Saturday, January 28, 2012

Pretzel test

Ok, I've gotten caught up in an exploration of pretzel bath methods for my pretzel recipe, and now I've got to find out which is best.  Here are the methods I have identified: 
  1. Cold lye bath method: 1 oz. food-grade lye, dissolved in 1 quart of water. 30 second dip, sprinkle with salt, then bake. Please follow the link, and follow their safety instructions. This is the most desirable, authentic method.
  2. Cold sodium carbonate bath method: 100 g sodium carbonate dissolved in 2 cups of water. Immerse raw, shaped pretzels in the bath for three to four minutes, rinse off the excess dipping solution in a large bowl of plain water, sprinkle with salt, and bake.
  3. Sodium carbonate boil method: Boil 6 cups of water. Add 2 to 6 tablespoons sodium carbonate . Boil pretzels for 1 minute, sprinkle with salt, then bake. 
  4. Baking soda boil method: Boil 6 cups of water. Add 2 to 6 tablespoons baking soda. Boil pretzels for 1 minute, sprinkle with salt, then bake.
  5. Water boil method: Boil pretzels in water for 1 minute, sprinkle with salt, then bake.
  6. Egg wash method: Beat an egg with 1 Tbsp water. Brush over the top of the pretzels, sprinkle with salt, and bake. But this is really just a bread twist with egg wash, not a pretzel.
 I made a batch of sodium carbonate, and a batch of pretzel dough, and here we go! I'm skipping #1 because I don't have any lye. I might come back to it one day. I'm also skipping #6, because I know it will make a pretzel-shaped roll, having no true pretzel flavor. Here are my tests. I made one pretzel by each of these six methods:

2. Cold sodium carbonate bath
3. a. Sodium carbonate, 2 Tbsp in 6 c water, boiling
3. b. Sodium carbonate, 6 Tbsp in 6 c water, boiling
4. a. Baking soda (Sodium bicarbonate), 2 Tbsp in 6 c water, boiling
4. b. Baking soda (Sodium bicarbonate), 6 Tbsp in 6 c water, boiling
5. Plain boiling water

And here they are! I drafted my husband to help keep track of which pretzel was done by which method. He wrote what they are on the parchment in red Sharpie. Here's the layout:
5     2   4a
3a  4b  3b

5. Clearly the plain water pretzel did not get anywhere near the color that the others have. It also tasted more plain. However, my son thought it was the second best.
2. The cold carbonate dipped pretzel looks puffy, maybe because it was not restricted from its rise by being partially cooked by the boiling water. This tied for first in our family taste test.
3.b. The 6 Tbsp sodium carbonate pretzel looks the best (lower right), and tied the cold version for best taste.
4.b. The 6 Tbsp baking soda pretzel had a bit of a chemical taste to it in some bites, not very appealing.
3.a. & 4.a. Both of the 2 Tbsp boils did not add much pretzel taste.

I thought I was done at this point, and turned back to the remaining six ropes of dough laying on the table waiting to be made into pretzels also. I twisted two and gave them the cold sodium carbonate soak, and slipped two into the 6 Tbsp sodium carbonate bath.

The boiling pretzels looked terrible! They had been proofing for maybe 20 min before I twisted and boiled them, which looks like allowed the boiling water to burst some bubbles and soak into the pretzels. Yuck! I baked them anyway, but probably won't eat them.

I took the remaining two dough ropes, folded them up, and re-rolled them. On a whim, I tried for the Bavarian-style shape, where the twisted arms are very thin, and the big loop is fat. I boiled one and soaked one. I reduced the oven to 425° because the first tray browned too fast, leaving some boggy places in the pretzels. Here's the result:
Beautiful cold-bath pretzels on the left, gnarled boiled ones on the right.

I was able to bake them longer, and I let them get darker. The beauty in the photo above was clearly better than any from the whole first tray. Cold bath wins. The boiled pretzels, even the ones that didn't get mangled, all had a heaviness from the water. That wasn't the case for the cold soaked pretzel. Not only is that a pretty pretzel, it also has some of that true pretzel flavor, which must be approaching that of its lye-dipped cousins. It also crunched when we pulled it apart. :) I think this one isn't puffy like on the first tray because I inadvertently let the rope rise about 20 min before twisting it.

Then there's that curious fat Bavarian-ish pretzel using the cold-bath, in the lower left corner of the tray. I didn't get the shape quite right, it's too closed up, but it was tasty, and has lots of promise! The fat back edge was really nice, and the little arm nubs were crunchy. I'm definitely trying that shape again!

Update: My latest pretzel recipe and techniques are here:


  1. Thank you very much for your pretzel experimentation! My first attempt using the cold sodium carbonate bath turned out great and our friends from Bavaria were impressed. Unfortunately I didn't trust you completely - 100g in two cups of water seemed too much, so I used 100g in 6 cups of water. According to my expert guests they weren't dark enough, so next time, I'll stick to your recipe.

  2. Thank you for the feedback, plus the expert opinion from Bavaria! Last time I made them, I tried not rinsing one in the plain water. That made it even darker, but it also had a harsh taste, so do rinse it. I agree it seems a lot of sodium carbonate, but the more that dissolves in the water, the closer you get to acting like the lye bath. Also, don't dump it in all at once, or it becomes solid and will take a while to crush and dissolve into the water .