With fall firmly in the air, this is the time of year I reserve to make a special pretzel recipe I’ve perfected over the years.
I suppose I make pretzels in autumn because of Oktoberfest — a more than 200-year-old tradition in Bavaria that pulls together folk music, beer and many local delicacies including soft, salty pretzels.
There are a few scattered Oktoberfests usually held in Montana. But for a state where over a quarter of its residents trace their ancestry to German roots — the highest heritage in our state — the German traditions don’t get as much attention as some other heritages.
Whether or not you trace your own roots to Deutschland, you can hold your own little private Oktoberfest with the best pretzels you’ve ever tasted. I guarantee these are more authentically German and superior than anything you’ve had at a game, the mall, or the frozen food section. It has to do with what you do with the pretzels right before they are baked.
Once you have made, shaped, and allowed the dough to rise, there are two options at this point before: 1) a boil in a baking soda solution; or 2) a bath in a lye solution.
I know what you’re thinking — lye?! The lye solution is a step that many are afraid to take because it will give you a chemical burn if you get it on skin or in your eyes. There is no question you have to take it seriously with appropriate safety measures, but we do a lot of dangerous tasks in the kitchen (knives, flames, scalding water) that require safety measures.
I prefer the lye process because it gives the pretzel a crunchy golden-brown exterior while maintaining a soft interior. The flavor produced from the chemical reaction is the most perfect pretzel flavor imaginable.
If you want to take the lye route, watch some YouTube videos, read up on how to do it all, keep children away while you are doing it, and have fun feeling like you are a scientist in the kitchen. You can order the food-grade lye online. Otherwise, I have provided a baking soda alternative.
4 cups of flour
1 1/2 cup warm water
1 tbsp of malt barley syrup or brown sugar
1 1/2 tsp dry active yeast
1 1/2 tsp kosher salt
2 tbsp butter cubed
For topping: Coarse sea salt or pretzel salt
In a mixing bowl, combine warm water, syrup and yeast and let the yeast activate (about 10 minutes). Add 3 ¾ cups of flour, the kosher salt and the cubed butter. Mix on medium speed for 10 minutes. Cover and let proof for 15 minutes.
Portion the dough into 3-ounce balls and cover with a light, damp towel while you start the shaping process. You should be able to get close to 10 dough balls. Roll one ball into an even rope of about 20-24 inches long.
To shape into a pretzel, form a “U” and twist the ends together twice, then bring the two tips down to the center of the “U” and press the ends in firmly until they stick. Repeat for the rest.
Line two baking sheets with parchment and lightly dust with a bit of flour. After shaping each pretzel, place them on the baking sheets. Once they have been at room temperature for a half hour, place the baking sheets in the fridge uncovered for at least three hours or overnight.
Baking soda option: In a large pot, place ½ cup baking soda in 8 cups of water and bring to a boil. Place the pretzels one at a time in the boiling water for about 30 seconds. Once boiled, let them drain on a wire rack before you salt and bake. Place back on the parchment-lined baking sheet and add your salt before baking.
Lye solution option: Using latex gloves, a long-sleeve shirt and eye goggles, place 10 cups warm water in a large plastic bowl. Slowly add ½ cup of food-grade lye beads and stir very gently with a rubber spatula. Gently lower (no splash!) a pretzel into the solution face down and make sure a bit of the solution gets over every part of the pretzel. After a 20-second dip in the solution, place carefully back on the parchment-lined baking sheet. Add your topical salt now.
Preheat your oven to 425 degrees. Bake pretzels for 16-18 minutes, rotating the pan halfway through. Pretzels should be a dark golden when they are done.
Jon Bennion is a native Montanan, born and raised in Billings. Outside of his day job as an attorney, you can find Jon experimenting in the kitchen and developing recipes that often feature a Montana ingredient or story. Jon posts on Instagram as Intermediate Chef (@intermediatechef) and lives in Clancy.