As humans, we put a lot of things into our mouths. Stop and think for a moment: what has passed by your pearly whites on its way to your esophageal heaven today? I’ve had tea, several tiny French lavender mints, chicken, lettuce, aioli, San Pellegrino, focaccia, and some jelly-like candies that practically begged me to let them make out with my tonsils. It’s only 2:00 pm. Multiply that by the additional hours in the day by the days in a year by the years in my life, and that is a lot of food.
Does this make me an expert? Yes, yes it does. When it comes to eating, I take double black diamonds. When it comes to snowboarding, I stick to singles. I’m sure you’re realizing about right now that this makes you an expert too. We have this in common. We are expert eaters. With discerning palates. We could be celebrity judges if there were a show called Dancing with the Food.
All this knowledge and refinement is regularly put to the test trying new things. Many of these new things are delicious, and some of them are foul. Like worms. No matter what, worms just are not good. I should know- about every five years I revisit them to ascertain whether the nuances of my taste receptors have evolved enough to appreciate worms.
I really do this. I eat a worm. Well, a few bites of one, anyway. I think this is commonplace enough behavior in a place like Seattle that is full of good soil, abundant rain, and a Portlandia-esque foraging mentality. Here in Seattle, people forage for just about everything. Last week some kids tried to forage into my car for the wallet I accidentally left on the seat, but they were unsuccessful. Novice foragers *rolls eyes*. Anyway, the rain, soil and sticky fingers make Seattle ideal for worm-rearing. Here the earthworms are fat, juicy and really dupe you into believing they’re going to taste like beefsteak. This is not the case.
Some time within the last week that I will not specify in case we should meet on the street and you refuse to air kiss me because you’re worried about getting worm goo on your air lips, I cooked a worm again. This time I sous vided (that’s a verb, right?) it with some Hoisin sauce and Sriracha. The worm may or may not have been alive when I sealed it into the vacuum bag and dropped it into the Polyscience Pro water bath. Ok, ok, it was alive. I suppose this makes me a worm torturer. Once again, I took a small bite of the flaccid, translucent worm. Once again, it tasted minimally of the sauces I’d slathered it in, and maximally of dirt, slime, and the unmistakable sulphuric tang of the frozen flagpole I licked in grammar school. The verdict: worms will never find a welcome place in my diet.
But sourdough pretzel rolls will. In contrast to worms, sourdough pretzel rolls taste the way my ass looks in my dreams. That would be: really fucking good. There are several reasons why sourdough pretzel rolls taste so good. One of those reasons is nostalgia. I don’t care if you’re Antarctican, a fine pretzel will not fail to transport you to your youth. This is because in past lives, we have all been small, blonde, Bavarian kinder. We’ve also all worn leiderhosen, and had our boobs spill out the top of ruffly white corset tops, too, which is why you have that weird sexual fantasy, so don’t worry, you’re normal.
Another reason is alcohol. These here pretzel rolls are made with beer. As you undoubtedly already know, alcohol makes everything better. Homely girls seem prettier, pretty girls escalate to supermodels, and supermodels become real-life goddesses when under the influence of alcohol.
Sourdough also makes these pretzel rolls worth doing something really embarrassing just so you can have a bite. Like I bet if you wanted a bite bad enough, you’d reveal on national television your “number”. By “number” I don’t mean ten-digit code by which you can be reached, either. I mean the actual, literal, true amount of people with whom you’ve done the Snoopy. In this instance, Snoopy means Sexytime. Yep, you’d tell the whole world what a big ol’ whore you are just for a bite of these pretzels, in part because the sourdough made you do it.
Sourdough is fascinating. The other day I fed my sourdough starter too much and sealed the lid too tight. It grew and grew and the lid fused to the container because the starter acted as glue. The gas inside the starter bloated the hard melamine lid out like a mushroom, and when I discovered what had happened, I immediately tried to pry the lid off to free the starter. The lid shot ten feet up in the air and broke the sound barrier while doing so. If that doesn’t prove the magical powers of sourdough, I don’t know what does.
