If you’ve ever tasted real German soft pretzels, with a deep, dark, burnished skin showered with crunchy salt crystals and a yeasty, chewy middle, then you know what you’re in for here. The shape of these pretzels is typical of the historic German region known as Swabia, where the tradition is to shape pretzels with fat “bellies” and thinly tapered, crispy “arms” interlocking in a twisted embrace. [Editor’s Note: The author was generous enough to share several shape variations—and how-tos—with us, which you’ll find beneath the recipe.]
To prepare the best pretzels, you’ll need to begin a day, or at least 8 hours, in advance and let the dough slowly rise in the refrigerator. While I give an option for making quick pretzels, I highly recommend the overnight method because the dough’s flavor really develops during the slow fermentation, becoming nuanced with a yeasty tang that is worth every moment of anticipation.–Andrea Slonecker
LC Let It Lye, Er, Lie Note
Authentic German soft pretzels traditionally call for the dough to be dipped in a solution of food-grade lye and water before baking. Yeah, lye. It’s actually what gives the pretzels their characteristic “deep, dark, burnished skin,” according to author Andrea Slonecker. We don’t doubt that. Still, call us scaredy-cats, but in the words of Slonecker, we just aren’t up to the challenge. And we’re okay with that. So we’re going to let that little tradition lye, er, lie, seeing as the author, thankfully, gifted us with a comparable solution. She explains that “the esteemed food scientist Harold McGee wrote a story for the New York Times in which he explained that the chemical properties of baking soda can be altered, causing it to behave in a similar way to lye, if it is baked in an oven at a low temperature for an hour or so.” You’ll see that we opted for this eminently sensible alternative in our tweaked version of the recipe that follows. Honestly? We didn’t miss the lye at all.
We also didn’t miss the opportunity to learn all manner of untraditional pretzel shapes, as you’ll see in the illustrations below and the how-tos beneath the recipe.
Soft Pretzels Recipe
- Quick Glance
- 1 H, 15 M
- 10 H
- Makes 8
- 2 1/4 teaspoons (one 1/4-ounce) package active dry yeast
- 1/2 cup warm water, plus more as needed, [between 100° and 115°F (38° and 45°C)]
- 1 tablespoon barley malt syrup, or 1 tablespoon firmly packed dark brown sugar
- 3 1/4 cups (420 grams) unbleached bread flour, plus more as needed
- 1/2 cup pilsner-style beer, cold
- 2 tablespoons (1 ounce) unsalted butter, cubed, at room temperature, plus more for the bowl
- 2 teaspoons fine sea salt, such as fleur de sel or sel gris
- 1/4 cup baking soda
- 1 large egg yolk
- 1 tablespoon cold water
- Coarse sea salt, poppy seeds, sesame seeds, onion flakes, or whatever you desire
- 1. Sprinkle the yeast over the warm water in the bowl of a stand mixer or in a large bowl. Add the barley malt syrup or brown sugar and stir until it’s dissolved. Set aside until the yeast is foamy, 5 to 7 minutes.
- 2. Stir in the flour, beer, butter, and salt and continue stirring until a shaggy mass forms. Attach the bowl and the dough hook to the stand mixer and begin kneading on medium-low speed. After about 1 minute the dough will form a smooth ball that’s quite firm and maybe slightly tacky but not sticky. (If the dough is sticky, add a little more flour, about 1 tablespoon at a time, and knead it in until the dough is smooth. Conversely, if the dough is too dry to come together, add more warm water, 1 teaspoon at a time.) Continue kneading on medium-low speed until the dough is elastic, 5 to 7 minutes. Alternatively, turn the shaggy dough out onto an unfloured work surface and knead it by hand.
- 3. Lightly butter a bowl that will be large enough to contain the dough after it has doubled in size. Transfer the dough to the bowl.
For slow-rise pretzels, cover the bowl tightly with plastic wrap and place the dough in the refrigerator to rise for at least 8 hours and, for optimal flavor, up to 24 hours.
