Pretzels are a bread product that originate from eastern Europe. They are characterized by their soft, slightly crumbly texture and hard outer glaze and are prepared in ways similar to bagels. They have long been associated with kosher Jewish cuisine, but are also popular throughout North America and Germany.
The key ingredient of pretzels, and any bread product, is flour. Flour is made by grinding up grains. The best flours to use are unbleached, or plain bread flour. Yeast is the ingredient in breads that allows them to rise. The yeast reacts with the sugars in the dough mixture to create carbon dioxide gas during the cooking process, which forms pockets and raises the bread. Adding the right amount of yeast to pretzels is crucial, as their semi-risen shape is distinctive and defining.
The yeast should be dissolved in a cup of lukewarm water with a tablespoon of sugar and a teaspoon of salt. If left for about ten minutes it should begin to bubble slightly. The yeast mix is then added to the flour. The water reacts with the flour creating gluten, which is the stretchy, doughy batter that is then baked. A cup of warm milk can also be added, though this is dependent on personal preference.
The addition of vegetable oil or fat into the mixture enhances the texture of the pretzel. It limits the development of the gluten and gives the pretzel the soft, slightly chewy texture that it needs. Before baking, the pretzel is usually given an egg-wash glaze, which provides a hardness and shine to the outside of the pretzel, and then it is sprinkled with rock salt. Other flavorings can, of course, be added.
Pretzels can either simply be oven baked or boiled first. Boiled pretzels tend to remain softer and chewier, and the boiling process usually only takes a few seconds. Pretzels that are just being oven baked are washed with egg, then baked for 15 to 20 minutes. This means the pretzels will rise sufficiently and acquire a hard glaze, while still being soft in the middle. Traditionally, pretzels are soaked in a weak lye mixture before baking.