I wanted to have some good buns on hand for a package of Bockwurts made by the good folks at Olympia Provisions. What I did not want was to go to the store and buy any bread. It was still early in the day and I knew the Bouchon Bakery book recipe for soft pretzels will make the perfect bread for this and can be done from start to finish before dinner time.
Impatient? Skip to the recipe
It’s great if you have some Levain on hand (sourdough starter) but it is not essential and can be removed from the recipe and replaced with an equal amount of flour and water (50% and 50% to make up the total weight of the Levain.
A pretzel is not a pretzel without the distinctive deep brown shiny color and that unique flavor. This comes from a quick dip in a food-grade lye solution. it’s obvious in the image above which one I only half dipped in lye solution and baked for exactly the same length of time at the same temperature. Right? Pretty cool. Sounds weird but it is really very easy to use if you follow a few basic rules. The science behind it is that lye is a very alkaline (as opposed to acidic) chemical and basic solutions really supercharge caramelization and Maillard reactions resulting in a very cool dark color and caramelized flavor. In Modernist Cuisine books, one of the more famous recipes is adding baking soda (also basic) to your carrots for carrot soup as you sauté them and this gives the soup a delicious caramel sweet flavor.
Careful using lye though, as you can see on the bottle it is considered a hazardous chemical due to how alkaline it is. So, never taste it on its own and it’s better to wear latex gloves when dipping the pretzels in the solution (although I don’t always do). Always mix the lye granules into the water and not the other way around. Adding water to lye will produce heat and can be dangerous. Once the breads are baked the lye is gone and you are good to go. You can use plenty of baking soda instead of lye in the dipping solution if you do not want to use lye. With baking soda the water has to be simmering. Also, the pretzels won’t get quite the same depth of color or deep pretzel-y flavor but they will still be very good. I’d recommend you do a quick search online and there will be plenty of options and recipes for using baking soda if you prefer.
I always have levain in my fridge or on the counter top in my kitchen since I pretty much bake with it every week or so. Here are some more specifics on how I use it. The recipe does not 100% require it though and you can just replace the levain with an equivalent (50/50) quantity of water and flour.
The process to make those is pretty simple, especially if you have a mixer for the dough with a hook like a KitchenAid. I have never tried mixing these by hand but I’m sure you can but, unless you have some crazy strong arms, you will need to adjust the mixing process and utilize a stretch and fold method over a couple of hours to get the right gluten development without the sore arm muscles. After mixing and shaping the batards (or pretzels, see some online videos for how to shape pretzels) rest in the fridge for a few hours uncovered to slowly proof and develop a skin before dipping, salting and baking.
Soft Pretzels (or Pretzel Batards, or Burger Buns)
Servings: 8 – 12 Pieces
- 245 gr (about 1 Cup) Water
- 180 gr Liquid Levain (80 – 100% hydration), or use an additional 90 gr flour and 90 gr water in the recipe
- 500 gr Flour (All Purpose or Bread)
- 1.5 tsp Instant Yeast
- 2 tsp Malt powder (Optional)
- 12 gr Kosher salt (plus extra for sprinkling before baking)
- 60 gr Butter, softened
- Alkaline dipping liquid
- 500 gr Water
- 21 gr Food grade lye
- In the bowl of a dough mixer (like KitchenAid) stir the levain into the water. Add the flour, yeast, malt, salt and mix with a dough hook using medium speed for about 15 minutes. It should come together into a ball and very little should be stuck to the sides of the bowl.
- Remove from the bowl and let the dough rest covered on the counter for 15-20 minutes.
- Divide the dough into 90 gr pieces, form into loose logs and let them rest for 10 minutes. Now shape them into small baguettes by flattening a bit into small rectangles, rolling from one edge tightly towards you and pinching closed. Roll it under your palm back and forth gently to even it out and taper the ends.
- Alternatively shape them into pretzel shapes
- Line a sheet pan or two with parchment paper and put the buns on it. They will not expand much in the fridge so usually one pan is enough but you might need two if you are making pretzels. Try and space them a couple of inches apart.
- Refrigerate the buns UNCOVERED so that a skin forms for at least 3 hours and up to 8 hours.
- When ready to bake, heat your oven to 350 F
- Make the alkaline bath by adding the lye TO the water (NOT the other way around) in a large bowl.
- Dip and roll the buns in the lye solution, you can do a couple at a time. Get them very well covered then move them to drain on a sheet rack for 5 minutes.
- Transfer them to parchment lined baking sheets with 3 inches between them, sprinkle them with kosher salt and bake for 25 minutes or until deep rich brown.
- Let them cool on a rack or enjoy them warm from the oven.