Back in middle school, going to the movies with my friends was kind of a big deal. My parents would drop me off, and for a blissful few hours we were out in the world on our own! It didn’t really matter what the movie was (which explains why I’ve seen Ernest Rides Again on the big screen). Arcade games, soft pretzels, stupid dares, and being in a dark theater with boys was what made the experience.
Those movie theater pretzels were my first exposure to soft pretzels. They hung in the “SuperPretzel ™” cabinet, and since the pretzels inside looked as artificial as the one emblazoned on the cabinet, you never could tell how long they had been under the heat lamps. As a tween, it didn’t matter much. I just dunked the thing in warm processed cheese food and chewed away as Ernest delivered another bumbling bug-eyed “KnowhutImean?“.
Eventually I moved on to shopping mall chain and street vendor pretzels, which were an improvement. Most are more like pretzel-shaped bread, relatively pale in color with novel toppers like chopped nuts, sour cream powder, or pepperoni. For me, a soft pretzel should be unabashedly brown in appearance and flavor, and pleasantly plump. When you pick it up, it is still hot from the oven and slightly bouncy to the touch, and when you take a bite, chewy with a hint of butter and subtle sweetness.
Pretzels are a bit mysterious to make at home. Their deep brown exterior probably doesn’t look like anything that comes out of your oven. But, making homemade soft pretzels is actually quite easy, and may just produce the best you’ve ever tasted. Plus, they make your house smell amazing.
It takes just a final little trick to render them “pretzel” brown — a dip in a high pH (very basic) solution that accelerates browning, or more specifically, the Maillard reaction. Traditionally lye is used in the solution, but most of us don’t have lye sitting around, and it needs to be handled with some safety precautions. My recipe uses safer and more common baking soda, which still produces the desired result.
Like bagels, pretzels are boiled before baking to produce their chewy texture. The boiling liquid for pretzels also does double-duty as the basic (baking soda) solution. Some recipes try to streamline this process, skipping the boil and simply brushing or dipping the pretzels in the basic solution. When I tested boiled versus dipped, I found that, compared to the dipped pretzels, the boiled ones baked up deeper and more uniformly brown, had a smoother more distinct crust, and the requisite pretzel chew.
Boiled in baking soda solution (left), dipped in baking soda solution (right)
Taking a cue from the boiling procedure in the soft pretzel recipe by Cook’s Illustrated, I found that both dissolving the baking soda in water prior to heating the solution and using a 12-inch skillet was cleaner and more convenient than other methods.
For game day or party snacking, I like smaller pretzel breadsticks. The shape and size are better suited for dipping and grazing than large twisted pretzels. Most pretzel recipes have you roll the dough into ropes before shaping into knots, but for breadsticks, a proper shaping provided superior results in both looks and texture. I chose bread flour due to its higher gluten content than all-purpose flour, lending the desired chewy quality.
Go to the recipe for Soft Pretzel Breadsticks
Go to the recipe for Whipped Pumpkin Butter
In homage to the classic pairing of cheese food with pretzels, I wanted to incorporate some big cheddar cheese flavor. Pimento cheese has endured the stigma of being thought of as trashy food, but can be made excellent with quality ingredients. I tasted a wonderful version in the ham pimento sandwich at Cutty’s just outside Boston. My version contains not much more than real extra sharp cheddar cheese, chopped pimentos, a small amount of good mayonnaise.
Slathering pimento cheese on warm pretzels was sinfully satisfying. But why stop there? When shaping the dough, it is pressed into a rectangle and rolled up, which got me dreaming of biting into the pretzel and finding a swirl of pimento cheese baked right in. Some leftover shredded extra sharp cheddar becomes a crust of frizzled brown and savory cheesiness on top.
Go to the recipe for Pimento Cheese Swirl Pretzel Breadsticks
Go to the recipe for Pimento Cheese Spread
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