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Soft pretzels are just about perfect. They're chewy, salty and great with everything from a beer to a salad. The thing is: they're chewy. And gluten-free flour doesn't do chewy well.
But this year I decided I didn't want to go through another football season or Oktoberfest without one. So I started tinkering with a soft pretzel recipe. Since gluten, the protein found in wheat and other grains, is responsible for the distinctive soft pretzel chew, I began by focusing on the flour blend.
First, Flour Testing
Since the flavor of pretzels is rather subtle, I first used white rice flour and tapioca starch. I hoped the white rice flour would be bland enough to fade into the background while the tapioca starch, along with a little xanthan gum, provided chew. It worked. Sort of. The white rice flour was so bland that the pretzels tasted flat, and since I only used a little tapioca starch, there was very little chew. One of my first tasters said, "These taste like they want to be soft pretzels but just aren't. They're odd."
Since I didn't want bland (or odd!) pretzels, I replaced the white rice flour with brown rice flour. While the flavor was better, the pretzels were unappetizingly grainy. Combining the white rice flour and brown rice flour solved this problem.
During testing, I increased the amount of tapioca starch, but I knew that too much tapioca starch could make them gummy. I added it cautiously, and one day, after using three-quarters of a cup of tapioca starch, I pulled the pretzel apart. There was some resistance and the crumb had the tight appearance of wheat-based soft pretzels.
Finally, a Chewy and Golden-Brown Pretzel!
Taking a bite, the pretzel felt chewy. Finally! A gluten-free soft pretzel that was chewy and flavorful.
But texture isn't the only characteristic unique to soft pretzels. They should also be brown and shiny. Commercial bakers achieve this by boiling the pretzels in water with a little food-grade lye, a powerful alkaline. The solution turns the dough slightly yellow during boiling and aides the Maillard reaction during baking, causing the pretzels to darken. If you don't have lye on hand, baking soda is another alkaline that should do the trick.
Now, with pretzel in hand, I'm ready for football season!