Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Pretzels: A Science Experiment

I love pretzels - I mean love, love pretzels. When we go out to a bar with my research group or with friends, I order a local cider and a pretzel for dinner. I feel a tiny bit guilty about it because it's just white bread and I try to limit my consumption of processed grains. Then one day I stumbled upon this recipe for whole wheat rosemary sea salt pretzels, link here, and I just happen to also have a giant rosemary plant with which to experiment! And it's whole wheat flour! Unfortunately, I don't actually own any all-purpose flour, so I had to adapt to make it work with 100% whole wheat.

I proofed the active dry yeast and made the dough. After kneading and letting the dough rise for double the time (1 hour instead of 30 minutes) because of the lack of all purpose flour, the dough looked fluffy and ready to become pretzels. As a side note, I've learned that I have to let my bread rise longer if I omit the AP flour - anyone have any tips? I've recently started using vital wheat gluten, but I haven't noticed a considerable difference.

 I made 12 ropes and went about rolling them and making little pretzels. I was pretty excited because they were starting to look more like pretzels and less like flour and water. Then I let them rise for 20 minutes - but here's the tricky part, they still looked pretty flat and unrisen! Well, fine, I said to them, and let them rise another 30 minutes or so. Which unfortunately was too much time, and they were really puffy. 
A little too much rising time, oops.

After heating up some baking soda in water, I put my first pretzel in... and it fell apart! I salvaged what I could, but was a bit skeptical of the necessity of this boiling step, especially since it tore apart the pretzel. I thought this was a perfect opportunity for a side-by-side experiment! I do so many in lab, I might as well do it at home too. So I boiled half and fished them out with a spatula (this part was a little frustrating), and didn't boil the other half. I also chopped up some rosemary for the top of the pretzels.

The picture above is of the one or two pretzels that didn't actually fall apart in the boiling water. I should also mention that I think my bagels fell apart because I let them rise for too long. I bet with the right firmness of the pretzel it would be just fine. At first, it didn't look like there was any difference between the boiled bagels and the non-boiled bagels. In fact, I was convinced that the non-boiled samples would come out a lot better because they weren't falling apart like the boiled samples. Well, boy was I wrong. On the left is the boiled bagel, and on the right the un-boiled specimen. 

left: baking soda boiled pretzel. right: unboiled pretzel.
Only after I did this, did I decide to look up online what boiling in baking soda actually does to the dough. Apparently the boiling step adds two tasty characteristics to the pretzel: 1) boiling makes the interior of the pretzel quickly "puff" which gives pretzels their chewy texture, and 2) the high pH of the baking soda makes the browning "Maillard" reactions on the surface of the pretzel happen more rapidly, giving the pretzel that flavor and brown crispy crust it should have. [see ref here] (I've since read that at Auntie Anne's they dip the pretzels in water and then in baking soda, skipping the boiling step. I don't know how I would get all the baking soda off though - thoughts?)

I guess the advice from my boss comes in handy here: "a week in the lab will save you an hour in the library", which I will now adapt to "two hours in the kitchen will save you 20 seconds on google, even though you'll probably end up googling it anyway." But at least I can eat this science experiment.


Kathryn said...

Wow. Those look really tasty. They even kind of look like pretzels. Which is more than I can ever do.

Carolyn Valdez said...

Thanks dear! They were really tasty, just a bit of work so I don't do it often.

Tony St. John said...

I love pretzels too! There is this place up here in Bellingham that makes the best pretzels. I think they use some rye flour, or crack. Probably crack.