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At some point, an adrenaline junky may find himself zip-lining down the side of thousand foot cliff along side the Yellow River. As his feet brush the tops of trees and his life flashes before his eyes, he may think back on the path that led him there. It seems that, as with any form of addiction, you begin to need ever greater doses to get your rocks off. What started out as an affinity for water skiing could eventually end up as a series of of ever more ridiculous stunts just to inject a bit of excitement into a an otherwise tired and featureless life. 

Baking can be a lot like that. 

I say this because any normal person who wants a soft pretzel will simply go to his supermarket freezer isle and pick up a box that you just throw in the microwave for 3 minutes. If only life could be that simple for the gluten junky. For some of us, the idea that we want pretzels turns into a week long ordeal that involves whiskey, George Clinton, and pH levels. To be honest, I probably would have drank whiskey and listened Funkadelic that night even if there were no pretzels, but I don’t think my friends would have come by just booze and music. The pretzels sealed the deal. 

Pretzels are, like many baked goods, easy enough to make at home, but difficult to get quite right. Part of the problem is that traditional pretzels are soaked in an alkaline solution before baking. Real bakers use lye could easily be a bumper sticker sold at county fairs and restaurant supply stores throughout the country. 

There are various ways to approximate that perfectly tanned pretzel exteriors. One common trick is to use baking soda in place of the lye. It’s cheap, accessable, and just alkali enough to get the job done without causing chemical burns. But for some reason I remembered reading about another secret, and some quick googling led me to a Times article from two years ago (who knew I had such a great memory for baking related minutia?) about increasing the pH of baking soda by, well, baking it

So a week ago I began making preparations for the big day. I baked a box of baking soda. While the powder came out looking exactly the same as it went in, I did notice a serious burning in the back of my throat when some dust got kicked up. Next I went on line and spent a rather crazy amount of money on pretzel salt, because I knew Morton’s topped pretzels were not going to cut it. 

Following with my new, devil-may-care baking attitude, I decided to wing the recipe. I figured that since bagels and pretzels are sort of cousins, and I had made 55% hydration bagel dough a few weeks ago (see here for a quick primer on baking percentages. They don’t work the way you think they do.). So I whipped up a simple dough with 55% hydration, a sprinkeling of salt, a tablespoon of Active Dry Yeast (which is is probably more than I needed, but this dough was going to have a short ferment) and few pinches of sugar to get the yeasties going. Whoever said that baking was more of a science than, say, grilling, didn’t realize that, with both, the secret ingredient is confidence. Hubris, really. After all, if it goes wrong, who cares? It’s just flour and water.

Wile the dough was rising, we started drinking. Fermentation was a common theme that night. 

Boiling is what separates the pretzels from the breadsticks. Since we were experimenting, I filled a wok with 6 cups of water, and mixed in a half cup of baked soda. Erin and I weighed out 3 oz portions of dough and rolled them into misshapen pretzel-like blobs. I boiled four of them, two at a time, for about 2 minutes each, splashing water over top of them. Then I slid them onto my pizza stone, which had been preheating for an hour or so in a 450º oven. 

I didn’t take any pictures, but trust me when I say that these came out almost perfect. There was still… something I couldn’t quite put my finger on. The crumb was tight. Could have used a bit more salt, is all. The outside had bite and a color a bit like beige leather carseats. I was looking for something closer to Tanned Mom. I thought to myself, if a half cup of baked soda gives results this good, another half cup will be twice as good! More is always better!

So I upped the pH of the water even more and cooked the last 4 pretzels. This time I flipped them in the water, to make sure that the whole thing was appropriately soaked. 

I noticed something was off right away. The outside of the pretzels seemed dimpled. They appeared shriveled, like raisins. 

I panicked. I had gone too far. Pushed the limits. Should have left well enough alone. Meanwhile, my friends were in the next room expecting more pretzels. I didn’t have a back up. Maybe they wouldn’t notice. 

No such luck. When I pulled the pretzels out of the oven, they didn’t just look like leather, they felt like it. Once they cooled, we all manned up and tried one. They had a bitter, sharp taste. Pretty unpleasant. Stronger than you would have gotten from plain baking soda, I think. pH giveth, and pH taketh away. 

Experimenting can be fun. Be bold. Be foolish. But learn to recognize when you find what you were looking for. 

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