October 8, 2020

Jed Portman

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Editor’s Letter: Midwestern Soft Pretzels

My favorite recipe

Soft pretzels are always in season. A hot pretzel can taste as good from a concession stand in the summer as under a brewery’s patio heater on a sunny winter afternoon. I start baking pretzels at home this time of year, though, when fall’s first cool evenings call for trays of hot, butter-brushed twists with sinus-clearing mustard.

My pretzel recipe comes from Zingerman’s Bakehouse. For the past couple of years, I’ve adapted it with a simple trick—one that unites pretzels and beer, already good friends—from Farnam House Brewing Company in Omaha.

When I’m traveling, I’m always looking for breweries that have distinctly Midwestern points of view—operations like Scratch in Illinois or Upland in Indiana. Farnam House offers that in Omaha. The first time I visited, I tried sour beers flavored with local plums and cherries under a windmill logo that evoked Willa Cather’s Sandhills.

I also tried one of my favorite soft pretzels. The brewery’s pretzel made such an impression that I ordered a few for the road on my way out. A year later, I stopped by again. The pretzel was still tops, with a fluffy texture that I expected but a depth of flavor that I didn’t. I had to know what set it apart. Between my visits, I had taken a weekend-long soft pretzel road trip through southeastern Pennsylvania—home of Auntie Anne’s, Snyder’s, and many Amish and Mennonite pretzel bakers—and I hadn’t tried anything that I liked as much as that afternoon snack in Omaha.

So, when I got back to the East Coast, I e-mailed Farnam House. “I’ll come clean your keg lines and bathrooms for a week if you’ll just teach me how to make those pretzels,” I wrote. Fortunately, they didn’t ask me to do that, though they did invite me to come back to enjoy their annual Pretzelfest. They didn’t give up the full recipe, either, but I got a few tips from its creator, Farnam House president Bernie Doerr.

Editor’s Letter: Midwestern Soft Pretzels - Quote

The pretzel was still tops, with a fluffy texture that I expected but a depth of flavor that I didn’t. I had to know what set it apart.

I have good news and bad news: You need lye to make these pretzels.

Without lye, you’ll never achieve the glossy, nut-brown exterior that distinguishes a pretzel from a twisted breadstick. The good news about lye, a.k.a. sodium hydroxide, is that it will immediately take your pretzels from amateur to professional. To make your pizza look like a pie from your favorite wood-fired pizza place, you’ll need a baking stone or steel at the very least, and possibly a masonry oven or something from the new class of high-powered portable pizza ovens. To make your pretzel look as legitimate, all you need is a tub of lye, which you can buy online today and start using this week. Be sure to buy food-grade lye like the product linked here, which is pure sodium hydroxide.

The bad news is that lye is caustic, capable of causing chemical burns, which is a dealbreaker for many home cooks. (The baking process renders the lye harmless.) With safety glasses, rubber gloves, and a cautious approach, though, you can handle a diluted lye dip. Respect the lye and you’ll be fine, like generations of bakers before you.

You can hack the process using baking soda instead of lye, as you might read online, but that’s like hacking barbecue with liquid smoke. The elements are all there, but the product won’t be the same. If you aren’t willing to try lye, I’d recommend buying your soft pretzels from a local bakery. (Here in Cincinnati, we have good options, including local institution Servatii and newcomer Tuba Baking Co., selling Swabian-style pretzels and other German specialties just across the river in Covington, Kentucky.)

The secret ingredient in my pretzel recipe is harder to find than lye, though businesses all over the country are churning it out as you read this. It’s spent grain.

If you look at beer as a fermented grain tea, you can understand spent grain as the soggy tea leaves. The brewing process extracts flavor, sugar, protein, and more from malted barley and leaves heaps of depleted grain behind. A large brewery might be left with hundreds of pounds of waterlogged spent grain, mostly barley, at the end of a brew day. Some compost it. Others give it to local farmers, who use it to feed livestock.

Spent grain has appeal for us humans, too. It’s still nutritious, which is why farmers feed it to their animals, and it retains plenty of malt flavor. A dose of spent grain flour, which is just dried and pulverized spent grain, adds that sweet, nutty flavor to baked goods. It’s a natural choice for dark, yeasty soft pretzels. You’ll see spent grain pretzels on menus at resourceful breweries across the country, including Farnam House.

