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calendar   Wednesday - January 08, 2020

kitchen chemistry experiment

I’m always on the lookout for a new or different recipe. I don’t haunt the foodie forums, but I do search things up every once in a while and look into them, along with whatever comments might be there.

I made a batch of my pretzels last week, using the recipe that I’d developed from lots of trial and error, which turned out to be a variation on the classic recipe from some famous pretzel maker’s book. Yes, there are famous pretzel people, and some of them write books about it. I have the book, purchased after I figured out the recipe of course, and I was pleased and surprised that my recipe was so similar, albeit a bit stronger. And I got the standard reaction when I gave a couple away; “these are the best pretzels I’ve ever had”. Uh huh, I know. The ones you buy from the snack bar at the bowling alley are junk. So are the frozen ones you get in the grocery store. And the ones at the mall aren’t a whole lot better.

So I read this new recipe, and the author actually instructed people to use a lye water dip. Most pretzel recipes shy away from this, because people are paranoid about lye. Sorry, it isn’t that bad. Even for a strong solution, you really don’t need all kinds of safety gear. No, it’s not going to hurt having it, but as long as you turn on the fan and work carefully, you aren’t going to corrode yourself. Get any on your hands and just wash them off, or wear rubber gloves. Be careful, that’s all. Boiling them in baking soda doesn’t do the job. Baking your baking soda into washing soda [ sodium carbonate ] (400 oven for 30 minutes) helps, but it still isn’t potent enough. A molar solution - 106gm in a liter of water - gives a pH of 12.16. That’s nearly 4oz of the stuff. You need the lye, period.

Anyway, the guy says to use a 3/4 molar solution. And I’m thrilled, because now we’re talking chemistry. Thanks to ... Avogadro’s number, 6.022 X 1023, the number of atoms of a substance in a unit quantity called a mole is equal to the atomic number of the substance times Avogadro’s constant. And this works out exactly to (atomic number) grams. Science rocks. In terms of solution, we generally talk about grams per liter of water. So a mole of lye, sodium hydroxide, NaOH, is 40 grams (Sodium, Na, 23, plus Oxygen, 0, 16, plus Hydrogen, 1). By the very definition of pH, this gives a pH of 14, which is as alkaline as it gets. pH = 14 + LOG10(decimal molarity); the logarithm base 10 is the exponent that 10 is raised to the give the resulting number; a whole mole is a decimal molarity of 1.0, and 10 raised to the 0 power is 1, so the pH of 40gm lye in liter of water is 14 - 0 = 14. This is some damn corrosive stuff, m’kay? This is as caustic as anything anywhere gets, period. Anyway, since the Log of 1 is 0, any number less than 1 will have a negative Log, since a negative exponent simply means “one over whatever”; it’s a fraction, but still a positive amount. The Log of 0.75 is - 0.125, so the pH of a 3/4 molar lye solution is 14 + (-0.125) = 13.875, which is still mighty caustic. By the same method, the pH of a 1/2 molar solution (0.5M) of lye is 13.7, and a 0.25M mix is 13.4. Two pounds of food grade lye costs $11.26. 908gms. (actually the lye itself is cheap. Safe shipping is 80% of the price). So, 30 batches of pretzels or 120 for the same cost? No brainer, right? Go with the 0.25M solution. But is it strong enough, or will I have to dip them for weeks??

And that’s the experiment. I already know that a 0.75M solution and a 15 second dip is nearly too much, so IMHO this guy’s instruction for a 30 second dip is way too much. The pretzels will bake up nearly black and be bitter. So I’ve got another batch of dough going, and tomorrow I’ll try a series of timed dips using a 0.25M and then a 0.5M solution. The weaker the solution, the longer it should take to get the same reaction, which gives the flavor and color. But if the solution is too strong, then the dipping time is going to be negligible and leave you almost no tolerance. I’d like to find one that works, uses less lye, might be a bit “safer”, and gives me a few seconds leeway in case I go 3 seconds over.

So, a 5, 10, 15, 20, 30 second dip with both solutions. Two pretzel rods each; 20 rods total. Maybe run a 0.75M control group. Take lots of pictures and analyze taste and texture. I’ll have plenty of dough; one batch of dough yields 8 32” long ropes. Ok, time to go knead the dough. Autolyse should be done by now.

Footnote: My recipe uses beer as the main liquid. I’ve made many batches of these things over the past few years, and I’ve tried many kinds of beer. I think this Radeberger Pilsner is just about perfect. For pretzel making; the beer geeks don’t think it’s all that special, just a typical pilsner. I’d give the #2 pick to the Czech Pilsner Urquell. Both of these beers have been around a very long time, so they qualify as authentic if you want to get all Bavarian.

Yeah, maybe someday I’ll try one of those pretzel recipes that use plain white flour and milk. Might as well load them up with sugar and put cinnamon on top.


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Posted by Drew458   United States  on 01/08/2020 at 08:39 PM   
Filed Under: • Food •  
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