Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Pretzels: A Pursuit of the Best

Do you ever get in the mood to make something in particular, look up a recipe online, and find 6 variations of the same recipe, then wonder which one is going to be the right one?  Well, I took several variations of pretzel recipes to find the one that worked best - and I hope this helps saves others some time in their pursuit.

My daughter decided on a carnival-themed birthday party this year. One idea for food was, of course, pretzels - what carnival is complete without those yummy snacks that call for salt, or sugar, or mustard.


Wanting to be prepared, I thought I'd try these out ahead of time to be sure I could make them, and also to test how far ahead I could make them, and they still taste good - a day, 2 days?  First I attempted a from-scratch recipe with yeast, flour, etc., dipping them into a baking-soda/water mixture before baking.  Well, the entire batch was a disaster.  Maybe I let the dough rise too long, or maybe it was just a bad recipe.  At any rate, even with all the mustard in the world, I couldn't eat these pretzels.

So I turned to the Pillsbury breadsticks recipe for pretzels.  Even with these, I found many variations, so I spent one morning testing out each one to determine which was really the best.

One can of breadsticks has 12 sections.  If you use only one to form the pretzel, it's very small, and would fit in the palm of your hand - almost better to make garlic knots with.  However, rolling out two strips into long ropes and connecting them will make a perfect sized pretzel - not the huge kind you get at the game, but a great size for kids and snacking.



I separated each section and rolled it on my stone until it was thin and round. Next I brought two end together to create a circle, twisted the ends around each other, then flipped it over the circle, to make the pretzel shape.  I made 2 small (one section) and 2 regular size (with 2 sections).









One variation I had seen online mentioned freezing the pretzels after forming them, so that they would keep their shape and not bulk up so much, so I tried this method with half.  I formed the pretzels and stuck them in the freezer on some parchment paper while the first half was baking. This would be a way to make a large number of them ahead of time, so only the baking time is left - not the rolling out and forming into pretzel shapes.

The other variations I'd seen in recipes involved the basting of the pretzel prior to baking.  The 4 most common I saw called for one of these (so I tried all four to compare):

- the whole egg, whisked
- egg yolk, whisked
- egg white, whisked
- melted butter (not pictured)


(Above) Going into the oven: top left - egg white; top right - melted butter;
bottom left - egg yolk; bottom right - egg

Coming out of the oven, the one coated in egg yolk was the best looking - very golden.  The one dipped in melted butter didn't have any of the "shine" like the others did.  I noticed with the whisked egg (not separated) that I got a little too much in one spot, and it started cooking, so be careful that you give the pretzel a light coating.



As far as taste, the melted butter one didn't seem to add much flavor to the breadstick - it just tasted like a breadstick.  The egg white and egg yolk coated pretzels also just tasted like normal breadsticks (which are still delicious).  The pretzel with the whole egg had some flavor to it that made it taste more like a pretzel to me, than the others.  I could tell a difference, and it was not egg-tasting, at all.

Also, the addition of sesame seeds and/or sea salt helps enhance the flavor and take it more to the pretzel taste from the breadstick.  If using these toppings, pinch some in your fingers and sprinkle on before baking, so it sticks.  After baking, the egg will harden the outside, making it difficult for toppings to adhere.  If making a sweet pretzel, I think brushing with butter, then sprinkling with cinnamon-sugar (after baking) would work.  I didn't try this, because I probably won't be making sweet pretzels for the party - however, they do sound tasty.


When comparing the final product of the straight-into-the-oven vs the freeze-first batches, the frozen ones did hold more true to their shape in size (left), and didn't plump up as much as the ones that went straight in (right).  As far as taste, the flavor didn't change, but the texture of the straight-in batch was more fluffy, and the frozen only slightly more dense.  To me, it wasn't enough difference to choose one over the other - it will just come down to time, and how I want to prepare ahead of time.



Right out of the oven, they all tasted delicious.  I'm going to cover them and check again later this evening and then tomorrow.  If there are any pieces left, I'll test two days out to see how the taste and texture hold up with time.

After just a few hours (I couldn't wait), the egg-covered was still great; the butter-covered had already gotten too chewy and lost a bit of the soft, freshness.  I think the egg-coating helps seal in the softness of the inside for longer.

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