I love edible experiments, which may be why I gravitated to the kitchen at an early age. What else is a hungry geek to do?
Breadmaking is a favorite of those edible experiments. It’s amazing how many different breads can be created from a few simple and cheap ingredients. It’s also amazing how the myriad variables–ratios, proofing times, temperatures (to name a few)–have such a profound effect on the end product.
I am a bread junkie, but can usually keep my habit under control. Certain breads, however, turn me into a crazed carboholic. I’m speaking here of the ubiquitous, though often-taken-for-granted baked goods; usually found in shopping malls; typically described as chewy, dense and extremely flavorful, and great served with everything from salted butter or mustard to lox or nacho cheese.
I’m thinking of bagels and pretzels. (This happens quite frequently. “HONEY!” my wife, Kimberly, will exclaim. ”Did you hear what I said?” “Sorry, babe,” I reply. “I was thinking of bagels and pretzels.”)
Since we put the SoCo kitchen together, I’ve been like a kid in a very tasty laboratory. I’ve been doing a lot of baking, among other things, but when making bagels and pretzels occurred to me I
squealed roared with great joy.
Making these breads is more easily dreamed of than accomplished, but they are within our reach.
I’ve found with this adventure, that no available literature–electronic or print–is complete. Everybody leaves something out, whether due to legalities, laziness, self-righteousness or, in some seemingly ironic cases, an over-familiarity with the subject matter.
That last one won’t be a problem here.
The first issue I discovered concerned the essential “boiling” (poaching) phase of recipes for both bagels and pretzels. Let me tell you now that baking soda won’t cut it. Its pH is not high enough. But, many television chefs, food columnists and cookbook authors will recommend using baking soda to avoid getting sued by accident-prone home cooks. But, they don’t really care about your health, and they certainly don’t care if your bagels or pretzels are flaccid and lifeless like Bob Dole.
For a chewy, golden outer on your bagel or pretzel, you need your poaching liquid to improve on baking soda’s anemic pH of 8.5 (barely alkaline/basic). Some city tap water pH will actually hit 8 or 8.5 on its own.
Ideally, lye (caustic soda, a.k.a. sodium hydroxide) is what you need. Food grade lye is cheap and easily found online. A 3 percent solution hits a 13 to 13.5 on the pH scale. Each point on the pH scale represents a factor of 10, so lye is about 100,000 times as alkaline as baking soda.
Remember the end of the movie “Amadeus”? It was powdered lye the gravedigger shoveled into Wolfgang’s (not-so-private) grave. Lye eats unappreciated and impoverished composers, old paint, floor wax, drain clogs, road kill, murder victims’ bodies, aluminum, and helps poor whites make illegal methamphetamine and sometimes lutefisk, just to mention a few of its MANY harsh and unfriendly applications. You get the point.
Lye is really bad for human tissue. Like if you snorted it up your nose, or got some on your skin–or in your eye. Yeah, the eye…that’s a REAL bad one. Your eyeball would melt and run down your cheek. True story.
But lye is great for bagels and pretzels, and the diluted lye residue is neutralized by the heat of the oven when the bagels or pretzels are baked. So, like many things (cars, guns, horses) lye is safe when used safely.
Do many cooks sucessfully use open flames and sharp knives to make great food? Definitely. Can cooks safely use lye, too? With gloves, goggles and a little safety know-how–absolutely!
But we’re not going to use lye here. Yes, I know. All that blah-blah and we’re not even using it. We’re going to almost use it, which I’ll explain in a bit.
It’s not because of safety concerns that I’m forgoing lye, but simply so I can more quickly indulge my overwhelming and immediate need to stick a homemade bagel or pretzel in my big, dumb face. I just don’t want to wait for a lye delivery.
I also don’t want to get my baking ingredients from Lowes or Home Depot. Some people use the sodium hydroxide available in hardware stores as “drain cleaner,” but I’m not sure its production method has human health at its focus. Also, I try to avoid eating things whose packaging has the word “toilet” on it. Except toilet bacon. I’ve never heard of it, but I would eat the hell out of it just because it’s bacon.
Don’t worry. We’ll make our own almost-lye lye for cheaper than mail-order lye and our homemade alkali will hit about 12 on the pH scale. Really. And we’ll use something we have in our homes and have used in cooking as well as on–or in–our bodies numerous times. (Hmm. Isn’t “times” always “numerous” by virtue of being plural? I digress…)
Life is full of loops, and this one is leading back to baking soda–as well as the tastiest treats to come out of Poland and Germany (Insincere apologies to Joanna Krupa and Heidi Klum.)
Achtung! It’s nearly time to grab the Neufchâtel schmear and warm up the nacho cheese.