Making perfect pretzels at Artisan Baking Center

In a city full of craft breweries, this Petaluma Baking Center is teaching students how to make beer’s perfect pairing snack.|


Artisan Baking Center, Keith Giusto Bakery Supply and Central Milling

1120 Holm Road, Petaluma

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.

When it came to the required lye bath, we each took turns dawning the safety glasses and gloves. The pretzels sit for 10-20 seconds, are dripped dried and then placed on lined trays. We then salted our pretzel and gave the fat lower portion a quick cut in order to dictate where the pretzel would split.

With that, our pretzels were off to the oven for about 20 minutes of baking time. I enjoyed my freshly baked pretzels with German mustards I brought from home just for the occasion. The class also offers a variety of dipping sauces. We were told that many Germans scoff at pairing pretzels and mustard, but if the Germans did not want us to dip our pretzels in mustard, they should not make such delicious mustards.

The Artisan Baking Center’s next “Traditional Pretzels” class is slated for Friday, April 24, from 1 to 4 p.m., just in time for National Pretzel Day on April 26.

The Truth About Lye

One of the most intimidating, yet important, components of pretzel making is the lye bath. When you hear people say pretzels (or bagels) are “boiled” prior to baking, this is what they are talking about.

Admittedly, lye can be mixed in a solution so caustic that it is used in Draino. Pretzels, of course, require far less lye. And although one should never grow complacent around it, pretzel lye solutions are safe enough to use and store in your kitchen. In fact, bakers keep lye around for use and reuse for years. That should not stop you from using gloves and safety glasses as safety precautions.

Some substitute a baking soda bath instead, but baking soda cannot reach as high a pH as lye, so it does not quite do the trick. At least that is what this pretzel aficionados will tell you and after consuming vast quantities of both good and bad ones. Even if a pretzel is mostly good, if it is missing that extra something, it is most likely because it was not dunked in a lye bath.

Much like how citrus “cooks” the fish in ceviche, lye starts to “cook” the pretzel dough prior to baking. The ensuing reaction is called the Maillard process and is responsible for the crusty, golden brown exterior. Without it, the pretzel comes out of the oven quite blond, seriously lacking in texture and flavor. And no amount of salt will fix it.

Olives are cured in lye, as is hominy and lutefisk, while soups and fish used to be spiced with it. Soap is also made with it, although admittedly, we only eat soap when inappropriate words comes out of our mouths.

There are three things to remember when using lye for pretzel making. The first is to start with warm water (120F), to which you slowly add lye. Second, once a pretzel is dipped and dripped of excess lye, choose your resting surface carefully. Because lye is an acid, you can create a sticky mess if you leave your pretzels on parchment paper for too long. One surefire method is to use a Silpat, a special baking mat also available at Keith Giusto Bakery Supply. And finally, through the magic of science, once lye is heated and the moisture evaporates, what is left over is just salt. Do not confuse this residual salt for the salt that is sprinkled on the pretzel prior to baking, which is also necessary for a perfect pretzel.

History of Pretzels

Pretzels are so old that it is unclear exactly where they came from or when they were first made. According to some historians, the “modern” lye pretzel was a tasty mistake.

The history of the pretzel dates back nearly a millennia. Some say pretzels were invented by an Italian monk as a treat to the children for completing their prayers. The pretzel shape is said to resemble arms crossed over one’s chest. Another legend ties the invention to a French monastery while another says they were invented by Germans bakers who were held hostage, for some reason or another.

Regardless of the lack of distinct origin, pretzels appeared as bakers’ emblems in Germany as far back as the 1100s. They were considered religiously significant both due to their forgiving ingredients and their prayer-hands shape. Still know by many as Lent food, pretzels were preferred when religious restrictions forbade eggs, lard or dairy.

Historic German bakery signs often included a symbol of a pretzel. These date back to a time when most of the population was illiterate, so what better way to let passersby know what you made in your shop than to have a wooden pretzel hanging out over the street? To me, I read those signs as, “Hey dummy, why aren’t you in here eating a fresh pretzel?”