You don’t need much spent grain to make these pretzels. I’m still using spent grain flour from a single brew day last year, and I only turned a portion of that day’s leftovers into flour. You can only make so much flour at once, anyway. The grain spoils quickly, and to effectively dry it before it does, you should spread it out in layers no more than a quarter-inch thick. You’ll bake your spent grain at your oven’s lowest temperature setting for six to eight hours or overnight. Stir the grain every few hours if possible, to ensure even drying. Once it’s completely dry, pulverize in a coffee grinder. It will keep for years in an airtight container, though its flavor will diminish with time.

Let’s say you’re not a homebrewer and you don’t want to cut a deal with a local brewery—which should be happy to get rid of spent grain, though you’ll need so little that they won’t notice it’s gone—or a bakery that uses spent grain. You can buy spent grain flour, and I’d say it’s probably worth the trouble in this case.

Bernie told me that she uses about 10% spent grain at Farnam House. “Any more can lead to a pretty dry, chewy pretzel,” she wrote, “but it also depends on which grains you’re using. Maybe start at 10%.” The more spent grain flour you add, the more depth of flavor you can achieve. I hit my dry-and-chewy threshold at about 15%.

This recipe isn’t revolutionary, but it makes a good pretzel—a product with a Midwestern pedigree that takes me back to Farnam House.

Using maple syrup as the sweetener doesn’t make much of a difference, because you’re only adding a tablespoon, but I have plenty of my wood-cooked maple syrup around, and I like to add local flavor to our food wherever I can. Feel free to substitute brown sugar or barley malt syrup, which are both more traditional choices. As you can see in the picture at the top of the page, I sometimes finish these pretzels with grated cheese, as does Zingerman’s. To keep your pretzels Midwestern, I recommend Prairie Breeze, an all-purpose cheddar from Milton Creamery in Iowa. It isn’t hard to find nowadays, under its original name or in hiding as Kroger’s private-label High Plains Cheddar.

Midwestern Soft Pretzels, via Zingerman's Bakehouse and Farnam House Brewing

Makes 12 pretzels

1 tbsp. maple syrup
2 tbsp. lard or softened butter
2 tbsp. instant yeast
3 oz. (about ½ cup) spent grain flour (10% of total flour—adjust up or down)
27 oz. (about 6 cups) bread flour
1 tbsp. kosher salt
½ cup food-grade lye, for dipping the pretzels
Coarse sea salt or pretzel salt, for topping
Grated cheese, for topping (optional)
Melted butter, preferably cultured butter, for finishing (optional)

In a mixing bowl or the bowl of a stand mixer, combine syrup, lard or butter, yeast, spent grain flour, 2 cups warm water, and about half the bread flour. Once mixed, add salt and remaining bread flour and stir until mixture forms a shaggy dough.

Turn dough onto counter, or attach dough hook to mixer, and knead for 8-10 minutes or until dough is soft and smooth. Cut into 12 pieces and let rest 5 minutes.

Roll each piece into a rope about 22 inches long. Lift the ends, twist them around each other once, then bring them back and press them into either side of the pretzel. Adjust the shape as necessary and transfer pretzels to a parchment-lined baking sheet. Rest at room temperature for 30 minutes, then refrigerate for at least 1 hour or overnight.

Heat oven to 425 degrees. Wearing rubber or latex gloves, add lye to 10 cups water. (Always add lye to water rather than water to lye.) Pour lye carefully to avoid splashing. Mix, then dip each pretzel in the solution, giving it 10-15 seconds on each side.

Return dipped pretzels to the baking sheet. Sprinkle with salt—or, alternately, dip pretzels in grated cheese. Bake about 15 minutes, or until deep brown. Brush with butter if desired and serve warm.

The pretzels will keep for a day or two. If you plan to serve them later, bake them without the salt topping and add it before serving. Brush them with water, sprinkle them with salt, and put them back in the oven for a few minutes. You can do the same with grated cheese.


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