Sourdough Experiment: Pretzels (or In Which My Confidence Grows Exponentially)

Here it is: the first truly edible (Non-Waffle) thing I've made with my wild yeast starter.

I feel like I've been struggling in my kitchen lately. A full blown skirmish, if not an all out war. I have a family of picky eaters, except for myself, and then I had this new baby of a starter I was trying desperately to conjure up out of the wildness of Wisconsin. I was patient, feeding my struggling starter 3 times daily. After 2 weeks of fairly consistent results (bubbly starter culture with no rising capabilities), I decided to punctuate my white flour starter with rye.

Rye starter on the left, AP flour starter on the right.

Rye flour naturally contains more yeast than white, so I figured it couldn't hurt. But since I didn't want to lose any of my stalwart white starter progress, I portioned the white starter into two one morning, and then began feeding half of it 50 grams each of rye flour and water at every feeding. I also knocked back my feeding to twice daily, since I am usually always home between 7 and 9 both a.m. and p.m. (Every morning, I begin anew with 100 grams of starter, leaving plenty of excess to make delicious waffles with!) Within two days of my new schedule, rye starter (left above - makes THE best waffles, by the way) was more than doubling between feedings. When I stirred it, it actually deflated - signs that it isn't just my wishful thinking, it is indeed up to the task of reproducing! So straight away yesterday morning, I began my first experiment: sourdough pretzels.

The dough is impossibly dry by design. My KitchenAid actually had a hard time keeping up - but since I followed Nancy Silverton's direction, I let it knead only until it hit the proper temperature: 75-76 degrees f. On my Professional 600 model, that was about 3 minutes.

This dough is actually very similar to bagel dough. While Silverton states that you could actually knead it by hand, I don't know if it would be so advisable. I actually felt like I was doing aerobic exercise just rolling out my "snakes" of dough to about 20 inches. The elasticity of the dough scared me, and in spite of my intrepidity with my starter, I wasn't even sure that my project was going to work despite it's handsome first appearance:

Like the bagels, these pretzels hang out in the refrigerator for 18-24 hours prior to actual baking. Plenty of time for me to obsess over whether or not my pretzels were going to be worthy of my expectations of them. Nancy has high expectations... I love that she is so specific in her pretzel love, that she needs fat and thin parts to prevent boredom. She includes direction about making a "belly" 3 inches in the center of the snakes when you roll them, so that there are noticeable fat and thin parts. She also dips them in lye, an experiment that I opted to leave for another time. I could just see myself at Walgreen's asking for food grade lye... they'd probably make me sign a waver.

Brushing the tops with egg wash was just fine for me. I sprinkled with Kosher salt, and slid them into the oven immediately, as directed, so that it wouldn't melt. It stayed pleasantly crunchy, and the pretzels themselves are chewy yet cake-like and certainly reminiscent of the sourness of the starter.

These are infinitely better than mall-staple pretzels (that I only know the taste of since my Husband has to eat them whenever the rare occasion that we actually frequent a Mall...). The Boy-O ate a whole one after school, too - and immediately wanted a second. So, happily, they have the picky eater seal of approval even at room temperature.

Sourdough Pretzels (adapted from Nancy Silverton)
  • 6 oz. (about 1/4 c.) cool water - 70 degrees f.
  • 9 oz. (about 1 c.) starter (I used half rye starter and half white)
  • 1 lb. 4 oz. (about 5 c.) AP flour
  • 1 T. barley malt syrup (don't omit this)
  • 2 teaspoons sea salt
Place all the above ingredients in a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook. Mix on low speed for 1-2 minutes to combine. Turn up mixer to medium, and mix until the dough is smooth, elastic and firm, and reaches the 75-76 degree mark on an instant read thermometer.

Turn the dough out onto an unfloured work surface, and cut dough to divide it into 3 oz. portions. (Nancy's recipe states it yields 18, but I got exactly 12 3 oz. pretzels.) Tuck the ends of the dough under (form rough balls), cover with a cloth and let rest for 45 minutes.

Working with one piece of dough at a time and keeping the rest covered, roll a snake (or a rope if you prefer) about 10 inches long. (I'm going to quote Nancy here, since she is succinct: "Avoid using flour. If there is not enough friction between the dough and the work surface, spritz the work surface lightly with water from a spray bottle. As the rope begins to stretch, uncross your hands and continue rolling with light, even pressure, moving your hands slowly to the ends of the rope without tapering the ends. leaving a center belly 3 inches long, place the palms of your hands on each side of the belly, and roll and stretch again to elongate the cylinder to about 20 inches. Lay your hands on top of each end and taper the ends by alternately rolling each one toward and away from you (think of the arm motions of a cross-country skier).")

Form into pretzel shape, leaving a 1/4 inch overhang with the tapered tails. Transfer to a parchment lined baking sheet, cover with a cloth, and let sit at room temp " just until they show signs of movement", about 1 hour.

Place each baking sheet into a plastic trash can liner and refrigerate for 12-24 hours.

One hour before baking, preheat oven to 400 degrees. Remove the trays of pretzels from the fridge, and brush with an egg yolk mixed with a splash of water. Sprinkle them with salt, and immediately transfer to oven. Bake 20-25 (or a little longer) until they are a deep golden brown, rotating the sheets if necessary. (I suspect the mahogany brown she calls for comes from the lye dip prior to baking.)

These pretzels are not for those who prefer not to chew. They have resistance and good flavor; they would be equally good with cream cheese and honey or cinnamon or with cheese or mustard.

Meanwhile, my excitement is limited, since I'm intrepid to begin another loaf of bread - one that relies on the lifting power of natural yeast and not on dense chewiness to satisfy me. I feel like I have gained some confidence, and I do have some emails in to King Arthur Flour and another Chef source to see if I can glean any one-on-one knowledge.

Sometimes the Internet is overwhelming. Sometimes people on the Internet say or state things that aren't quite the truth, or better, want you to pay to get information from them. Not that I'm calling sourdough cultivators thieves or anything, lest you think I have become embittered of the Brave New World of Internet relationships... But sometimes, I wish the World Book encyclopedia salesman would still be hawking door to door, and that outside of my library, I'd need to go talk to a baker somewhere to get the answers I need to be content. Outside of attending a Baking and Patisserie school, which I don't feel is in the cards for me right now, I'm not sure what else to do. If you have ever grown, baked or obsessed about a sourdough culture, and feel like talking about your experiences, please let me know!