Bakers and pastry chefs crave two things: Salt and vinegar. When I worked in the restaurant business and got home way after midnight, too-often I’d park myself in front of the television, put my dogs up, and dig into a bag of tortilla chips along with a big jar of spicy salsa. Of course, I was half the age I am now and a bag of chips is no longer something I can, or should, polish off by myself – or call a meal. Someone I knew worked for one of those national diet centers and on day #1, he would put a bag of potato chips into a food processor, run it for a few minutes, then show everyone the oily sludge.
Even so, I still eat potato chips on occasion and run into trouble stopping myself from picking my way through a basket of tortilla chips, especially when there’s guacamole alongside. And I will buy those slender pretzel sticks, called sticks d’Alsace in France, to go along with other apéritif hour snacks in Paris.
Pretzels have always been a favorite and I was a great fan of those giant pretzels you can get on the streets in New York in my past. However I stopped eating those years ago when the taste and texture suffered for whatever reason. I assume nowadays they’re bought from a large-scale vendor in bulk, and rewarmed on the carts until they become petrified. It’s a shame, but I still buy soft pretzels when I go to a German bakery and see them hanging on a peg. I can’t resist that combination of chewy dough with a dense crust and a flurry of crackly salt on top.
I’m not sure what got into me one day last week, but I thought I would try my hand at making my own at home. I didn’t need to make the twisted kind, and figured the “bites” offered more salty surface area, which is the best part of the pretzel. The dough is quite easy to make and within a few hours of starting the project, I can find myself snacking on warm pretzel bites in front of the tv, or wherever you want to enjoy them. To be perfectly honest, I started eating them right off the baking sheet the minute they were cool enough to handle.
I used flaky sea salt, which is less-aggressive than the traditional coarse pretzel salt. I had a box of Maldon smoked salt flakes that worked beautifully, but any flaky sea salt should be fine. Traditional pretzels take a dip in a lye bath before going into the oven, which requires careful handling (plus I have no idea where to buy that in Paris), but perhaps that’s something you can graduate to when you’re ready. (I’ve included some links at the end of the post that discuss that.)
I don’t mean to be a spoil sport but I’m not necessarily a huge fan of dips with chips or pretzels, since I like the salty crispness of them without any distractions. Guacamole with chips, however, doesn’t count. However I’ve included a spicy mustard dip for those who like that kind of thing. But recently I was at Prime Meats having dinner with some friends and they served housemade pretzel with a spicy brown mustard, not Dijon, but one similar to this mustard, made with dark mustard seeds. The authenticity police will probably come out in full-force since it’s not traditional. But even a grump like me thought it was a good combination, so you have my permission to chow down on the pretzel bites any way you like them, with sauce, mustard, or just on their own.
Makes about 75 pretzel bites
It helps to have an extra set of hands when poaching and setting up the pretzel bites for baking. Also it’s good to have a baker’s dough scraper, also called a bench cutter, for shaping and cutting the pretzel bites, but a chef’s knife will work, too. When making the dough, it should pull away from the sides of the bowl. The first picture of the dough in the post shows it when it’s still a bit sticky. (You can see it clinging to the sides of the bowl.) So add a tablespoon of flour more, one at a time, until it forms a more solid ball.
I used Maldon flaky smoked sea salt, since I had a box on hand. But any flaky sea salt that’s not too aggressive in flavor will do, even kosher salt. One can buy pretzel salt, which I’ve not tried. Bread flour will yield more chewy bites, but all-purpose flour will work fine as well. Should you wish to explore using lye in your pretzel bath, I’ve linked to a few sources, articles, and recipes below.
