Pretzel Logic Transcript


    Once upon a time—610 AD—a kindly monk in Aosta in the Italian Alps, decided that the good children of the town—who properly learned their prayers—deserved some kind of treat. Unable to come up with any great ideas himself, he wandered into the monastery kitchen. There, he spied a scrap of yeast dough that oddly resembled the folded arms of a praying child. Back then, folks prayed with their arms crossed. Go figure.
    He sprinkled the tidbit with salt—a symbol of purity—and baked it. The creation, which he dubbed "pretiola" or "little reward", was a big hit. Too bad there was only one.


Onboard An Airliner

GUESTS: Airplane Passengers
                   Flight Attendant

    These days, the pretzel is often served as a punishment for flying commercial. Just another one of those little things that we've decided to drop our standards on. Luckily, there are still places in the world where the pretzel gets some respect. Bavaria, for instance, and, of course ...

FLIGHT ATTENDANT: [on the overhead speakers] Ladies and Gentlemen, we're starting our descent into Philadelphia. So sit down, buckle up, and turn off all your electronic equipment. NOW!

... ha ha ha ha, the City of Brotherly Love. You know, in terms of pretzel consumption, Philadelphians eat 12 times the national average. And when you taste the local twist, you'll understand why. Heck, sometimes I go to Philly just for pretzels. But you know, if you can't make that run, don't despair. With a little know-how, some sound science, and a handful of good ingredients, you can make your own perfectly ...

FLIGHT ATTENDANT: Sir, is THAT a camera?
AB: No.
FA: Did you not hear what I just said?
AB: I did!
FA: Turn – it – off!

["Good Eats" theme plays]

A Philadelphia Street

GUEST: Pretzel Vendor

    Although most of the great American street foods—oysters, waffles, and ice cream penny licks—are, sadly, gone, street pretzels—the big, salty, soft type—remain an icon of the great northeastern metropoli.

AB: [to the pretzel vendor] One, please. Extra salty if you have it.

    Now I know that in parts of Pennsylvania, they prefer their pretzels hard and crunchy. But to me, the soft pretzel is still the true pretzel. The exterior is glossy, brown, and smooth. The salt stands proud. And the bread inside soft, yet chewy, warm, inviting. As for the shape, it no longer reflects modern prayer posture. But it is the perfect shape for munching on the go. [takes a bite]

AB: [returns to the street vendor and opens his suitcase] My good man, do me a favor and, er, fill ‘er up. Ha ha ha ha.

The Kitchen

GUESTS: Yeast Puppets

    [AB examines the interior of a soft pretzel under a magnifying lens] Take a look at that texture: elastic and chewy, fine but irregular. That, my friends, spells yeast.

YEAST PUPPETS: [yeast appear and belches].
AB: Don't you guys do anything else.
YP: [divides into two]
AB: Wow, cell division. Very impressive.

    Now I know what you're thinking. You're thinking, "Oh, he's broken out the sock puppets. We already know everything there is to know about yeast." Oh yeah? Well, perhaps you'd like to play Yeastopedia!

Yeastopedia Set

[the set turns into a glitter-filled scene, reminiscent of a 1960's era game show]

    [AB runs out as game show hosts of that era often did.] Hi, kids. Let's test your yeasty knowledge:

Question number one: Yeast are:
    a) Bacteria
    b) Molds
    c) Fungi
    d) Just barely technically alive
    The answer, of course, is "c". Yeast are fun-guy, which is why they get invited to all the best parties. Ha ha ha ha ha.

YP: [yeast puppets groan and boo]

    Never mind.


Question number two: Yeast's Latin name, Saccharomyces cerevisiae, means:
    a) Very small mushroom
    b) Faceless orb
    c) Sweet beer mold
    d) Stinky sock puppet

Ha ha ha.



     Well, although they are all very very good answers, except "d", which is, very stupid, the correct answer is "c". Now if you were thrown off by that whole mold thing, remember, this critter was christened before the Greeks and the Romans knew anything, but, well, you know, wearing sheets and building roads.

