Some untwist them. Some peel them apart. Some just tear into them. What’s your favorite way to eat a soft pretzel warm from the oven?
Some foods take you places. Sourdough bread transports me to San Francisco – specifically Fisherman’s Wharf. When I was young, my family would visit that magical city. Our journey would always include a stop to the Boudin Store where we would pick up a couple of loaves of freshly baked sourdough bread. Our unrefined tradition did not involve picnic blankets or even a knife for that matter. We each would take turns reaching into the long thin bag, grab a hold of the baguette and rip. What you tore was the piece you got to munch on while walking around Fisherman’s Wharf. The delicious sour aroma that wafted from the broken piece always enticed me. The outer crust was perfectly crunchy and gave way to a soft interior which was ideally balanced with a dose of chewiness. Those loaves never made it home. When I grew up and began to visit and eventually move to San Francisco, I never outgrew those wonderful loaves and that unsophisticated tradition.
After mastering the beginners art to baking, I set a goal to learn to work with sourdough. Initially, I used a freeze-dried starter that I brought it to life as a regular part of our pantry. Later, I learned how to make my own starter with a yogurt base. Over the years, sometimes I would score a share of a long-tended strain of sourdough yeast from a generous friend. This last sort is the one I have on hand now.
The day before we left Newhalen, one of our friends stopped by with a parting gift – a snack-sized zip-top bag containing a small amount of starter. He had been tending it for a while and was really happy with the flavor. I hand-carried the treasure back to Chignik Lake and dutifully fed it. It immediately came to life. Soon it was bubbling away. After a few daily feedings, I had enough starter to give it the real test – a couple of loaves of my San Francisco Sourdough bread. Yum! Our friend was right. This one is a winner.
It turns out that starter is actually pretty easy to work with. It is like a pet. You have to regularly feed it and make sure to regularly clean its home. The flavor gradually develops, becoming more complex over time. So, if you start your own, you need to be patient. The best thing about the starter gift I received was that it was already aged and wonderfully flavored.
I don’t remember what put this thought in my head, but after finishing the first two loaves, I had developed a craving for sourdough soft pretzels hot from the oven served up with a serving of deli mustard. Or maybe Dijon. I decided to make the pretzels a little smaller than the original recipe called for. Turns out the extra pretzels froze really well – as long as you get them into the freezer before the salt “melts” into the pretzels. Thawed, wrapped in foil and heated for about 15 minutes in a 350°F oven, the pretzels were as satisfying as their freshly made cousins.
Sourdough Soft Pretzels – Makes 16 Pretzels
- 3/4 cup warm water
- 1 cup sourdough starter
- 3 cups all purpose flour
- 1/4 cup nonfat dry milk
- 1 tbsp granulated sugar
- 1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
- 1 tsp salt
- 2 tsp yeast
- Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Set aside.
- Mix and knead the dough ingredients — by hand or mixer — to make a cohesive, fairly smooth dough. It should be slightly sticky; if it seems dry, knead in an additional tablespoon or two of water.
- Cover the dough and let it rest for 45 minutes. It will rise minimally. Towards the end of the rising time, preheat the oven to 350°F.
- Turn the dough out onto a lightly greased work surface, fold it over a few times to gently deflate it, then divide it into 16 pieces.
- Roll each piece of dough into a long rope. Shape each rope into a pretzel.
- Bring 1/3 cup baking soda and 9 cups of water to a boil in a large pot.
- Drop 3-4 pretzels into the boiling water for 20-30 seconds. Any more than that and your pretzels will have a metallic taste.
- Using a slotted spatula, lift the pretzels out of the water and allow as much of the excess water to drain off.
- Place pretzels onto prepared baking sheet. They only need to be about an inch apart.
- Sprinkle each with coarse sea salt.
- Repeat with remaining pretzels.
- Bake for 12-15 minutes or until golden brown.
- Remove from the oven and serve warm with your favorite mustard.