Pretzels are among Germany’s most popular bakery products. Their classic and best-known representation is the “knotted” type. In Bavaria and Baden-Wuerttemberg, especially, this twisted work of art is considered a staple food and is a “must” in every bread basket.
Fresh from the oven, pretzels are sheer pleasure and taste best just as they are. However, as a snack to take away they are often spread with butter or cream cheese. The big “Wiesenbrezen” at the Oktoberfest in Munich — served as an accompaniment to a giant-size glass of beer — have become legendary.
E.U. specifications for ‘Bavarian pretzels’
Enthusiasm for small bread specialties with a lye coating has long since spread throughout Germany. Creative bakers offer these in the shape of sticks, oblong rolls or plaited loaves, sprinkled with poppy, sesame or pumpkin seeds or topped with cheese and bacon and browned in the oven.
But for traditionalists there is only one genuine variant: the lye-dipped pretzel with salt. The product attributes that determine its quality are even stated in an E.U. specification for foods with protected geographical indications: “When eaten, a ‘Bavarian pretzel’ is characterized by a lye taste, a short and crisp break and a soft, woolly crumb.”
The crispest parts are the thin divisions in the middle, called the “arms.” On the thickest part, the “bow,” the surface should split slightly to reveal the soft, succulent interior.
The basis for all pretzels is a yeast-leavened wheat dough containing fat. The following is a standard recipe:
100 kg flour, Type 550
3 kg margarine
3 kg baker’s yeast
2 kg salt
2 kg EMCEbest Cold Gold
Approximately 48 kg water
Lye bath (3-4% sodium hydroxide solution)
Coarse salt for decoration
Tricky production process
Pretzel production demands skill and instinct — during preparation and shaping of the dough, and for application of the lye.
Pretzel doughs must have very high extensibility, and the process must be fairly cool and firm. The dough yield is between 145 and 150. To ensure that the dough can be rolled out and twisted properly, it must not be over-kneaded or allowed to become too warm. The dough temperature should not exceed 23 degrees C.
In practice it has proved useful to add flake ice to control the temperature reliably and ensure that the dough remains supple.
The art of pretzel twisting
After kneading, relaxation of the dough and portioning, the dough pieces are pre-rolled into strands on a rolling and cutting machine. The strands are slightly thicker in the middle than at the ends.
These strands are then worked by hand. This is where the manual skill of the bakery personnel comes in: experienced employees knot as many as 800 pretzels an hour.
At industrial bakeries, on the other hand, only fully automatic pretzel knotting machines are used.
Slightly frosted doughs
Individual proofing is followed by coating with 3% to 4% sodium hydroxide solution (lye) — a process that may only be carried out with suitable protective clothing.
To simplify handling, the pretzel blanks are frosted slightly before starting. The stiffened surface reduces penetration of the lye into the crumb and helps to maintain the stability of the shape when the goods are transferred to the oven.
The lye is applied manually or by dipping in a bath, depending on the size of the bakery.
After wetting with lye and sprinkling with coarse salt, the dough pieces must be baked as soon as possible. Under the effect of heat, the lye reacts with the fermentation gas carbon dioxide. In this process, sodium carbonate is formed, which no longer has any harmful effects on health and gives the baked goods their characteristic, slightly soapy taste. The intensive browning of the crust is due to a reaction of the lye with the starch and protein in the flour and the accelerated browning (Maillard) reaction.
Ideally, the way to achieve good crust formation and pronounced shred is to bake the pretzels in a rack oven at about 240 degrees C. Aluminium baking trays must not be used because the lye would attack the protective oxide layer of the aluminium tray and could increase the aluminium content of the baked goods.
Rapid staling is a problem
Crispness is the foremost quality requirement for pretzels. But lye-coated bakery products go stale quickly. The crumb becomes tough and the crust soft just a few hours after baking.
To offer fresh products at any time, many bakeries use frosting and have the lye-dipped dough portions baked at their sales outlets.
Besides crispiness, problems in practice concern mainly the appearance of the crust and the processability of the dough. The following is a list of the most important faults and possible ways of preventing them.
Problem: Short, bucky dough; poor machinability.
Solution: Increase extensibility by adding cysteine (e.g. EMCEsoft P 10) or inactivated yeast (e.g. EMCErelax 400); reduce kneading time; ensure a cooler dough process. If strong flour is used, the addition of 5% rye flour also improves machinability.
Problem: Sticky shred, wrinkles caused by shrinkage.
Solution: Reduce the proportion of added water and fat; ensure a firmer dough process.
Problem: Blistering of the crust.
Solution: Prevent condensation; allow the dough pieces to stiffen properly.
Problem: Spots and streaks on the crust.
Solution: Possibly increase the temperature of the lye slightly to wet the surface of the dough evenly with NaOH solution.
Problem: Low volume
Solution: Use stronger flour; increase the amount of baking improver (e.g. EMCEbest Cold Gold); increase oven rise; prolong individual proofing. Allow frozen dough pieces to thaw completely.
Problem: Dull crust.
Solution: Bake without steam.
Problem: Too much salt in the dough; NaCl reduction is desirable.
Solution: Reduce the amount of cooking salt in the dough; instead, improve the stability of the dough with the enzyme system Saltase.
Problem: Rubbery consistency.
Solution: Reduce the fat content; do not use oil; prolong the shelf life (e.g. with Alphamalt Fresh).
Problem: Weak, narrow shred.
Solution: Use strong flour; shorten the individual proofing time; reduce the added water.
Problem: Color of the pretzels is too light or too dark.
Solution: Increase or reduce the oven temperature. Increase or reduce the concentration of the lye.
Problem: Insipid taste
Solution: Add malt flour; use a sponge dough.