Soft Pretzel Recipe and the Maillard Reaction

It's interesting how many foods were invented on accident. Savoury soft pretzels may be one of those foods, as well as potato chips, popsicles and ice cream cones. It is said that a baker had accidentally cleaned his baking pans with lye as apposed to his regular cleaning solution and then prepared pretzels on them. The lye created a savoury tasting pretzel. Having been used to normallly sweet pretzels, customers enjoyed the new savoury flavour and what we now know as a soft pretzel was born.

Savoury pretzels were then made with lye for flavour and as well to make them brown. Now, people don't generally like having lye in the kitchen as it is a very strong base and is quite corrosive. An option commonly used now is a baking soda wash. Harold McGee suggests a baked baking soda wash for an added flavour. Though, be careful with this mixture because, as well as lye, it can irritate your skin.

Savoury Soft Pretzels

Yield: 26 @ 150 g each

1630 mL water

45 g fresh yeast**

1620 g bread flour

540 g pastry flour

20 g salt

45 g sugar

Soda Wash

30 g baking soda

250 mL warm water

  • Mix all ingredients together at once until gluten develops
  • Let rise until doubled
  • Scale dough pieces into 150g and roll into uniform strips of about 30 inches long
  • Dip into soda wash and place on to lined baking sheets
  • Let sit for 15-20 minutes
  • Sprinkle with coarse salt
  • Bake at 450F for 8-9 minutes
  • Brush with olive oil or vegan butter\marg immediately after removing from oven if you want to.

Pretzels and other baked goods turn brown due to something called the Maillard reaction, named after Louis Camille Maillard who discovered it in 1910. Maillard reaction is similar to caramelization but leaves you with more complex flavours. Maillard is a reaction involving a carbohydrate molecule and an amino acid. A new structure is formed and it further produces hundreds of different flavours. As apposed to caramelization, Maillard flavours are more complex, due to those amino acids which add nitrogen and sulfur atoms to the carbon, hydrogen and oxygen already present in caramelization. Cooking food in dry heat, such as frying, grilling or baking results in more Maillard reaction then cooking using boiling or steaming methods.

Maillard reaction also occurs in meats, eggs, candy making, milk and stocks.

There are several methods to increase the Maillard Reaction such as adding proteins such as almond or soy milk (aided reaction by increased sugars and proteins), adding a base to increase the pH or by reducing water. In pretzels, once the water from the soda wash is dried up in the oven, it leaves the pretzels in perfect basic conditions for the Maillard reaction to take place.

To speed up/increase the Maillard reaction in onions, we add soda to increase the pH.

Another Cookie Note: Maillard reaction occurs in cookies as well. Baking soda, as well as a leavening agent, is largely responsible for the Maillard reaction. By increasing the pH/lowering acidity with soda, the Maillard reaction occurs more readily. When your cookies come out whiter then usual or with less flavour, it's possible that you've forgotten the baking soda!

**Fresh Yeast vs Dry

This recipe calls for fresh yeast, which not everyone likes. In production kitchens, bakers often find it to be less consistent then dried yeast. At home though, it's easier to keep an eye on things and I prefer fresh yeast to ensure no granules, no need to activate and I find it works faster. We can easily adjust fresh to dry yeast.

1 pack of dry yeast = 8 grams, 2.25 tsp To convert fresh to dry, divide by 3. To convert dry to fresh, mutiply by 3.

fresh to dry yeast
fresh to dry yeast

Or we can use our nifty little trick cause it just works for everything!