They’re irresistible, seductive and delicious. Soft German beer pretzels taste of sweet brown butter with a crunchy burst of salt and a billowy, yeasty interior that yields to every bite.
Yet, “there is no beer in beer pretzels,” laughs Benny Sauter, (Pastry) Chef Professor at the Canadian Food & Wine Institute in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Canada. “They’re really salty and they make you drink lots of beer.”
A good reason pretzels are a popular bar snack throughout North America. Even though bar pretzels are usually the tiny, brittle cousins of the authentic soft German bier brezel (beer pretzel), they still make you thirsty. But apart from the bowls of bar pretzels and bags of processed pretzels found in grocery stores, there is an exciting world of soft, Bavarian beer pretzels and the art of baking them is being taught at the Canadian Food & Wine Institute at Niagara College.
The class on pretzel making happens only once every two years and on this years’ special day, there were 18 chef apprentices in the culinary lab eagerly awaiting instruction. At the head of the classroom was Swiss pastry chef Benny. At the core of Benny’s heart are the soft, salty pretzels he ate as a child. This is his day to share some joy.
Ingredients like flour, eggs and butter go into a giant mixer. As the dough hook turns around and around, the ingredients begin to form a firm dough. It’s then lifted onto a clean work surface where Benny starts to knead the dough in silence. Like a form of meditation, Benny expertly cups and pulls at the dough until it begins to look glossy and elastic. Then he carefully pulls the dough into smaller pieces, measuring each one on a kitchen scale. Each must be 80 grams each for uniform pretzels. Then each piece is rolled into a small ball and left to rest. For the first time, Benny looks up from his work to find the group of students collected around him, eagerly learning from the best.
Like many other interesting foods, the making of pretzels came about by accident. A baker-monk with an obvious sense of humor took leftover pieces of dough and twisted them into the shape of someone praying. He covered them with salt and baked them in the oven. They were such a hit with the children; the church began using pretzels to teach children the holy trinity.
Soft pretzels were a symbol of good fortune in medieval times and sustenance during the Great Depression. Today, they’re mostly found hanging at shopping mall kiosks, sold at sporting events and offered at parties.
The Niagara College students carefully rolled and twisted each pretzel by hand and lined them up expertly on baking sheets. Some were thin, others thick; some were small, others very large. With some of their dough they also made pretzel buns in different shapes and sizes. Then they made their way to the front of the room where Benny explains the dangers involved in the next step.
“The best pretzels are made with Sodium Hydroxide,” explains Benny. Food grade Sodium Hydroxide or caustic soda as it’s also known, is also used in processing cocoa and chocolate, in the production of caramel and soft drinks and thickening ice cream. In pretzel making, it gives the irresistible chewy skin and dark colour; the characteristics we love most about pretzels.
A small amount of caustic soda is dissolve in water to create a bath. Students put on safety glasses and gloves and one by one they carefully dip their pretzels in the caustic soda bath and lined them back up on baking sheets.
Because of the dangers involved in making pretzels with caustic soda, commercial pretzels are rarely made this way. Instead, baking soda is often substituted, claiming by those that use it that it also gives pretzels the characteristic skin. After tasting Benny’s pretzels, I have to say, “are they nuts!” The pretzels made by the students the authentic way equates to a taste experience of a lifetime. How lucky to be a student in Benny’s class.
After a generous sprinkling of coarse Kosher salt and scoring with a sharp knife, they were ready for the oven. After only 10 minutes, trays of brown pretzels speckled with salt were being hauled out of the oven.
Asked what she was going to do with her pretzels, student Tara Young replies, “eat them!” Tara works at Indulgence Bakery in Fonthill and hopes her boss will let her make some fresh pretzels for the shop.
Student, Nathan Libertini wonders if he can duck out of class in search of some grainy mustard for his pretzels while Lisa Giura surveys hers and assesses they’re good enough to trade with some food cooked in one of the other 3 cooking classes going on simultaneously at the Culinary Institute. “(I’ve) never had a fresh pretzel before.” Says Lisa with a giant smile, expression of delightful surprise and huge nod of self-approval. She chews away blissfully.
The students at Niagara College know they’re fortunate to have Benny Sauter to learn from. Born in Switzerland, Benny began his culinary career at the age of 15. “I worked in a bakery 6 days a week and went to school one day”. Benny is a baker as well as a certified pastry chef and Swiss chocolatier. His three-decade long career in Europe includes owning his own bakery and cooking for the King of Sweden.
“I love cooking, especially the family and social aspect it brings to life,” says Benny who is also a self proclaimed workaholic. Besides his demanding job at Niagara College, you’ll find Benny heading up the bakery department at Commisso’s Fresh Food store in Niagara Falls. Check the shelves at Commisso’s and you’re likely to find his popular pretzel buns.
Soft pretzels are making a big come back. The world’s largest pretzel factory, the Philly Pretzel Factory in Philadelphia offers soft pretzels baked daily and in a variety of flavours, Auntie Anne’s Pretzel Factory offers fresh pretzels with pizza toppings, and Wetzel’s Pretzels in California offers up pretzel bites poutine-style. Despite the twisted North American adulteration of the real McCoy, there’s no denying we’ll see a lot more soft pretzels making their way into the culinary world. Thankfully these Niagara College students have a solid base in honest traditional pretzels.
For the Niagara College cooking class, there’s no substitute for the real deal. Warm out of the oven, soft and salty, buttery and billowy a real German bier brezel is like a bite of heaven washed down with chilled, yeasty beer; a pure sensual experience.
Oh yes, student Nathan Libertini didn’t find any mustard for his pretzels but he did find some delicious beer from the Niagara College Teaching Brewery. Apparently it only cost him 4 pretzels.
At the end of class there were over 100 soft, salty, warm pretzels lined up on each of the work stations. Some had already been eaten, others were awaiting a glass of beer and still more were considered valuable enough for barter.
This story first appeared in the Spring Issue of Today Niagara Magazine. Lynn Ogryzlo is a food, wine and travel writer, international award winning author and regular contributor to REV Publications. She can be reached for questions or comments at www.lynnogryzlo.com.