I have been obsessed with make soft pretzels at home since about 16 seconds after I learned that you could, 7 years ago. For something that looks so twisted, dark and complex, they’re actually simple to make, requiring only a basic bread dough (flour, water, salt and yeast), formed into pretzel knot (a rope with the ends twisted together, then folded back over itself), dipped briefly in a baking soda solution, salted, and baked until pretty. This is almost exactly the way they are made in southern Germany and surrounding pretzel-loving regions, save one bit: instead of a baking soda bath, the pretzels are dipped in a lye solution. Lye, as in the poison. As in the stuff used in oven cleaners, drain openers, the kind of thing you shouldn’t touch without a mask and latex gloves, the kind of thing no sane cook would bother with at home.
Or so this was the case nearly a decade ago. In the time since, as the DIY/handmade/homemade ethos has swept the food-curious population, things that once seemed adorably old-fashioned (pressure cookers, water bath canning, freezer jams, just to begin) or just plain nuts to do at home (making you own bitters, butter, or barley hops) have become delightfully mainstream, and I suspect directly related to this shift, the last five times I’ve read about pretzel-making at home, seemingly sane people with their whole lives ahead of them have suggested that you, another seemingly sane person who probably didn’t have Dabble In Harmful Chemicals Because This Food Blogger Told Me To on your holiday weekend agenda, should go buy lye, done some gloves and goggles and make Laugenbrezeln as if you were a 10th generation baker in Bavaria. No big deal at all.
The thing is, pretzels made with a baking soda solution are quite pretzel-ish! They’re almost right. But I guess I’ve always known that it was just a matter of time before I joined my people, the crazy kitchen obsessives, in seeing exactly how much of a difference it makes to use a lye solution.
Which is to say, I have good news and bad today. The bad news is: lye. I mean, seriously, you do not want be careless with this stuff. The good news is that if you were wondering how to get your homemade pretzels to have that telltale crackly dark brown shiny finish and unmistakeable pretzel smell at home, well, the lye-dipped variety is unquestionably the real pretzel deal. And whether you form them into teeny tiny pretzels for preschool snack time, small rolls (langerbrauten, as we once made here), or more fittingly for the holiday weekend, hot dog or hamburger rolls for your next cook-out, you’re going to be completely and totally amazed by how simply you can make these at home, any old time you want. Which, realistically, will be often from this day forward.
Soft pretzels, previously: Over here.
One year ago: Rhubarb Cream Cheese Hand Pies
Two years ago: Asparagus with Almonds and Smoky Yogurt Dressing
Three years ago: Spring Salad with New Potatoes
Four years ago: Braided Lemon Bread and Carrot Salad with Harissa, Feta and Mint
Five years ago: Broccoli Slaw, Almond Raspberry Layer Cake and Aspargus, Lemon and Goat Cheese Pasta
Six years ago: Mushroom Streudels
Seven years ago: Cellophane Noodle Salad with Roast Pork
I’m sharing three dips below today, the standard baking soda bath which when brushed with an egg wash will produce a bronzed and lightly pretzel-flavored crust; a concentrated baking soda bath recommended by Harold McGee (read more here) which produces about the same baking soda color and a slightly stronger pretzel flavor though I’m not entirely convinced it makes enough of a difference to be worth the extra effort; and finally one made with a food-grade lye bath, which produces the dark, crackly authentic pretzel finish you see in the photos here. Pick the one that you’re most comfortable with and prepare to make a habit of it.
Yield: 14 hot dog buns, 12 hamburger buns, 32 tiny soft pretzel knots, 12 to 16 large soft pretzels knots (12 the size you’d see at a beer hall) or 16 sandwich rolls
Time: 2 hours (1 1/2 hours rising time)
1 tablespoon barley malt syrup or dark brown sugar
2 tablespoons lard or softened or melted and cooled unsalted butter
2 tablespoons instant or rapid-rise yeast
2 cups lukewarm water
6 cups (about 30 ounces) all-purpose or bread flour
1 tablespoon plus 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
For dipping (pick one)
1/4 cup baking soda (for standard baking soda bath), 1 cup baking soda (for concentrated baking soda bath) or 1/4 cup food-grade lye (for darkest, most authentic finish and flavor)
1 large egg (for baking soda methods only)
Coarse sea salt or pretzel salt
Make dough: In a mixing bowl (or the bowl of a stand mixer), stir together syrup or sugar, lard or butter, yeast, water and half the flour. Add kosher salt and remaining flour and stir just until mixture comes together in a shaggy mass. Turn out onto counter (or attach dough hook to mixer) and knead for 8 to 10 minutes, until smooth and supple. Cut into desired number of pieces (see Yield above) and let rest 5 minutes before shaping.
