I have so many good memories of soft pretzels: a cold afternoon my first time in New York, Red Sox games at Fenway Park a few years later, a fantastic restaurant in San Francisco that serves them as an appetizer with cheese dip. In fact, it was a recent visit to this restaurant that reminded me of my deep and abiding love for this salty, chewy, soft-centered bread — and how, once upon a time, I'd even made them myself.
Soft pretzels aren't that hard, really. They are made with a simple dough nearly identical to sandwich bread, and the only tricky part — a leap of faith — comes when you drop the pretzels in a vat of simmering water before baking. But that's why I'm here — to show you how. And also because I believe everyone should get to relive their best memories with a piping-hot soft pretzel every once in a while.
I took a look through a whole gaggle of pretzel recipes before diving back into my own pretzel-making — Deb's recipe from Smitten Kitchen, which was the recipe I tried all those years ago; Martha Stewart's excellent recipe, which was Deb's own inspiration; Alton Brown's excellent and scientifically-researched version; the basic pretzel recipe from the recently published Pretzel Making at Home by Andrea Slonecker; and many many (many) others.
I discovered something interesting in my research: all the recipes were basically the same. They had the same basic ratio of liquids to flour (1 cup liquid to 3-ish cups flour), with only very slight variations. Some used beer and some added a touch more sugar, but on the whole, the recipes were the same. Even more of a revelation, this is also the basic ratio of liquids to flour as in most sandwich breads.
So what makes a pretzel into a pretzel? The answer lies in a brief dip in an alkaline water bath before baking. This bath essentially gelatinizes the outside of the pretzel, preventing it from fully "springing" during baking (as bread does) and giving pretzels their signature chewy crust. It also gives them their unique and indelible "pretzel" flavor. Fancy!
Traditionally this alkaline bath was made using food-grade lye. However, lye can be tricky to get your hands on and trickier to use — it's a hazardous chemical and requires special precautions in order to use it safely. If this sounds a little too adventurous for your taste, never fear: baking soda makes a fine substitute. Your pretzels won't get quite the same depth of color or deep pretzel-y flavor, but it's the method that I use and recommend. (P.S. Harold McGee says that you can get a near-lye-like quality with your pretzels by baking the baking soda before using it. Give it a try if you have some time!)
As a final note, I encourage you to branch out once you've tried the knotted pretzel shape. This same recipe and technique can be used to make pretzel rolls, pretzel bites, pretzel sticks, and any other shapes your imagination can create.
Lower 2 to 3 pretzels into the water bath — as many as will fit without crowding.
How To Make Soft Pretzels
Makes 8 pretzels
What You Need
1 cup warm water
2 teaspoons active dry yeast
2 1/2 to 3 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/4 cup baking soda
1 tablespoon barley malt syrup, rice syrup, or dark brown sugar
1 large egg, whisked with 2 tablespoons warm water
Coarse sea salt or pretzel salt
Stand mixer (optional)
Bench scraper or sharp knife
Parchment paper or Silpat
Large, wide pot, like a pasta pot
Make the pretzel dough: Combine the warm water and yeast in the bowl of a stand mixer (or a medium-sized bowl, if kneading by hand). Let stand a few minutes, then stir to dissolve the yeast. Add 2 1/2 cups of the flour, sugar, and salt. Stir with a stiff spatula to form a floury, shaggy dough.
Knead the dough: Knead the dough with a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook attachment on low speed for 5 minutes. If the dough is very sticky after 1 minute, add flour a tablespoon at a time until it forms a ball. Alternatively, knead the dough against the counter for 5 to 7 minutes. The dough has finished kneading when it is soft, slightly tacky, and holds a ball-shape.
Let the dough rise: Clean out the bowl, film it with oil, and return the dough to the bowl. Cover and let rise somewhere warm until the dough is doubled in bulk, about 1 hour.
→ Make Ahead Tip: At this point, the pretzel dough can be refrigerated for up to three days or frozen for three months. Thaw frozen dough in the refrigerator before using. Refrigerated dough can be shaped into pretzels while still cold, but allow some extra time for the pretzels to puff up before dipping and baking.
Divide the dough: Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface. Use a bench scraper to divide the dough into 8 equal pieces.
Shape the pretzels: Working with one piece of dough a time, roll the dough into a long, skinny rope against the counter using the palms of your hands. Aim for a rope about 20 inches long. If it shrinks back on you, set it aside, roll another piece of dough, and come back to it after it's rested a few minutes.
Lift the ends of the rope toward the top of your work surface and cross them. Cross them one more time to make a twist, then fold the twist back down over the bottom loop to form a pretzel shape. (See the corresponding photos in the gallery for assistance with this step.)
Set the pretzel on a parchment-lined baking sheet and continue shaping the rest of the pretzels. When all the pretzels are shaped, cover them loosely and set them aside to rise until puffy, 20 to 30 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 450°F. Place a rack in the middle-bottom position.
Prepare the water bath: When the pretzels are starting to look puffy, measure 8 cups of water into a large, wide pot and set over high heat. Make sure the pot has high sides because the water will foam, nearly doubling in volume, when you add the baking soda.
Bring the water to a rapid simmer, then add the baking soda and the barley malt syrup. The baking soda will make the water foam up the sides of the pot. Stir to dissolve the baking soda and syrup, then reduce the heat to medium to maintain a simmer.
Boil the pretzels: Lower 2 to 3 pretzels into the water bath — as many as will fit without crowding. Simmer for 30 seconds, then use a slotted spoon to flip the pretzels over. Simmer for another 30 seconds, then scoop the pretzels out of the water and return them to the baking sheet. While in the water bath, the pretzels will puff and take on a doughy, puckered appearance. Repeat with the remaining pretzels.
Brush with egg and sprinkle with salt: Once all the pretzels have been dipped in the water bath, brush them with the egg and water mixture and sprinkle them with salt.
Bake the pretzels: Bake the pretzels until they are deep brown and glossy, 12 to 15 minutes.
Cool and eat! Transfer the pretzels to a cooling rack and let sit until cool enough to handle. Pretzels are best when eaten fresh and hot, but will still be good for up to a day later. Store them in a paper bag at room temperature.
Lye Bath for Pretzels: If you are interested in making soft pretzels using a traditional lye bath, I recommend picking up a copy of Pretzel Making at Home by Andrea Slonecker. She provides lots of details about how to find lye, how to handle it safely, and how to prepare a lye bath for dipping the pretzels.
Doubling or Halving this Recipe: To double this recipe, double all the ingredients except for the yeast; use 1 tablespoon of yeast. To halve this recipe, halve all the ingredients.
Pretzel Rolls: Prepare the dough as directed, but roll each piece of dough into a ball-shape. After dipping the balls of dough in the water bath, slash a shallow "X" in the top of each one before baking.
Pretzel Bites: Prepare the dough as directed and roll the pieces of dough into long ropes. Cut each rope into 1 1/2-inch bites. Dip in the water bath and bake the bites as normal.
Pretzel Bread Sticks: Prepare the dough as directed, but cut the dough into 16 pieces. Roll into ropes, dip in the water bath, and then straighten them back out on the baking sheet before baking.
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(Images: Emma Christensen)