Yeast could star in its own horror movie. Just think about it: It’s a living organism you add in baked goods to puff them up, but you have to bring it to life first. It’s a very sensitive process that involves almost exact temperatures (roughly 110 degrees), and if you get it just right, it rises from hibernation in a bubbly, frothy upheaval.
If that doesn’t sound like the culinary version of The Mummy, I don’t know what is. (Brendan Frasier, I’m already working on the screenplay. Call me. Our careers need this.)
For this reason, I always avoided the stuff. I relied on yeast-free recipes for bread and pizza dough, even if they were a little heavy and cardboard-like. Finally, after hearing Guy Fieri talk about his first job as a middle-school pretzel peddler, I thought: If Guy can do it at age 11, why can’t I?
Like many starter — and dorm-bound — cooks, I didn’t have a food thermometer handy, so I attempted to resurrect the yeast without one. (Wildly reckless, right?) I heated the water using the “beverage” setting on my 700-watt microwave — which translated to 1 minute — then let it sit for 45 seconds to cool before adding the dry active yeast. It happened to fall right within the desired range, creating the thick foamy top indicative of alive-and-kickin’ yeast. It was sheer luck and a bunch of inferences made from “How long heat water to 110 degrees using microwave?” and “What temp will burn tongue?” Google searches.
Consult your microwave’s manual to find out how hot water gets using this setting. Or make your life easy and invest in a cooking thermometer, not to be confused with a meat thermometer, as the link will explain.
Beyond that adjustment, I followed this Alton Brown recipe exactly. The baking soda bath gave the pretzels a crisp bite that gave way to a pillowy interior (thanks, yeast!). Old yeast really wasn’t as persnickety and creepy as I anticipated. In fact, it was thrilling, like watching those grow toys that expand in water.
Better-than-a-Bun Pretzel Dogs
Kitchen gadgets needed: measuring cups, cooking thermometer, large mixing bowl, spoonula, plastic wrap, pot, tongs, range, baking sheet, oven mitts
- 1 package hot dogs, stabbed all over with a fork
- 1 1/2 cups hot water (110-115 degrees)
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 2 tablespoons salt
- 1 package dry active yeast
- 4 cups flour
- 4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) butter, melted
- 9 cups water
- 1/2 cup baking soda
- 1 large egg yolk beaten with 1 tablespoon water
- coarse sea salt, for sprinkling
Steps (yields 8 hot dogs and 2-3 soft pretzels):
- Combine the 110-degree water, salt and sugar in the mixing bowl. Sprinkle the yeast on top, then let it sit for five minutes until the yeast has formed an opaque foam on the water.
- Add the flour and melted butter. Mix until thoroughly combined, then knead the dough for 4-5 minutes. It’s ready when the dough begins to pull away from the sides of the bowl.
- Remove the dough from the bowl. Clean the bowl and spritz the inside with cooking spray. Put the dough back in and cover it with plastic wrap so the wrap is touching the dough. Let it sit for 45-50 minutes, or until the dough has doubled in size.
- Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Spritz cooking spray on the baking sheet.
- Bring the 9 cups of water and baking soda to a boil. As it comes to a boil, divide the dough into 12 pieces. Roll out each one into an 18-inch rope. Swirl them around the hot dogs (make sure the hot dogs have been stabbed all over with a fork first so they don’t explode when heated!). Twist the remaining ones into traditional pretzels, or whatever shape strikes your fancy.
- Place the pretzels and pretzel dogs in the boiling water one at a time for 30 seconds each. As each one is ready, remove it from the water using tongs or a spatula and set them on the baking sheet.
- Brush the top of each pretzel/pretzel dog with the beaten egg yolk mixture, then lightly sprinkle with sea salt. (You can use a rolled paper towel if you don’t have a brush to coat the dough.)
- Bake until dark golden brown, about 10-12 minutes. Like Alton advises, let ’em cool for a few minutes before serving.