To lye or not to lye? That is the question when you’re making pretzels.
On the one hand, lye gives pretzels their distinctive flavor, kind of a sharp flatness, if that makes sense. It’s what keeps a pretzel from tasting like pretzel-shaped bread.
On the other hand, lye is ridiculously dangerous. It will burn you if it gets on your skin and blind you if it gets in your eyes. And if you happen to eat it, it can kill you.
That could scare some people, considering that pretzels are generally eaten.
Lye is also used for unclogging drains. It is used to strip paint. And if you’re a gangster with a body that needs to disappear, it can be used for that, too.
So obviously it should be avoided at all costs. Except for that part about it making pretzels taste so good.
As a culinary experiment, I tried making pretzels both ways, with and without lye. And then I tried it a third way, too: making the kind of pretzel that you get at a mall.
You could argue that Auntie Anne pretzels aren’t pretzels at all, they are dessert. And you would be right. But they look like pretzels and they call themselves pretzels (or at least the store calls them pretzels), so I made them out of the spirit of fair play.
Besides, who doesn’t like dessert?
I tried the pretzels with lye first; the recipe calls them German Soft Pretzels. I will be honest with you: I was not entirely happy with the way they looked. They tasted fine — even great. But I had a couple of problems with them, even though I tried them twice.
One problem was that you dip the pretzels into very hot water with lye in it, and the water (or perhaps the lye) tends to make the dough fall apart and lose its distinctive shape.
The other problem is that the pretzels did not brown as much as I thought they would or should. A solution of lye in water is supposed to give pretzels their characteristic chestnut color, but mine instead were merely tawny. That is probably because I did not dip them long enough; however, the longer I dipped them the more likely they were to fall apart.
One problem I did not have was that I poisoned anybody. I made a solution of one teaspoon of lye dissolved into one cup of water, which is a perfectly safe ratio of 1:24. Even so, I did not touch the dough with my hands after it had been dipped.
The taste was perfect. They tasted like pretzels.
Next up was pretzels made without lye, which are called Homemade Soft Pretzels. These came from a recipe by Alton Brown, who is usually pretty good with such things.
With this thing, he is excellent.
For one, he adds extra calories to the pretzels in the form of melted butter, which is never a bad thing when it comes to baked goods. He also includes a tablespoon of sugar for eight large pretzels; although the sugar is just there to feed and activate the yeast, it is nonetheless a tablespoon of sugar.
This dough is a little less stiff than the one I used to make the pretzels with lye. It also only rises once, which saves time, and it has the lovely brown color that I couldn’t get with the lye.
How? By dipping them in a solution of hot water and a lot of baking soda.
Baking soda is highly alkaline, though not nearly as alkaline as lye; it is that property that has the browning effect on the outside of a pretzel. It also affects the way it tastes, though because baking soda is not as strong as lye, its effect is not as pronounced.
Still, it’s an awfully good pretzel. Try it with mustard.
Finally, I made a knock-off of an Auntie Anne’s pretzel. Admittedly, it does not taste exactly the same as the mall pretzels, but as knock-offs go, it’s certainly close enough.
Several factors distinguish it from pretzels that are stouter, more traditional and less desserty. For one, it is made with a blend of bread flour and all-purpose flour, which should actually make it chewier than other, all-purpose-only pretzels, but somehow it doesn’t.
Another ingredient that makes these pretzels different is the milk that is used to activate the yeast, rather than the more usual water. Butter and powdered sugar are added to the milk-yeast mixture, and of course each pretzel is brushed with butter after it is baked.
Basically, it is a pastry. But it is a pretzel pastry, so it counts.