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Practicing the basics: pretzels

Big, fluffy, twisted bread. Warm out of the oven. With some kosher salt sprinkled on top, and yellow mustard for dipping. Heaven.

The first 90% of making pretzels, of the quality that you’d get at the bakery or ballpark, is easy and very straightforward. The last 10%, getting the perfect shape and rise and consistency and shiny brown exterior, is very challenging, time-consuming, and complicated. It involves “kettling” the dough before you bake it in a mix of brown sugar and baking soda (or another very alkaline substance) to modify the outer skin of the pretzel.

But the good news is that you can skip the last 10%. Brush on some egg wash, sprinkle on some salt, bake ’em up, and I promise you that when you serve them you will get zero complaints.

Pretzels are a very basic yeast dough, nothing complicated. All the fancy stuff is in shaping and topping them. If you make this basic version half a dozen times (and enjoy them!), then you’ll be in a great position to take on the complexities of trying to make The Perfect Pretzel — but only if you want.

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Makes 8 pretzels. Time required: about 2 hours.

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup water, heated to 100-110 degrees F.
  • 3 tsp. active dry yeast
  • 1/8 cup plus 1 tablespoon sugar, divided
  • 3 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 2 tbsp. butter or margarine, melted
  • For egg wash: 1 large egg, 2 tbsp. white vinegar
  • Kosher salt (optional)

Mix together the water, yeast and 1 tablespoon of the sugar. Set aside. We are “proofing” the yeast to make sure it’s alive and well. It will build up a layer of bubbles on top of the water in the first few minutes if it’s good.

Combine the flour, 1/8 cup sugar, and salt in a large mixing bowl.

Stir the water/yeast mix and the melted butter into the dry ingredients until it comes together into a ball of dough.

Knead the dough for ten minutes on a lightly floured surface, then let the dough rest for five minutes. You can do this with the dough hook on a stand mixer, or turn out the dough onto a lightly floured surface and knead it by hand.

Prepare a half-sheet pan with parchment paper.

Divide the dough into eight equal-size pieces. The easiest way to do this is to roll the dough into a log/cylinder, then use a bench scraper to cut it into halves; then cut the halves into quarters; then the quarters into eighths.

Stretch each of the eight pieces into a long rope, about 16 inches long. The easiest way to do this is to lay it on the counter parallel to your body, then starting with your hands in the middle, roll it back and forth while you move your hands apart. The dough is going to spring back a bit when you lift your hands up, so I recommend doing this in two stages: roll it out to about 10 inches, then let it sit for five minutes to so the dough can “relax.” Then roll it out the rest of the way. If it’s still fighting you, let it rest for a few minutes more.

Shape the dough into pretzels. Lay out a rope of dough in a “U” shape. Cross your hands and grab the two ends. Bring the ends down, uncrossing your hands, and attach the ends to the base of the U.

Move the pretzels onto the half-sheet pan. Cover them with another half-sheet pan, upside down, and let the pretzels rise for about an hour or until doubled in size.

Preheat the over to 375 degrees F.

Beat together the egg and vinegar to make the egg wash. Beat them for a full 45-60 seconds.

When the oven is fully preheated, brush the top of the pretzels with the egg wash. If desired, sprinkle kosher salt onto the pretzels. You want to do this just before you put the pretzels in the oven; otherwise the egg wash will soak into the dough. The egg wash makes the top shinier and darker brown; it also helps the salt stay attached.

Bake until pretzels are evenly brown, about 15-20 minutes. You might need to rotate them for the last five minutes to ensure they brown evenly.

Cool on a rack. Serve warm or at room temperature. Seriously, serve them warm.

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