Monday, September 20, 2010

Sourdough Soft Pretzels

As I alluded to in my previous post about sourdough English muffins, when I was growing up I was tight with my maternal grandparents. Actually, I was (am) tight with all of my mom's relatives. An only child, mom hails from a small but close-knit clan (yes, clan) whose origins have been traced all the way to fourteenth-century Scotland by my genealogy-loving family. But I digress.

The point I'm laboring at has to do with the regular treks we'd make every summer from our farm in the mountains to my grandparents' home in the Berkeley Hills. We'd spend a month or so with them, familying it up around the Bay Area, watching television and eating "regular" food slipped to us kids by my grandmother. Although I was in awe of television (we didn't have one at home) and besotted with the Hershey's bars my grandfather bought for me at the ninth hole snack bar when I accompanied him to his regular Saturday golf games, my favorite treats were sourdough soft pretzels from the carts which dotted San Francisco's financial district.

Once a week or so, I'd accompany my mom on an errand to the City, during which we'd stop by my grandfather's office on Kearny Street. In exchange for quietly banging on typewriters and scribbling on my grandfather's stationery while the adults talked, I was treated to a pretzel from a cart on Market Street to eat on the BART ride back to Berkeley.

There's really nothing better than a piping hot sourdough pretzel -- salty and crusty on the outside, soft and tangy on the inside. (That's what she said? Sorry. It's reflexive.) I'm fairly certain there's a gene for loving salt and bread, and that I have it. I've searched high and low for pretzels like those from my childhood, but nothing has ever come close. I've tried to order them from reputed bakeries in Philadelphia (unfortunately one can only buy them frozen and in bulk), and I fall for the monstrosities at the pretzel carts in New York City every time. I know from sight alone that they're awful, but I secretly hope that by sheer will, I can conjure them to be like those from my childhood.

It turns out I can conjure the pretzels from my childhood, in my very own kitchen. Or pretty darn close, anyway. Who says time travel isn't possible, or that baking isn't magical...?

Sourdough Soft Pretzels
Makes about 16 full-size or 32 miniature pretzels

2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 tablespoon + 2 tablespoons sugar
1 cup hot (but not boiling) water
1 1/2 cups sourdough starter
2 teaspoons kosher salt
3 cups all purpose flour
2 1/2 cups bread flour
1/4 cup baking soda
1 egg
Sea or kosher salt, for sprinkling

1. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, dissolve the butter and 1 tablespoon sugar in the hot water. Add the sourdough starter and stir to combine. Add 3 cups all purpose flour and mix on low speed until the flour is incorporated. Stop the mixer and swap out the paddle attachment for the dough hook.

2. Add 2 1/2 cups bread flour and mix on low speed until the dough pulls away from the sides of the bowl and becomes elastic, about 2 to 3 minutes. Transfer the dough to a large oil-coated bowl. Lightly coat the top and sides of the dough with oil, cover the bowl and set in a warm place two hours or until the dough has doubled in size.

3. Punch down dough to remove bubbles and transfer to a lightly floured board. Knead a couple of times, then divide into 16 pieces (or 32 if miniature pretzels). [I cut the dough in half, made 16 miniature pretzels and froze the remaining dough.]

4. Roll one piece of dough at a time into a strip about 12 inches long. [Like Deb, I found that rolling the dough on an unfloured board was easier.] Twist into pretzel shape, transfer to a parchment-lined baking sheet and cover with a kitchen towel. Repeat with remaining dough.

I fear we will soon resemble these plump little guys, what with the
more-eating-than-exercising thing we've got going on here at Flour Child.

5. Fill a large, shallow pan with about 2 inches of water. [I used a saute pan.] Bring to a boil. Add 2 tablespoons sugar and baking soda and carefully stir until dissolved. Reduce to a simmer and transfer 3 or 4 pretzels at a time to the water. Poach for a minute on each side and transfer with a slotted spatula to a cooling rack set over a towel or baking sheet.

6. Heat oven to 450 degrees F. In a small bowl, whisk egg with 1 tablespoon water. Brush pretzels with egg glaze and sprinkle with salt.

7. Transfer pretzels back to the original parchment-lined baking sheet and bake for about 15 minutes or until evenly browned. [My oven has hot spots, so I rotated the sheet halfway through baking.]

The pretzels are best eaten warm on the day they're made, but according to Deb they can be stored, uncovered, for two days. I bagged and froze mine so that I could enjoy them one at a time, reheated in the microwave or oven.


  1. i have been dreaming about these pretzels. must make.

  2. This blog is great!!! Totally got me in the mood to bake up a delicious loaf of bread! I am going to bake it with my new starter from my order just came in the mail today! : )