The next time you're in the mood for a salty snack, head to your kitchen instead of the convenience store. Pretzels are a versatile snack because they can be eaten alone or combined with savory or sweet ingredients. They are a twisted, baked yeast-based dough that you can whip up at home to indulge your cravings.
Basic pretzel dough consists of active dry yeast, water, salt, sugar and flour. Although the ingredients are simple, the mixing process needs to be precise. When making pretzel dough, use a thermometer to ensure any water you use is between 100 and 110 degrees F. If the water is too cold, the yeast will not dissolve properly and will result in a dough that is tough and nearly impossible to handle and shape. Add the yeast in the water with salt and sugar. You'll know when the yeast is ready because it will become foamy, usually within 10 minutes. Do not add any flour until the yeast is dissolved. When you do mix in the flour, only add it in small portions (about 1/2 cup) at a time to ensure that it evenly distributes and does not weigh down the dough.
Handling the Dough
Knead the mixed dough to get the right consistency. Kneading is the process of manipulating a sticky dough until it starts to come together and be firm, yet pliable. Use the heel of your hand to press into the dough on each side and repeat about 10 times or until the dough is smooth, not sticky. Before you can shape the dough, cover it and leave it to rise until it doubles in size, approximately 45 to 50 minutes. If you don't allow rising time, the pretzels will be dense. After the dough is ready, cut it into the number of pretzels you desire. Roll each piece into thin strips about 15 to 18 inches long. You can leave the strips as is to make pretzel sticks. For a traditional rounded pretzel, practice shaping with a piece of string or rope first to prevent messing up the dough. Make a loop by bringing each end up and crossing them in the middle so the ends overhang and face away from you and the rounded bottom is near you. Bring the remaining ends back down and cross them so they meet in the middle of the loop, then lightly press them down to seal.
Don't put the pretzel dough directly into the oven or they will be dense and white. Prior to baking, boil the pretzels for 30 seconds to 1 minute depending on their size. Coat the pretzels with a mixture of one egg beaten with a small amount of water (about 1 tbsp.), then top the pretzels with coarse salt. The boiling will soften the pretzels, while the egg coating will make them more golden and help the salt stick. For soft pretzels, bake them at a high temperature for a shorter amount of time (about 450 degrees F for 15 minutes). If you want crunchy pretzels, use a lower temperature and longer bake time (about 350 degrees F for 1 hour).