1 2/3 cups (390ml) tepid water
2 tablespoons sugar
2 1/4 teaspoon (1 envelope) active dry yeast
3 3/4 cups (530g) all-purpose or bread flour plus up to 1/4 (35g) more, if necessary
3 tablespoons melted unsalted butter, tepid or room temperature
2 teaspoons salt
2 quarts (2L) water
1/3 cup (80g) baking soda
1 tablespoon malt or rice syrup or agave nectar, or brown sugar
Spicy Honey Mustard Sauce
3/4 cup (180g) mayonnaise
2 tablespoons Dijon or spicy brown mustard
3 tablespoons Sriracha sauce
2 teaspoons honey
1 1/2 teaspoons juice from pickle jar, or lemon juice
1. In the bowl of a stand mixer, or in a large bowl (if mixing by hand), stir together the water, sugar and yeast. Let sit until it starts to foam, 10 to 15 minutes.
2. Mix in 2 cups (280g) of the flour along with the melted butter and salt. If using a stand mixer, attach the dough hook and add the rest of the flour. If mixing by hand, use a sturdy spatula or wooden spoon until it’s too thick to stir, then scrape onto a lightly floured countertop.
3. Knead the dough for 3 to 5 minutes on medium-high speed until it forms a smooth ball. If the dough is not pulling away from the sides of the mixer bowl, add 1 tablespoon at a time, until it does. The dough should feel slightly sticky, but come away from the sides of the bowl. If kneading by hand, it should not stick to your hands. (I added 3 additional tablespoons to get it to the right consistency.)
4. Cover the dough in the bowl with a kitchen towel and let rise in a warm place until doubled, about 1 hour. (If kneading by hand, let it rise in a lightly oiled bowl.)
5. Preheat the oven to 450ºF (232ºC). Line two baking sheets with parchment paper or lightly oil them.
6. Bring the water, baking soda and syrup (or brown sugar) to a boil in a large, wide pot. It will foam up so make sure the sides are high enough to handle that.
7. On a lightly floured surface, divide the dough into 8 equal pieces. Roll each piece until they’re logs about 14-inches (35cm) long. Most likely the dough will be too elastic soon after you start rolling. So roll each one partially, then let them all relax for 5 minutes before you finish rolling them out.
8. Using a dough cutter or chef’s knife, cut the dough into 2-inch (5cm) pieces. When you have enough pieces, drop them into the boiling water. Cook for 1 minute, stirring the dough bits in the water very gently at the halfway mark, encouraging the bobbing doughs to get covered on both sides with the hot liquid.
While you are cooking the first batch of bites, start working on the other pieces of dough so they are ready to boil. The bites will come out better if the dough hasn’t had too much time to rise again.
9. Remove the first batch of boiled dough from the water with a mesh utensil to drain them a bit, and place them on the baking sheet, evenly spaced apart. (They won’t expand too much, so they can be as close as an inch, 3cm, apart.) Continue cutting and boiling the rest of the dough until the first baking sheet is full. I found I could boil about 20 at a time. (Note: They will not all look the same, or be perfect, which is fine.)
10. Sprinkle the pretzels with a bit of coarse sea salt and bake until deep golden brown, about 8 to 10 minutes, turning the baking sheet midway during baking. Baking times will vary so keep an eye on them and check at the 6 minute mark. The darker they are, the crispier they’ll be when they cool. Cool on a wire rack
11. Continue to cook the rest of the pretzel bite dough the same way.
Spicy Honey Mustard Sauce
Stir together the mayonnaise, mustard, Sriracha, honey and pickle juice until smooth. Taste, and adjust seasonings to your liking.
Serving: Eat the pretzel bites as they are, or serve with spicy brown mustard or honey-mustard sauce. They’re best eaten the the same day and don’t improve when stored. Extras could be frozen for up to two months, but I don’t recommend it.
Related Articles and Recipes
For a Proper Pretzel Crust, Count on Chemistry and Memories (NPR)
For Old-Fashioned Flavor, Bake the Baking Soda (NYT)
Pretzels (The Fresh Loaf)
Soft Pretzel Buns and Knots (Smitten Kitchen)
Making a Soft Pretzel is a Knotty Challenge (LA Times)
Pennsylvania Dutch Hard Pretzels (The Splendid Table)
Hot Buttered Soft Pretzels (King Arthur Flour)
Pretzel Making at Home (Andrea Slonecker)