For quick pretzels, set the bowl aside at room temperature (in a warmish spot) and let the dough rise until doubled in size, about 1 1/2 hours.
- 4. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 250°F (120°C). For one batch soft pretzels, spread 1/4 cup baking soda on an aluminum pie pan or a small rimmed baking sheet covered with aluminum foil. Bake the baking soda for 1 hour. The baking soda will lose weight as it bakes but maintain about the same volume, so you should end up with about 1/4 cup baked baking soda. Allow it to cool completely, and then keep it in an airtight container at room temperature until you are ready to make soft pretzels. (If you see more than one batch in your future, consider baking a whole box of baking soda in one shot, since it keeps indefinitely. Sift baked baking soda before using, as it cakes after prolonged storage.)
- 5. Line two 12-by-17-inch rimmed baking sheets with parchment paper. Turn the dough out onto an unfloured work surface and firmly press it down to deflate. To form the classic pretzel shape, cut the dough into 8 equal portions. Work with 1 piece of dough at a time and keep the rest covered with a damp, clean kitchen towel. Pat a piece of dough down with your fingertips to form a rough rectangle about 3 1/2 by 5 1/2 inches. Beginning on a long side, roll the dough up tightly, forming it into a little loaf. Pinch the seam together. Shape the dough into a rope by rolling it against the work surface with your palms and applying mild pressure, working from the center of the dough out to the ends. (If you need more friction, spray the counter with a little water from a squirt bottle or drizzle a few drops of water and spread it with your hand.) Once you can feel that the dough rope doesn’t want to stretch any farther (usually when it is between 12 and 16 inches long), set it aside to rest and begin shaping another piece in the same manner. Repeat with the remaining pieces of dough.
- 6. Return to the first dough rope and continue rolling it out to a length of 24 to 28 inches, leaving the center about 1 inch in diameter and tapering the ends by applying a little more pressure as you work your way out. Position the dough rope into a U shape, with the ends pointing away from you. Holding an end in each hand, cross the ends about 3 inches from the tips and then cross them again. Fold the ends down and press them into the U at about 4 and 8 o’clock, allowing about 1/4 inch of the ends to overhang. Place the pretzel on one of the prepared baking sheets and cover it with a damp towel. Repeat this process with the remaining dough, spacing them on the baking sheets at least 1 inch apart and covering them with a damp towel.
- 7. Allow the covered dough to rise at warm room temperature until it’s increased in size by about half, 20 to 30 minutes. (At this point the soft pretzels can be covered tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerated for up to 8 hours.)
- 8. At least 20 minutes before baking, position one rack in the upper third and another rack in the lower third of the oven and preheat it to 500°F (260°C).
- 9. Select a large stainless-steel pot and add about 8 cups water. Be sure to choose a pot that’s at least a finger’s length wider than the diameter of the soft pretzels and tall enough so that the water comes up no more than 2 inches from the rim. (Avoid other metal surfaces, such as aluminum and copper, and nonstick surfaces, which may react with the baked baking soda.) Add the baked baking soda and bring the liquid to a simmer over medium-high heat. Once the baking soda dissolves, reduce the heat to medium and maintain a gentle simmer. Use a large skimmer to gently dip the pretzels, 1 or 2 at a time, in the baked baking soda solution. Leave them in the solution for about 20 seconds, carefully turning them once after 10 seconds. Remove the pretzels from the liquid, drain, and return them to the baking sheets, spacing them at least 1 inch apart. If the ends of the soft pretzels come detached, simply reattach them. Repeat with the remaining soft pretzels.
- 10. Using a sharp paring knife or razor blade, cut a slit about 1/4 inch deep in the thickest part of each soft pretzel (you’ll find that at the bottom of the U) to allow steam to escape as the soft pretzels bake. Lightly beat the egg yolk with the cold water. Brush the tops of the soft pretzels lightly with the egg wash to give them a glossy finish. Top them as you choose, if desired. (If you plan to enjoy some of the pretzels later and not hot out of the oven, don’t salt them before baking. Just salt the ones you plan to eat the same day. When stored in an airtight container or wrapped in plastic—a necessity to keep them from drying out—the trapped humidity will dissolve the salt crystals on the surface of the crust. You’ll end up with droplets of water and swollen, soggy spots where the salt once was.)