As far as the modern lye pretzel, legend has it that a baker at the royal coffee house in Munich inadvertently glazed his pretzels with a lye solution he had on hand for cleaning baking trays, instead of the usual sugar water, prior to baking. He then realized the mistake, but the perfectly browned pretzel smelled so good, he decide to serve them -- to the visiting King of Bavaria, Ludwig I, no less. Clearly, they were a big hit and have become the golden-brown standard to this day.

Even in small geographical areas such as southern Germany, there are regional pretzel difference. I learned this from a German couple who also attended the pretzel making class, and know a thing or two about pretzels. In Bavaria, pretzels are allowed to split on their own, whereas in Stuttgart and the surrounding historic region of Swabia, the fat bottom portion of the pretzel is slit in order to predetermine where the split will be, which is cause by the doughs expansion during baking.

But as Ponsford said, “I’m here to teach you how to make great pretzels. I’m not so concerned about their history, just making a truly delicious pretzel.”

The Pretzel DIY Kit

Keith Giusto Bakery Supply offers two kits especially for pretzel making. And to say they are a bargain at $12 and $18 is an understatement. This is a serious case of the dealer giving you a deeply discounted sample knowing full well that your soon-to-form addiction is going to bring you back for more. It’s not a bad strategy.

The $12 “Pretzel DIY” kit includes everything you need to make your first home-made pretzels, other than the live instruction from Ponsford, whose Traditional Pretzels class at Giusto’s Artisan Baking Center is a worthwhile and fun activity. As he says, pretzels are the easiest bread to make, but his straight forward three hours of instruction get you off on the right foot, saving you any missteps you might encounter baking from home.

Starting with the ingredients, this kit includes Central Milling’s type 85 flour. Unlike American grocery store flour, the Europeans use numbers instead of names to identify flour, determined by the amount of ash left in a particular flour, regardless of the type, after being burned for 24 to 48 hours. This method of labeling gives bakers the precision required to turn out consistent baked goods.

The kit also includes the required salt and yeast. Simply add water. Well, maybe not so simply. In class we learned a few tricks that helped make the dough mixing process easier, although with the kneading required, it is not effortless.

Additionally, the kit includes lye, a container for creating a lye bath and safety gloves and glasses. As mentioned, lye is caustic, however when mixed in a diluted solution it is safe to use at home, but nonetheless should still be respected.

The $18 kit has everything above, plus three other high quality Central Milling flours, so you can create four different pretzel doughs.

The Man Behind It All

Keith Giusto’s grandparents opened one of the first health food stores in the area, well ahead of any trends. In the 1940s, their San Francisco store offered salt-free foods and products that were delivered directly from farmers.

Pronounced like “juice-toe,” the family would later open a bakery in South San Francisco.

Giusto himself is a third-generation baker and fourth-generation miller. He began by opening popular Full Circle Bakery in Penngrove, before moving on to start Keith Giusto Bakery Supply. He saw a need he could fill as the Bay Area demand for quality baking supplies exploded in the early 2000s.

Looking to offer products and an innovative teaching space, created by bakers and for bakers, Giusto’s facility is located in the industrial section across from Lagunitas Brewing. Although you may not have heard of it before, now that you know the name, you will likely noticed his crossed-bread logo from the freeway as you drive by his big building at 1120 Helm Road.

Keith Giusto Bakery Supply is a wholesaler and retailer. Giusto also owns Central Milling, which is located in Utah, the closest spot he could find to purchase working mills. Having his own mills means he has total control over the quality of products he produces.

He works directly with farmers to select the wheat needed to make his flour products, which are sought after by professional and home bakers all over the West Coast. Giusto works with U.C. Davis in order to achieve superior flavors in his blends.

“I learned early on that you need to know your farmers if you want to have a quality product,” he said. “Also, to be successful, a baker needs quality ingredients, the proper technical knowledge, and obviously, a passion for what they are doing. We look to provide all three at our facility.”

The walls of his instructional kitchen, run under the name Artisan Baking Center, are covered in quotes. The two most telling of his companies’ philosophy are “Farmers, Millers, Bakers – all under one roof” and “Wheat is to flour as grapes are to wine.”

Although consumers can pick up his flours under the house-brand names for Whole Foods and Safeway, as well as under the Central Milling brand, the shop is definitely worth a visit to see the widest variety of product.


Artisan Baking Center, Keith Giusto Bakery Supply and Central Milling

1120 Holm Road, Petaluma

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