To form hamburger buns or sandwich rolls, form each piece into a ball and stretch and tuck the sides under, forming a neat round. To form hot dog buns, form each piece into a 7-inch log. To form pretzel knots, roll each piece into a rope (traditionally, the ends are skinny and the center is fat). Lift the ends, twist them around each other once and bend the twist back, pressing the ends onto the ‘belly’ at about 4 and 8 o’clock. Stretch the “shoulders” of the pretzels out as much as desired.
Transfer formed pretzel buns and knots onto baking sheets lined with parchment paper (for easiest removal), giving each room to grow. Let rest at room temperature for 30 minutes (no need to cover them, but I could not resist lightly covering them with plastic to protect from drafts), then in the fridge for 1 hour or overnight.
If using concentrated baking soda bath, you’ll want to begin prep now. Heat oven to 250 to 300 degrees F. Spread 1 cup baking soda on a foil-lined baking sheet. Bake baking soda for one hour. You’ll have about 2/3 cup when you’re done; you’ll use it in a minute. Because of its concentration, it’s best to use latex gloves when touching it.
Heat oven to 425 degrees F.
Dip your pretzels:
- For standard baking soda bath: Bring 1 quart of water to a boil. Add baking soda (and step back, it foams up quickly) and stir to dissolve. Remove from heat and poach pretzels for 1 minute on each side in solution. Use slotted spoon to transfer pretzels to baking sheet. Continue until all pretzels are poached.
- For concentrated baking soda bath: Bring 1 quart of water to a boil. Wearing latex gloves, add concentrated/baked baking soda from previous step (step back, it will foam up) and stir to dissolve. Remove from heat and poach pretzels for 2 minutes on each side in solution, then [updated to note] rinse off the excess dipping solution in a large bowl of plain water. Use slotted spoon to transfer pretzels to baking sheet. Continue until all pretzels are poached.
- For food-grade lye bath: Place 1 quart of cold (never warm, unlike the baking soda methods) water in a glass or plastic bowl (lye can corrode reactive metals. I did this an empty sink, to keep it the most contained). At the minimum, wear latex gloves for protection, but to take better precautions, wear longer gloves (I used dishwashing ones!) or long sleeves, an apron and goggles (swim or onion goggles will also provide protection!) and mix lye slowly and carefully (so not to splash) into the water until dissolved. Dip pretzels for about 10 seconds on each side and place on baking sheets. Continue until all are dipped.
Bake pretzels: If using either baking soda method, beat egg with a teaspoon of water and brush it over poached pretzels for improved glossiness. If desired, make slashes in buns (I like a criss-cross on round buns and three diagonal ones on hot dog buns; slash deeper than you think necessary or the lines will disappear, as mine did in this batch). Sprinkle pretzels with coarse or pretzel salt and bake for 12 to 15 minutes, rotating tray once to get an even, dark color. Transfer to rack. Serve warm.
Do ahead: Soft pretzels are always best warm from the oven. They will not keep well overnight; in a container or bag, the salt will dissolve and the tops will become wet — it’s very unpleasant. I find it easiest to form them the night before and just dip and bake them before taking them where we will eat them. Once baked, they’ll be good to eat for up to 6, but will be best in the first hour or two.
Rye pretzel variation: You can swap up to 1 cup of the flour for a dark rye flavor for a more complex flavor.
Yeast exchange: If you only have active dry yeast and want to use it here in a 1:1 exchange, you can do so by stirring it into the lukewarm water (not over 115 degrees F) and letting it sit for 5 minutes (it should dissolve and look a little foamy) before adding it when you’d add the water to the dough. The rising time should be approximately the same, but I’d still suggest that the first time you make it, you keep an eye on it in case it takes more or less time.
Where to buy food-grade lye: You can order it from Amazon or Modernist Pantry, but if you’re in NYC, as of Tuesday morning, the Williamsburg location of Brooklyn Kitchen sold it in small and large bottles and had at least 18 (yes, I counted) bottles in stock, inexpensively.