Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Baked baking soda...is that a thing?

Recently when I told a few folks I was planning to make pretzels, there was mention that the use of lye is the kicker when it comes to producing that perfect chewy, dark pretzel crust.

I grinned.

I have used lye when baking pretzels and bagels, and I remember well the goggles, rubber gloves, long sleeved shirt, extra towels, and extreme caution necessary to safely handle the lye solution. Not the most fun, but hey...the price we pay for yummy pretzels, right?

Not so! There is actually a perfectly effective stand-in for lye when baking pretzels or bagels, and most kitchens have it...or at least the raw form of it. Yes, I am referring to baking soda.

Now, before you roll your eyes and remind me that everyone knows baking soda doesn't work like lye does, let me explain a few things for those who may not be familiar with the process.

Lye is extremely alkaline, usually between 13 and 14 on the ph scale. Hence the need to prevent skin contact with it, as it can cause nasty burns. When you add it to boiling water and drop a raw pretzel into it, it immediately begins to quickly cook the outer, now water-soaked surface. When you pop that wet pretzel into a very hot oven on a baking sheet, that already-forming crust on the outside effectively holds the moisture inside the pretzel while it bakes, producing the characteristic dense, chewy, absolutely delectable texture common to good pretzels.

Bear in mind, you will need to be properly protected from that lye solution in order to prevent injury to yourself. Oddly enough, after baking those pretzels are not dangerous at all!

So where does baking soda come in? Well, here's the thing: We really don't need the intensely alkaline ph 13 solution to produce that lovely pretzel crust and texture...actually, a ph between 9 and 10 is perfectly sufficient and is much less touchy to work with! Ordinary baking soda's ph is right about 8.1, so still not akaline enough for our pretzel-extravaganza-purposes. BUT...

A tiny bit of chemistry:

Baking soda is sodium bicarbonate. When heated above 300 degrees it loses moisture and decomposes into sodium carbonate, water, and carbon dioxide. Incidentally, the release of carbon dioxide is the reaction that causes baked goods to rise when leavened with baking soda or baking powder. When heated alone the carbon dioxide dissipates, the water evaporates, and we are left with sodium carbonate with a ph around 9.4. Significantly more alkaline than the original baking soda, and definitely alkaline enough to make our pretzels perfect!

*A word of caution* Though cooked baking soda does not reach the extreme alkalinity of lye, it is still a definite irritant if it contacts your skin! Be careful when handling it dry, avoiding leaving it on your skin if it happens to land there. Be dilligent with cleaning it from countertops and wiping up drips after it is mixed with water. Store it in a clearly labeled container so you don't confuse it with your regular baking soda for other uses.

So how do we make it work? It's simple. Pour a couple of cups of baking soda onto a flat baking sheet and bake it at 300 degrees for an hour. Let it cool on the baking sheet and then scoop it carefully into a clearly labeled lidded container for storing. When making pretzels or bagels, you will add 2/3 cup of this high alkalinity soda to 8-10 cups water and bring to a boil. When you have formed your pretzels or bagels, slip them into the boiling water bath for 30 seconds or so, then remove with a slotted spatula to a greased baking sheet. They are now ready for an eggwash, coarse salt or whatever other surface finish you prefer just before going into the oven.

If you are a dyed-in-the-wool believer in lye being absolutely necessary for good pretzels and bagels, I may not have changed your mind and that's okay! But if you would like to give pretzels or bagels a try without the culinary version of a haz-mat suit, you might enjoy the baked baking soda method.

As always, I welcome your comments so feel free to share your thoughts!

Here's to great and simple baking,

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