Next question: The process by which yeast consume sugars, and produce CO2 and ethanol is called:
    a) Tying one on
    b) Pigging out
    c) Crosspollination, or
    d) Fermentation


    Why, that's right. The answer is "d". Whether yeast are boosting bread or brewing beer, the process is called "fermentation".

Last question: If yeast were to star in a horror or sci-fi film, they'd most likely play:
    a) Mummies
    b) Zombies, or
    c) Tribbles


    The answer: all of the above. They start out dry as mummies, they reanimate like zombies, and then, they reproduce like those gosh darn tribbles. So, how'd you do? Ah, who cares, let's make them.


The Kitchen

    Based on my examination of the field sample, I have decided to adapt an old bagel recipe that I feel produces a bread that is very close to a soft pretzel. Only I'm going to add butter—in fact, two ounces of unsalted melted butter—and more water—one and a half cups, in fact—heated to, eh, around, I don't know, 115 degrees. To that, I will add one tablespoon of sugar, two teaspoons of kosher salt, and one package worth of active dry yeast. That's two and a half teaspoons. 2 Ounces Unsalted Butter,
1½ Cups Water
1 Tbs. Sugar
2 tsp. Kosher Salt
1 package Active-Dry Yeast
    Meanwhile, weigh out 22 ounces of all-purpose flour. That's about four and a half cups–one pound, six ounces. There we go. Now I've got a tare function on my scale so I can just zero out the weight of the mixing bowl before the flour went in. 22 Ounces All-Purpose Flour

    Now, clamp this onto your mixer, add your water / yeast slurry, and the two ounces of melted butter. To bring this together, we will employ "Captain Hook". [refers to the dough hook] And we're going to do this at low speed just until the dough comes together.
    [later] When the dough ball comes together thusly, boost the speed to medium for four to five minutes. This will trigger the great cosmic intermingling of water and wheat proteins, like glutinen and gliadin, which form gluten. Only this elastic, plastic structure has the strength to contain the gaseous exhaust soon to be emitted by our fungal friends

YP: [appears and belches]
[tries to grab it.] Come here!

    Well, just about the time that the old mixer crawls right off of the counter, we should be done. The dough should be nice and smooth, and satiny like this. See, it's kind of almost like a matte finish. It comes away in a ball, so we will get rid of the hook. Give the bowl a quick spray with some no-stick, because as this rises it will get very sticky indeed. Back in the bowl, we will cover the bowl with a tea towel ... aww, it's pretty ... and stash this in a warm place—say, 70 degrees—for one hour.

The average American consumes 2 pounds of pretzels each year.
In Philadelphia, it's more than 20 pounds.

The Kitchen

GUEST: Thing

    As you can see, our dough has doubled in size, signifying that it is prepared to move on to the next phase of production. The question: "Are we?" A checklist is the only way to know:

  • Oven: set to 450 degrees

  • Hardware: assembled. We have:

    • One dough cutter. Check

    • We have a scale; digital is best. Check.

    • We've got a spritz bottle. Now yours doesn't have to look like a dinosaur, but if it does, it would be cool.

    • I have also taken to doing this procedure with one pair of latex gloves, standard drug store issue.

    • Next, one ruler. Metal. As long as you can get.

    • Two tea towels, lightly moistened.

    • And two sheet pans, each lined with parchment, lightly lubed.

    [in an affected German accent] Und now ve bake!
    First, we must portion our dough. We have 36 ounces of this stuff, and we would like eight portions, so that's ...

T: [cuts in with a calculator]

