By Erika Mathieu
Sunny South News
Discard: the portion of your starter you pour off to replenish with new water and flour to keep it alive. This food supply keeps the starter active resulting in the gaseous off-put of ethanol and carbon dioxide. However, I think the name “discard” is a bit misleading. I never discard my discard. Pouring off the discard before feeding your starter doesn’t mean you have to throw it away or even bake a loaf of bread with it. There are so many options for what to do with your discard I have some notable favourites, but this recipe takes the cake.
When my partner and I were in Germany, I became hopelessly obsessed with German-style soft pretzels. I mean, it’s bread, what’s not to like? But there was something about the alkaline deep golden crust, and soft dinner role interior that kept me stopping in bakeries, train stations shops, and cafes during our stay.
Initially, I baked them without incorporating any discard, opting instead for a longer cold ferment to deepen the complexity of flavour, but throughout my sourdough baking journey, I quickly learned you can speed up this process by adding the already-fermented starter to your recipe. I like to think that when my German ancestors relaxed, they did it within the company of a good beer and a Breze (soft pretzel), or maybe that’s just how I relax.
In any case, homemade soft pretzels, while not always a quick and easy recipe, always make for an empty tray at holiday parties or potlucks. My mom specifically requests these when she is entertaining, and I always have to make a few extra. I still use a bit of conventional (dry active) yeast for this recipe as it makes a more “bready” flavour, while also retaining the complex sourdough taste in the dough.
Simply add two teaspoons dry active yeast to a scant cup of lukewarm water and a drizzle of honey, or a sprinkle of sugar. Allow the yeast to activate and turn frothy before adding two tablespoons of melted butter, and then incorporate the wet mixture into approximately three cups (scooped and levelled) of all-purpose flour plus 1 tablespoon of sugar or honey, and a teaspoon of kosher salt. Mix in 50 grams of sourdough starter, and rest for at least an hour.
If you have ever wondered what makes a pretzel taste like a pretzel, it is achieved through dipping the raw dough into an alkaline solution before baking, resulting in a deep brown exterior and altered flavour. Traditional recipes call for lye as the alkaline solution, but since I am a hopeless whirling dervish in the kitchen, I opt for a much safer, but still effective combination of baking soda and water. This creates a less dangerously caustic alkaline solution, and most people have baking soda on hand anyway.
While your dough rests, bake 1 cup of baking soda on a parchment-lined baking sheet at 250°F for one hour, handling carefully when removing from the oven, and set aside to cool. Begin shaping your dough into 30-40cm ropes dusting with flour as needed, and form into the traditional pretzel twist, or any other shape you like. Put your shaped dough onto lined parchment paper and freeze for 30-60 minutes as you continue to shape your pretzels. I find that freezing the dough makes the pretzels easier to handle when dipping them into the baking soda solution before baking. Add your baked baking soda to 4 cups of hot tap water and use a large slotted spoon to dip your pretzels into the solution for about 15 seconds. Place on a parchment-lined baking sheet to proof for an additional 30 minutes and set your oven to 450°F. Immediately before baking, brush lightly with egg wash or a small amount of milk and sprinkle with coarse pretzel salt. Bake on the middle rack of your oven for about 10 minutes or until golden brown. Remove from the oven and brush with melted butter while still warm, or keep it plain, it really is up to you.
Like many of my favourite recipes including sourdough bread, this recipe leaves a lot of room for experimentation. You can add herbs, sesame seeds, garlic butter, toasted caraway seeds, or everything but the bagel-seasoning, or try our sweet varieties too. Your discard can serve your baking in so many ways so I encourage you to experiment with incorporating discard into pastries, pizza dough, even waffles! Thanks for coming along for my sourdough baking series! I hope you learned something!