- 11. Bake the soft pretzels until deep mahogany in color, 8 to 12 minutes, rotating the pan from front to back and top to bottom halfway through the baking time. Transfer the soft pretzels to a wire rack to cool for 10 minutes before serving. The soft pretzels are best enjoyed the day they’re made, ideally warm from the oven or within an hour of being baked. Soft pretzels keep at room temperature, without being wrapped up or enclosed in a container, for about 12 hours. Store your soft pretzels in an airtight container or wrap each one tightly in plastic wrap, and keep them at room temperature for up to 2 days. Or place the soft pretzels, tightly wrapped in plastic, in a resealable plastic freezer bag, and freeze for up to 1 month. Reheat the pretzels in a 350°F (180°C) oven for about 5 minutes, or for 10 to 12 minutes if frozen.
- New York-Style Soft Pretzels
- Pretzels sold by New York City street vendors are larger. The arms are not tapered to thin strands of dough like pretzels in the traditional Swabian shape, but rather are kept plump. To achieve this, follow the instructions for shaping the pretzels in the master recipe, making the following changes: Divide the dough into six equal portions. Shape each portion of dough into a 36-inch rope, applying even pressure as you roll from the center of the dough to the ends to avoid tapering the ends. Proceed as instructed in the recipe. Makes 6.
- Pretzel Bites
- These are the perfect snack when you’re watching a movie. To create bite-size pretzels, make the following changes: Reduce the ingredients to make a half batch of the dough, using the following amounts: 1 1/2 teaspoons yeast, 1/4 cup warm water, 1 1/2 teaspoons barley malt syrup or firmly packed dark brown sugar, 1 1/2 cups plus 2 tablespoons (210 grams) unbleached bread flour, 1/4 cup cold, pilsner-style beer, 1 tablespoon unsalted butter (cubed, at room temperature), and 1 teaspoon fine sea salt. Divide the dough into 8 equal portions. Shape each portion of dough into a 12-inch rope, applying even pressure as you roll from the center of the dough to the ends to avoid tapering the ends. Cut the ropes into 1-inch pieces. Proceed as instructed in the recipe, but dip the pretzel bites in batches of at least 8 to 10 (or more if your pot is large enough). Reduce the baking time to 6 to 9 minutes. Makes 8 dozen or so.
- Pretzel Knots
- Pretzel knots are great for topping with cheese or streusel. Follow the instructions for shaping the pretzels through Step 4, making the following changes: Divide the dough into 12 equal portions. Shape each piece of dough into a 12-inch rope, tapering the ends slightly as you roll from the center of the dough to the ends. Loop the dough into a loose knot without tugging or stretching. There is no need to slash the dough before baking. Proceed as instructed in the recipe. Makes 12.
- Pretzel Rolls
- Pretzel dough can be fashioned into dinner rolls for a dazzling addition to your breadbasket or a clever bun for sliders or sandwiches. Follow the instructions for shaping the pretzels, making the following changes: Divide the dough into 12 equal portions. Working with one portion at a time, pat the dough down with your fingertips to form a 4-inch circle. Lightly dust the work surface and dough with flour if it’s sticky. Fold over the edges of the circle so that they meet in the middle. Pinch the seams together and turn the roll over so that the seam side is down. Cup your hand over the dough ball and roll it rapidly against the work surface to smooth out the seams and create a well-shaped sphere. Repeat this process with the remaining dough. Use a sharp paring knife or a razor blade to slit a large, deep cross into the top of each roll before baking. Proceed as instructed in the recipe. Makes 12.
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Soft Pretzels Recipe © 2013 Andrea Slonecker. Photo © 2013 Alex Farnum. All rights reserved.