer. The hard pretzel craze was well on its way!
Back to present day in Joanna’s kitchen on a random Wednesday afternoon. Many recipes and articles I read on making pretzels stressed that this should be a “weekend project” but it didn’t seem that complicated to time consuming to me. And honestly, it wasn’t! The most time was consumed with waiting for the dough to rise and at that time I wasn’t involved in anything except, well, waiting. Overall, I found this entire process to be easy and really fun. I tend to get stressed out when I bake something because I always think it’s not coming together. This time, I just took it easy and let my KitchenAid mixer do the work. If you don’t have a mixer with a dough hook, never fear! You can absolutely work the dough together by hand. Deb from Smitten Kitchen actually prefers to mix her bread dough by hand so if you’re inclined to do it that way, feel free. I don’t have enough dough experience yet so I stuck with the mixer. Plus, it's super fast!
Speaking of Smitten Kitchen, I used the SK recipe for Miniature Soft Pretzels for my own pretzel adventure. The recipe that Deb uses is adapted from the goddess known as Martha Stewart so I pretty much knew I couldn’t go wrong here.
As a basic first time recipe, I thought this was great! At first glance, I had some reservations about the baking soda bath. It was really easy as long as you just boil 2-3 pieces at a time. I found some articles that recommend using a roasting pan for the bath, but I just used a really deep skillet and it worked perfectly. Make sure you have enough counter space for rolling out the balls of dough and laying out the pans as you make your pretzels. Otherwise, you’ll be trying to handle hot pretzels and reorganize at the same time. Not a good idea!
A few notes about the recipe. The amount of flour will depend on the weather. If it’s humid you might need to use a bit more flour since the dough with be stickier and absorb more of it. Pretzel salt can be hard to find and I didn’t have any on hand so I just used coarse kosher salt. It worked perfectly fine!
I served my pretzels with a spicy honey mustard sauce and beer cheese. Recipes included below!
2 cups warm water (100°F to 110°F)
1 tablespoon + 2 tablespoons sugar
2 ¼ teaspoons or 1 packet active dry yeast
5 to 6 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
1 tablespoon salt
2 teaspoons vegetable or canola oil
1/4 cup baking soda
1 large egg
Coarse or pretzel salt
Vegetable oil spray or parchment paper (I used paper)
Set up your space with your mixer with the dough hook attachment, prepare a few cookie sheets with parchment paper and clear your countertops!
Pour the water and 1 tablespoon of sugar into a glass or ceramic bowl. Sprinkle in the yeast and stir to combine. You can also do this in the bowl of the mixer, but mine is metal so I used a smaller glass bowl for this part. Let sit for about 10 minutes until the yeast becomes foamy. Make sure you are using fresh yeast! Yeast does have an expiration date.
Add your bloomed yeast to the mixing bowl and add 1 cup of flour. Stir to combine, about 30 seconds. Add salt, then add additional 4 cups of flour. Beat on medium-low until combined which takes a couple minutes. The dough will pull away from the sides of the bowl when it’s ready. Add another ½ cup of flour and knead for another minute. If your dough is still sticky (remember the note about the weather!) add another ½ cup of flour and knead again. Transfer to a lightly floured board and knead the dough by hand about 10 or so times.
Grab a large bowl and pour the oil into the bowl. Swirl it around to coat the sides. Put your dough ball in the bowl, turn it around a few times to coat it with the oil and cover with a kitchen towel. Let the dough rise until it doubles in size, about 1 ½ hours. Make sure to leave it in a warm spot. It was kind of cold on the day that I made my pretzels so I turned the oven on for about 15 minutes while I was making the dough and then turned it off so there was some residual warmth around the stove area during the rising time.
After the dough has risen, preheat your oven to 450F. Line 2 or 3 baking sheets (depending on size) with parchment paper or lightly spray with vegetable oil spray. Set the sheets aside for now. Get the risen dough and punch it down to remove air bubbles. Transfer to a lightly floured surface and divide into 16 even pieces or 32 if you’re making mini pretzels. Cover well with plastic wrap so your dough doesn’t dry out.
Now, this may seem counterintuitive, but get wipe some of the flour away from your board or countertop. It is much easier to roll out the strips of dough on an unfloured surface. The strip needs a little bit of stick in order to achieve the length and shape you need it to. Roll each piece of dough into an 18 inch strip. Twist into a pretzel shape and move each one carefully to your prepared sheets. Cover with a towel or plastic wrap and continue to form your pretzels. Let the pretzels rise for about 15-20 minutes.
While the pretzels are rising, prepare the baking soda bath. Use a large deep skillet pan, large pot or a roasting pan filled ½ way with water. Make sure there are about 2- 2 ½ inches of water in the pan. Bring to a boil. STEP BACK and add the ¼ cup of baking soda and remaining 2 tablespoons of sugar. The water and baking soda will foam up intensely and then settle down. Reduce the mixture to a simmer. Add 3-4 pretzels at a time to the bath and poach for 1 minute on each side. Use a slotted spoon to transfer each one back to the baking sheets. Continue with all the pretzels.
Beat the egg with 1 tablespoon of water to create an egg wash. Use a brush to apply the eggwash to the surface of each pretzel and sprinkle with salt. Bake for 12-15 minutes or until golden brown. Let them cool on a wire rack and serve while warm or room temperature.
These are best when fresh. They will keep for two days at most at room temperature under a kitchen towel. If you put them in a plastic bag they’ll get soggy. Any more than a couple days and they’ll be stale and hard.
BEER CHEESE SAUCE
¼ cup unsalted butter
¼ cup all purpose flour
1 cup of IPA
1 cup of whole milk
couple dashes of Worcestershire sauce
dash of cayenne pepper
salt and pepper to taste
2 cups cheddar cheese, shredded
Note about the beer: I used a homebrew IPA that we had on hand but you can use any IPA you love. I’d recommend that you use something well balanced and not too hoppy, maybe even just a pale ale if you don’t want too much bitterness in the cheese sauce because it will come through. But if you like that, use whatever you want! Some great options include Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, Revolution Anti-Hero, Half Acre Daisycutter, Great Lakes Commodore Perry, and Brooklyn Brewery Brooklyn East India Pale Ale.
Melt butter in a small saucepan but do not brown. Add flour and whisk until smooth to create a roux. Let cook for 2 minutes to remove raw flavor from the mixture and until the roux is a light golden color.
Slowly whisk in the beer, then cook for 3-4 minutes to combine. Slowly whisk in the milk, then cook for 3-4 minutes to combine. Bring the entire mixture to a boil, then reduce to a simmer.
Add cayenne and Worcestershire sauce and stir. Let thicken slightly and remove from heat. Slowly stir in the cheese a handful at a time. Make sure all the cheese is melted before adding more. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve warm.
Leftovers will last up to 1 week in the fridge.
HONEY MUSTARD SAUCE
3 tablespoons beer mustard or spicy brown mustard
4 tablespoons of honey
2 teaspoons of mayonnaise
salt and pepper to taste
In a small bowl, mix all ingredients together until smooth. Amounts can be adjusted according to personal taste! Store in an airtight container for up to 1 week.