... um – a hah, excellent – four and a half ounces each. Now we cut.
    Now, you certainly don't have to do this with a scale. You could simply divide your dough into eight even pieces. But trust me, this is easier.
    Now we shape. Make sure that you have plenty of room here. Put your ball right in front of you and squish it out with the heel of your hand until you get a little rectangle. There. Now roll it up, nice and tight, and make a good seam along the bottom. There.
    Now start rolling with just one hand. The goal is to push it away with some pressure, then just roll it back lightly, and push it again. And when it gets long enough, add the second hand. Now if you start to see a twist form right in the very middle of the dough, you know that you do not have your hands coordinated, and that twist could become a break point. So be watching for that.
    Now our target length is 24 inches, give or take an inch or so. There.
    Now, for the basic pretzel shape, fold this end around, and this end around. And you don't have to press down, just barely pinch so that they join. There. We can move that onto the pan. And then go ahead and cover it with a tea towel and give that a few spritzes of water [on top of the tea towel], just to keep it damp. Then repeat with the rest of the pretzels. Oh, and I should mention that, you know, if you don't like this particular shape of pretzel, go ahead and make a peace sign, or a pterodactyl, whatever you want. Me, I'll, I'll stick with the classics.
    There, now, there is but one more ingredient to consider.
    [AB is looking at various types of salt under the microscope] Although there is such a thing as salt-less pretzels, called "baldies", I would suggest that they're really not pretzels at all but rather, cruel jokes perpetrated by bitter bakers. That said, not just any old salt will do on a pretzel.
    Now here is an example of old-school pretzel salt. It's really nothing more than a coarse salt that's a little bit bigger than kosher salt, which is way, way too small for the job.
    New-school pretzel salt looks to be the same shape and size as the old-school stuff, but notice; it's wider, and it's opaque. That's because it's actually made from a bunch of tiny grains, that have been compressed into a cake, and then broken up into this shape. I like this type of salt, because it looks nice, it crunches easily, and the saltiness moves evenly around the mouth. It can be found in some grocery stores and all over the Internet. I wouldn't dream of pretzelling without this stuff.

    Application couldn't be easier. Just sprinkle it on. It'll stick. Well, some of it'll stick. Yeah, it'll be enough.
    Park these in a hotbox: 450, for 14 minutes, and give the pans a spin seven minutes in.
    [takes the pretzels out of the oven] Well, they remind me of pretzels, and, uh, well, the interior seems okay. But all the salt falls off, and I kind of miss that shiny mahogany exterior. Gosh, what we need here is deep browning. But we don't want to overcook the interior to get it. So, what are our options?
    [an avocado drops from above] Well, yes, avocados brown rapidly. But I don't think smearing proto-guac all over them will do the trick.
    [a spray paint can flies in from the side] Um, yes, paint. You chose the high-gloss. Nice, but I think caramelization is probably where it's at.
    [a bag of sugar flies in from the front] What do you mean?

T: [shows a lighted blow-torch]

    Well, yeah. We could brϋlι the little buggers. But I think the sugar might be off-putting. Hey, what if we messed with the pH?

    Of all the chemical concepts a cook must grasp in order to move up the ladder of culinary enlightenment, pH—that is, the concentration of either a positively or negatively charged hydrogen atoms in a solution†—is one of the toughest. This is especially true for cooks like myself who went through High School where, I'm told, this very concept is taught like this [stares blankly off into space]. Luckily, we have models to fall back on.

= pH = − log10H +]

In 1861, the first American pretzel factory opened in Lititz, Pennsylvania.

The Kitchen

GUESTS: Lawyer #1 and #2

[read the transcriber's note at the bottom: AB is incorrect about the quantity of negatively charged hydrogen atoms when he's talking about pH. pH is the concentration of positive (or H3O+) in a solution while pOH is the concentration of negative (or OH—) in a solution. pOH is essentially the opposite of pH. I suggest a good read of Wikipedia's explanation of pH and pOH]

    Okay, here's the deal with pH. If a solution has an equal number of positively and negatively charged hydrogen atoms, it is said to be "neutral", which means that it has a pH of 7. Okay, now distilled water is a very, very good example of that. pH 7
    Now as the number of positively charged atoms increases, the pH number goes down, and the solutions become more acidic. Now most of your common kitchen ingredients fall along this end of the scale, from milk at 6, to black coffee at 5, orange juice 4, most vinegars around 3, lemon juice 2, stomach acid 1, and below that, well, you're talking about battery acid, which is never good eats.

pH ↓

Acidity ↑

ph 6   milk
ph 5   coffee
ph 4   orange juice
ph 3   vinegar
ph 2   lemon juice
ph 1   [stomach acid]

