Making perfect pretzels at Artisan Baking Center
As best I can recall, I have never baked anything. Not bread, not a cake and certainly not something that requires the finesse of a pretzel. So learning how to bake this salty dough treat at the Artisan Baking Center at Keith Giusto Bakery Supply was a new experience, to say the least.
I took my spot at the big butcher block table at the center (just down the way from HenHouse and Lagunitas Breweries), along with 15 other eager bakers. At that moment, I truly believed all we’d learn was how to make them, eat a few of our misguided attempts and then take a few well-made instructor demos home as souvenirs. Just look at them. They do not seem like something that is easy to make.
However, quite on the contrary, the very first thing we learned from instructor Chef Craig Ponsford, was that pretzels are one of the easiest breads to make.
“It is very simple to make good pretzels,” he said. “But for some reason we tend to make terrible ones here in the US.”
The “easiest bread to make” part still did not instill a lot of confidence because I have never baked any bread, but Ponsford reassured us that all we had to do was imitate him. With that, he rolled out a small amount of dough by hand and gave it a quick twist. That was it, there was a pretzel all ready for baking.
Ponsford is the lead instructor at ABC, in addition to operating his own bakery in his hometown of San Rafael. He graduated with top honors from the California Culinary Academy in the early 1990s and immediately helped his family open Artisan Bakers in Sonoma. By 1996, he won the gold medal at the Coupe du Monde de la Boulangerie in Paris. He would go on to coach the U.S. team to a repeat victory in 1999 and still serves as coach today. He has also judged the Coupe du Monde and the Louis LeSaffe Cup. He was also an early member of the Bread Baker’s Guild of America and has served as its chairman.
Ponsford’s main message, along with the idea that most breads other than pretzels can take years of practice to perfect, is that quality ingredients and techniques are the key to successful baking.
As Keith Giusto said, “Wheat is to flour as grapes are to wine.”
I might have thought he was just blowing sunshine, but so many of our local artisan bakers us Keith Giusto products that I have learned over the years that the ingredients really do make the flavor and texture when it comes to great baked goods.
We each started with equal portions of dough, which Ponsford showed us how to handle. “The biggest mistake bakers make here in the US is that we use too much flour,” we were warned.
With a quick flip of the dough, laying it flour side down on the table, we learned how to roll it out by hand. He assured us that even without his tutelage, home bakers will quickly learn to listen to the dough.
“The dough tells you,” he said. “It’s not a mystery.”
For the uninitiated, here is a simple explanation of gluten. Wheat contains proteins called glutelin. When kneaded, these proteins group together in strands, known as gluten. These grouped strands are what gives dough its elasticity and what help bread retain its shape and chewy texture.
Once we rolled it into submission, we gave it a twist, pressing the ends back onto the belly of the pretzel and voila, we had pretzel-shaped dough.
Ponsford also taught us some very basic recipe math, as baking really is as simple as following the numbers.
“This is French bread,” he said, writing the numbers 100, 72, 2, 1, which corresponds to the quantity of flour, water, salt and yeast needed.
No matter what amount of flour one starts with, if you add 72% of that initial flour weight in water and then 2% of that weight in salt and 1% in yeast, you will end up with French bread. Of course, he warned us that making something as complicated as a baguette takes years of practice, but the dough itself is quite straight forward.
For proper pretzel dough, the formula is almost identical to French bread, only the water portion is 55 instead of 72. A scale is easier than a measuring cup for baking math. This is also where the metric system really comes into its own. Admittedly, I am not normally a fan, but consider this. If you set the scale to grams and start with 100 grams of flour, the rest of the formula falls right into place.
A quick note on yeast. Because all live yeast is cultivated east of the Mississippi, Ponsford said dry yeast is the way to go for us West Coast bakers. By the time the live stuff makes it out here and onto our grocery store shelves, it’s not as fresh. In all his years of baking, he has never noticed enough of a difference to warrant the extra hassle of searching out live yeast. That said, if you have developed your own live “starter” yeast, which is required for sourdough, than go with what you know.