One reason why people bake at home is that they don’t need their baked goods to look like they emerged from a production line. Or they have made their peace with inconsistency, considering it a charming trait.
This peaceable mind comes in handy when making homemade soft pretzels. The familiar looped and twisted pattern isn’t as difficult to make as it may look, but there’s no guarantee that a dozen pretzels will look identical. And really, why would you want that?
Even pretzel fanatics like different shapes and thicknesses. A great pretzel dough actually inspires some artistry, supple and flexible enough to twist into a variety of designs and shapes.
Soft pretzels also come together, start to finish, in about two hours, making them a perfect “found” activity for the kids, should your school district appear on the morning’s scroll of closings this time of year. No fancy ingredients here, so you probably have them on hand.
A few keys to ensuring pretzel success:
• Authentic pretzels poach briefly in a lye bath. You probably do not have this ingredient on hand. Baking soda is a good substitute, and you can boost the tang and deep color that it brings to the crust even more by first baking the baking soda for about 30 minutes. The oven’s heat causes the soda to give off water and carbon dioxide, turning the sodium bicarbonate into a bolder sodium carbonate. (Fortunately, you don’t need to understand why this works to have it work.)
• To keep pretzels from sticking to the baking sheet — a risk when you’re placing a poached, egg-washed dough into high heat — we highly recommend using parchment paper, and then making sure that’s it well-coated with oil or cooking spray. Don’t substitute waxed paper. Silicone baking sheets are said to work like a dream. Otherwise: parchment paper, well-oiled. We’re not kidding.
• Use the coarsest salt you can find for the final sprinkle. Table salt is too fine. Kosher salt is good. Some specialty cooking stores may carry pretzel salt.
• Pretzels are best eaten the day they’re made; otherwise the moisture of the bread causes the salt to “melt.”
With that in mind, consider the upcoming Super Bowl on Feb. 1 as the perfect stage on which to make a splash. Fresh pretzels, made that morning and rewarmed in a 250-degree oven, will be pounced on as quickly as a fumble. And with two weeks to hone your pretzel-shaping skills, you can’t lose.
But don’t aim for too much perfection. Remember: You are a baker, not a factory.