Finally, these pretzels are spectacular because they are made with lye. There is a vicious, ongoing debate about whether you must dip pretzels in lye prior to baking or if a baking soda bath will do, and the answer, equivocally, is that you need the lye. Without it, the pretzels will be anemic versions of themselves, like Tom Green’s post-op testicles. The reason for the lye is that its alkaline nature causes the maillard reaction to occur on the crust of the pretzel. In other words, it makes it brown and caramelize. Baking soda is alkaline, but not nearly enough. If lye were Superman, baking soda would be Clark Kent. To put it another way, let’s say you wanted to become wildly intoxicated. You wouldn’t waste your time with wine coolers when a bottle of bourbon was in reach.
Some people think lye is dangerous. Maybe it is. I’ve cooked extensively with it without incident, and I’m not even that careful. I do recommend gloves, obviously. Don’t splash around in it. If it gets on your skin, wash it off. You can wear goggles and a mask if you want to get really hardcore, but just know that’s more for your own benefit so people can think you’re a kitchen badass than out of any real need. I pour it down the drain when I’m done. It’s drain cleaner, after all. Even though I don’t always practice what I preach, you might not want to use lye after you’ve been drinking. Unsteady hands and a pot of lye could result in a catastrophe as big as George Bush’s presidency. Oh, and if you’re really worried, do remember that once lye is baked, the alkaline is neutralized and it’s completely safe to eat. You haven’t heard of any deaths by pretzel, have you?
This recipe is the result of extensive trial and error. I forced pretzels down the throats of my friends and family for more than a month in order to arrive at the ultimate alchemical perfect formula. The beer and the malt syrup add depth and dimension to something that might otherwise just be bread. The sourdough punches them up and really gets the party started in your mouth. The mix of flours begets a yielding texture on the inside, but browns and hardens sufficiently on the exterior to proudly bear the name pretzel. If you plan to make them, make them as is. If you disregard this and believe yourself to be superior at pretzel-making, whatever you do, don’t ditch the lye. If you do, I WILL find out about it and I WILL come to your house and wash your mouth out with pure, caustic lye. You definitely don’t want that.
Sourdough Pretzel Rolls
- 1.5 c Sourdough starter (at 100% hydration)
- 1 tbsp Kosher salt
- 1/4 c Stella Artois beer (you can play with beer variety by taste preference, it’s fairly apparent that it’s in there, so choose something that won’t overpower the rolls)
- ¼ c Barley malt syrup
- ¼ cup Hot water
- ¾ c Bread flour
- ¾ c Tipo 00 (Italian) flour
Mix all ingredients together in bowl of stand mixer. Cover and leave at room temperature overnight.
- 1 c Bread flour
- 1 c Tipo 00 (Italian) flour
- Cooking spray to grease bowl
- ½ gallon Purified water
- 2 tbsp Food grade lye (available here)
- Large-crystal finishing salt for dusting the pretzels pre-bake. (Maldon is good)
- Uncover sponge and begin to mix with dough hook attachment on stand mixer. Incorporate the bread flour and tipo 00 flour a little bit at a time until dough is firm and smooth. This process takes approximately seven minutes on medium speed. It’s important not to under-knead as you really want to work the gluten in this step. The dough should become smooth to the point that you would not need to add any additional flour when forming the pretzel rolls.
- Turn into a greased bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and let it rest for 3 hours.
- Preheat oven to 425°F and move oven rack to upper-medium position.
- Working with gloves on, dissolve lye into purified water in a ceramic or glass mixing bowl (non-reactive bowl is key).
- Meanwhile (gloveless), divide the dough into 12 balls. To form the balls into rolls, make a circle with your thumb and forefinger. With the other hand, push the dough upward through the circle, smoothing and forming the exterior of the ball as you push upward. Next, roll the ball between your palms until it is smooth and round. Repeat with remaining rolls.
- Chill rolls in refrigerator for 20 minutes (up to one hour).
- Working a few at a time, dip rolls in lye bath for a total of 90 seconds. You may have to flip them to coat them completely in lye. Slotted spoons or gentle tongs work well for this step. Allow them to drain on a cooling rack and repeat with remaining rolls. Dispose of lye down sink and wash all instruments carefully.
- Once dipped, allow to air dry on a silpat-lined baking sheet for 10-20 minutes.
- Using a very sharp knife (or serrated) slash a cross hatch pattern into the top of the roll. Dust with finishing salt.
- Bake for 12-16 minutes, or until well-browned. Serve soon-pretzels are always better fresh and hot from the oven.