Oktoberfest may be loads of fun in Munich, but in the States it’s usually a bust. Giant crowds of drunk people, expensive beer, sad lederhosen. So when close friends began hosting their own, I thought I couldn’t be more thrilled. But then they made pretzels. REAL pretzels.
If ever you have loved a street pretzel, I am sure it’s because of the peculiar snap when you bite into it. The contrast of savory crust against chewy, yeasty dough is pretty good too. If ever you have been disappointed by a street pretzel–all of us?–it’s because the skin is dull or soft, and the interior a bready flavorless mass.
So what’s the secret? Other than requiring a good basic yeasted dough recipe, what sets apart a real pretzel from the impostors is a dip in a food-grade lye solution. Home cooks don’t usually mess with lye, which is highly caustic and needs to be handled carefully, but it’s the critical component in both pretzels and bagels.
The high-alkaline lye breaks down proteins in the surface of the dough. These freed-up amino acids interact with sugars when exposed to heat, creating complex flavor compounds along with darkening color. This process happens on some level with all cooked food–it’s called the Maillard reaction and is responsible for much deliciousness, like the crust of creme brulee–but the lye amplifies it. Often, home cooks try substituting baking soda to skip messing with lye; this works, but doesn’t get you quite the richness, complexity, or deep brown color possible with lye. Baking soda’s pH is 7. Pure lye’s is double that at 14.
Fortunately, our host and my intrepid spouse are best friends and perfectly willing to support each other through the drama that is the lye dip. While they are, to date, the only ones who dip their gloved hands into the chemical that constitutes drain cleaner, the rest of us do what we can: mixing dough, shaping loaves, setting timers, rolling and shaping the pretzels. And then more friends arrive and somehow, dozens and dozens of pretzels just disappear. It’s an Oktoberfest miracle.
The dough is simply yeast, flour, water, salt, and a sugar; malt syrup is traditional, we used molasses as it’s easier to find. You mix it well, and like a bread dough knead it until it’s stretchy and smooth (signs the proteins are starting to break down and re-form into nice long chains that will hold their shape as the dough rises). Then it rests. Afterwards, punching down and a few gentle kneads, then portioning it, rolling long ropes of dough, and forming pretzels. After they adjust to their new form, they get dipped in the lye bath and immediately baked in a hot oven.
Our pretzels for Oktoberfest 2016 were made according to a NYT recipe that we hadn’t used in past years. Calling for quite a lot of instant yeast per batch (2 T per 6 c flour!), they were much more active than our previous doughs. In order to stagger our time and be able to actually party and stuff, we made the dough the night before and let it rest overnight. With some doughs this would have been fine. With this one, even their 40-F degree resting environment was not cool enough to retard their growth sufficiently. So these were a mite less “pretzely” looking than previous years on account of their puffiness, but the taste was fabulous. All that yeast (and rising time) gave them really deep flavor.
This year, we made 84 pretzels for ~30 guests. We had 5 leftover because clearly a couple of people weren’t pulling their weight. I think I had 8 but it might have been 9 because once we started toasting them by the firepit while drinking whiskey I sort of stopped counting.