    Now on the other end of the scale, from 8 to 14, that represents solutions higher in negatively charged hydrogen atoms [or, as we noted above, a lower concentration of positively charged hydrogen atoms]. These are called "alkalis" or "bases" and there aren't really too many of them in the kitchen. Sea water, just slightly alkaline. Egg whites hit about 8. Baking soda scores a 9. Antacid tablets about 10. Ammonia, 11 to 11.5. Bleach somewhere around 12.
    And then we get all the way down here, to NaOH, a.k.a. lye, at 13. [shows a bottle of lye, with a skull and crossbones icon] See the little design from the pirate flag there? Okay, that doesn't mean Johnny Depp gets a percentage of each bottle sold. It means that this stuff is very poisonous, okay? Now, as any "Fight Club" fan can tell you, it is critical in making soap. Oops, broke the first rule, didn't I? Oh, well. It's also critical for making great pretzels. [grabs the bottle of lye, as he slides on a moving chair] Ahhhhhh!
pH 8   egg whites
pH 9   baking soda
pH 10  antacid tablets
pH 11-11.5  ammonia
pH 12   bleach
pH 13   lye

    Dipping our uncooked pretzels in a weak lye solution will instantly gelatinize starches on the surface of the dough and break proteins down into small peptide chains. That will brown rapidly in the oven, creating the characteristic nutty flavor and color we want without the hardening that so often accompany the Maillard reactions.

LAWYERS #1 & #2: [appear from outside the kitchen window and next to the countertop]

    Why, look, it's my legal team, "Itchy" and "Twitchy". [sarcastically]

AB: You guys pass the bar yet?
: [hands AB a sheet of paper]
AB: What's this? You gotta be kidding me. But lye is an integral part of processing foods like olives, hominy, soft drinks, and pretzels.
L#1 & #2: [all this time, they are handing AB sheets of paper]
AB: Well, you've got to use, you know, the correct, you know, stuff. You know, gloves, and goggles, and [reading the last piece of paper]  ...  RECKLESS EN ...  aww, that's too ...  but the, the pretzels are going to be so good and ...  Alright, that's it. Fine. No lye. Lye's out. Don't need it. I'll figure out something else. You guys hurry back to the office so you can ...  BILL ME. Ooohhhh.

    Who would have thunk those guys would have a problem with a little "lye"? Well, what else do we have left? Uh, we've got bleach: 12.5 pH. No. Ammonia? You know, it used to be used in baked goods and in early forms of baking powder. But it's just as dangerous as lye and the smell is even worse.
    We could grind up antacids, but I think that might throw off the flavor. And that leaves us with baking soda. Well, it's nowhere near as powerful as the lye, with, you know, a pH of 9, but most of us do have it in the kitchen, and, well, we may be able to boost its effectiveness with a judicious application of heat. It's worth a try.

    Now I'm sure there are other ways to dip a pretzel, but I think this rig is pretty sweet. Here I have 10 cups of boiling water in a wide sautι pan, to which I've added two-thirds of a cup of baking soda. Now I'm just kind of bathing the pretzels, two at a time. Lifting them out and dropping them in with a slightly altered splatter screen. You could use a spatula or a spider, whatever you happen to have. I'm just going to scoop those out while they're still nice and warm and get on the next load. 10 Cups Boiling Water
⅔ Cup Baking Soda

    I am figuring that 30 seconds should be the perfect amount of exposure for the alkali to do its job. And, of course, the hot water is also going to go to work gelatinizing the starches on the outside. This is, by the way, the exact, precise method for making bagels. And I figure that's a good thing. Of course, these are never going to be as golden brown and delicious on the outside as the lye-dipped versions. But ...  wait ...  um, hold that thought.

    Many is the pastry item that has received an extra dash of color from eggs. One egg yolk, thinned with a tablespoon of water should provide enough wash for our entire batch. 1 Egg Yolk +
1 Tbs. Water

    The other nice thing about the egg wash is it will definitely help that salt to stay in place. These now go into the oven; same pretzel time, same pretzel temperature.

In 2002, the leader of the free world passed out while choking on a pretzel.

The Kitchen

    Um, um, that is a good pretzel, and it's a nutritious part of this traditional Bavarian breakfast, along with sausage and ...  plenty of beer

L #1, #2 and AB: [the lawyers are now dressed in lederhosen, all raise their beer steins]

    Heh heh heh heh. Of course, I do realize that some of you may like your pretzels on the thin, hard side. That's cool.

