Sourdough Pumpernickel Pretzels
Updated: Jun 16
Soft, chewy, tangy with sourdough and molasses---a truly spectacular pretzel. Now, which beer to accompany?
On a trip to New York City several years ago, I ate and drank at all the places I'd been dreaming of. My husband and I feasted on roasted quail, eaten with the fingers at Gabrielle Hamilton's bistro, Prune, in the East Village; we snacked on cornbread and crabcakes at Marcus Sameulsson's Red Rooster one afternoon in Harlem; we went back to the East Village to sip Oaxaca Old Fashioneds at Death and Company on a balmy evening.
It was all wonderful. But one of my favourite New York food experiences was tearing into a warm, soft, chewy pumpernickel pretzel sold by a cheery vendor outside The Museum of Modern Art.
I've been wanting to replicate that pretzel ever since. Inspired by the recent upswing in sourdough activity I've been experimenting, and I do believe I've got it: the right combination of starter, flours and flavourings to reproduce the sweet-sour, molasses-like taste and the exquisite chewy-soft texture I remember from that intense New York moment five years ago.
Dream trips to cities we love are just a dream, for now, but we can go there in our minds, plate in hand, gazing into the middle distance and savouring tastes and memories.
I know we normally think of pretzels in tandem with mustard, smoked sausage, maybe a dill pickle somewhere in the vicinity and of course, beer. But I put mine together with home-smoked salmon, cream cheese and a scattering of red onion, and I'm here to tell you, it ain't traditional but it's grrreat. And the beer doesn't mind at all.
Sourdough Pumpernickel Pretzels
(With many thanks to Baking Sense for the basic pretzel method. Check it out.)
Feed the starter in the morning to get it bubbly and active, make the dough in the late afternoon, let it bulk ferment at room temperature, stretching and folding several times, and retard in the refrigerator overnight. You'll make pretzels the next morning and they'll be ready in time for lunch.
250 g (just over 1 cup) active, 100% hydration sourdough starter
170 g (3/4 cup) warm water
110 g (1/2 cup) strong coffee, cooled to lukewarm
1 Tbsp molasses
338 g (2 1/4 cups) all-purpose flour
125 g (1 cup) rye flour (I use Roger's No Additive Dark Rye Flour)
1 Tbsp cocoa powder, sifted
1 tsp fennel seed (substitute caraway or cumin seed)
1 1/2 Tbsp Kosher salt (I used Diamond brand; if your salt comes in big crystals increase the amount to 2 Tbsp)
3 litres boiling water
1/3 cup baking soda
1 Tbsp brown sugar
1 egg white whisked with 1 tsp water
3 Tbsp sesame seeds
2 tsp Kosher salt
Whisk water, coffee and molasses together with active starter.
In a separate bowl, whisk together flours, cocoa powder and fennel seed.
Stir dry ingredients into wet with a wooden spoon until flour is thoroughly hydrated. Work the dough with your hands in the bowl until you have a shaggy, sticky mass. Knead briefly in the bowl (it will be quite sticky, but avoid adding more flour at this point). Cover bowl with a tea towel and a plate and let dough rest in a warm spot for 30 minutes.
Still working with the dough in the bowl, gradually knead in the salt. You'll notice that the dough will become less sticky the more you work in the salt.
Dust the counter lightly with flour. Tip the dough onto the counter and knead for 5 to 7 minutes, using as little extra flour as possible, just enough to keep the dough from seriously sticking to the counter. The scraper is your friend here!
Form dough into a ball. Pour a bit of olive oil into a medium-sized bowl, place dough in the bowl and flip a couple of times to thoroughly coat.
Cover and let rest for 30 minutes. Working with wet hands, stretch one side of the dough upwards then fold it toward the centre of the bowl; do this 4 times, rotating the bowl each time. Repeat every 30 minutes for a total of 2 hours, or 16 stretch-and-folds. (This step helps the gluten in the dough develop, and regulates the temperature of the dough.)
Allow the dough to rest for 1 hour, then stretch and fold again, 4 times. You will notice that the dough is becoming lively and springy, and there may be one or two bubbles forming under the "skin." Allow to rest for 1 more hour, then stretch and fold a last 4 times.
Coat the dough with more oil if necessary, cover with plastic and refrigerate overnight.
In the morning, remove dough from the fridge. It should be quite springy and will still be a bit sticky. Tip the cold dough onto a clean (not floured) countertop and divide into 12 equal pieces. The cold dough will be easier to work with, and you need the friction of the cold, somewhat sticky dough on the un-floured counter to facilitate rolling.
Roll each piece into a ball and let rest for a few minutes. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper and brush the paper with oil--an important step to keep the shaped pretzels from sticking when it comes time to transfer them to the boiling water.
Because the dough is so springy, it's best to shape the pretzels in stages, letting the dough rest in between. With flat hands, roll each ball into a rope of about 10 to 12 inches, working out from the middle towards the ends. Line the ropes up on the counter.
Starting with the first rope you rolled (which will have rested for about 5 minutes at this point) roll it out to a length of 20 inches.
Now shape the pretzel: make the rope into a U shape, twist the ends together 2 or 3 times, fold the twist up and press into the middle of the U. Place on the baking sheet and repeat until all the pretzels are shaped, arranging 6 pretzels per baking sheet.
Cover pretzels with oiled plastic wrap and bring to room temperature--about 1 hour.
Bring water, baking soda and brown sugar to a boil in a large pot, covered. Preheat the oven to 450F. Once the water has reached a rolling boil, slide two pretzels in. Cook for 10 seconds, flip and cook 10 seconds more. Repeat until all the pretzels are done.
Brush each pretzel with egg white and sprinkle with sesame seeds and salt.
Bake for 15 minutes, until sesame seeds are golden and the pretzels are a deep chocolate brown. Serve warm or at room temperature. After a couple of days, the pretzels are great sliced in half and toasted. A natural with butter and peanut butter!
Makes 12 large, soft, chewy pretzels.