 Just make the exact same dough. But this time, leave out the butter, boost the water to one and three-quarters cups. Now when the dough comes together, section it into 36 one-ounce hunks, roll it out very thin; 14 to 15 inches. Then give them a dunk in just plain, boiling water, put them on prepped pans—it'll take about four—and into the oven for, eh, somewhere about 55 minutes. 1Ύ Cups Water

    Me, well, I like mine big, soft, and with plenty of mustard. Heh heh heh [reaches for a spoon inside a mustard jar, and finds that it is empty]

AB: [to the lawyers] Hey, you sleaze!

    Fine, I'll make my own.

    [now at the cupboard] The mustard plant is related to Brussels sprouts, broccoli, and cabbage. And like most members of that clan, contains some highly volatile phytochemicals, which are concentrated in the seeds. Crush these in the presence of water and isothiocyanates are released, and that creates a very special kind of heat.

    Now, what's really cool about this reaction is that it can be controlled. You see, once the seeds are ground, mixed with water, the heat begins to build, hitting a sinus-roasting peak after about 15 minutes, depending on the mustard. However, this chemical reaction can be shut down at any point along this line by the introduction of an acid, like vinegar. And that's a good thing, because the flavor of the mustard peaks during this time as well.
  |    !
H |   ⁄!`
E |  / ! `
A | /  !   `
T |⁄   !     \
   5 10 15 20 25 30
    So, to make our own mustard, we will require a quarter of a cup of mustard seeds. Light ones are not nearly as hot as the dark ones. The rest of the dry team will include, well, a quarter of a cup of dry mustard to help round out the flavor, two teaspoons of light brown sugar, a teaspoon of kosher salt, half a teaspoon of turmeric, a quarter teaspoon of paprika, and one-quarter teaspoon of garlic powder. Ό Cup Mustard Seed
Ό Cup Dry Mustard Powder
2 tsp. Light Brown Sugar +
½ tsp. Turmeric +
Ό [tsp.] Paprika +
Ό tsp. Garlic Powder
    Next up, go ahead and grind up those mustard seeds in your favorite spice grinder, and then add that to the rest of the dry ingredients. Give them a stir and then add a quarter cup of H2O, and a half cup each of cider vinegar and sweet pickle juice, straight from the pickle jar. Stir to combine, and zap on high in your microwave for one minute. This will heat the mixture just enough to hydrate the solids. Ό Cup Water +
½ Cup Cider Vinegar +
½ Cup Sweet Pickle Juice

    Now since the water and the acid went in at the same time, the heat level will be frozen at its lowest setting. You could play around with mixing in the water first. But unless you've got steel sinuses, you want to be very careful. The same substances in there were responsible for the first modern chemical weapon, mustard gas.
    Once it's good and hot, put your stick blender to it. If you don't have one of these, you could always use a food processor. There, nice and thick, and it'll thicken even more as it cools down. Might as well have a taste now.

The Mustard Museum in Mount Horeb, Wisconsin
is home to more than 4,300 jars of mustard.

Onboard An Airliner

FA: Pretzels? [offers AB a bag]
AB: Oh, no thanks, miss. I brought one from home.
FA: Whatever. [throws the bag at AB's seat mate]

    You know, in the overall scheme of things, being able to make your own delicious soft pretzels may not be a big deal, but, if we raise such expectations back to their rightful place, perhaps, just maybe, we will demand that other facets of modern life follow suit.

PASSENGER #1: This coffee's terrible!
PASSENGER #2: You call these headphones?
PASSENGER #3: My blanket smells like ham.

    Heh heh heh heh. See you next time, on Good Eats.

†[transcriber's note: While there is indeed such a thing as a negatively charged hydrogen atom, pH is the negative logarithm of the activity of just the positively charged hydrogen atoms in a solution. And if this is unclear, just substitute the word "concentration" for "activity" in the sentence. And then go bug your math teacher about the negative logarithms part.]

Transcribed by Michael Roberts
Proofread by Michael Menninger

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Last Edited on 08/27/2010