The soft pretzel holds a special place in my heart because it was the food that got Kevin interested in cooking. Up to that point in his life, he simply had no need to cook. Between the fantastic meals his parents cooked when he was growing up and his fraternity’s amazing chef, there was no reason for him to even enter into a kitchen. He knew how to appreciate good food and was a good sport about trying new things, but I wasn’t thrilled because food and cooking had always been intensely important parts of my life, and I was worried that we couldn’t share this major interest of mine.
I don’t remember the details, but this is a rough account of how I discovered his love of pretzels: we were walking around the Boston Common and he paused to buy a pretzel from a food stand. After astutely observing that he ate it with much relish, I hatched a plan using my amazing skills of casual suggestion to get him interested in cooking. This is how it went down:
Me: “I noticed you really like soft pretzels.”
Kevin: “Yeah, they’re great!”
M: “You know, the great thing about cooking is that you can make and eat whatever you want, whenever you want.”
M: “Anything. Even, say…soft pretzels! Which you really like! And hey, look, I found a recipe for soft pretzels on the internet.”
And thus began our cooking adventures. We started with this recipe, which was a great success for us. I got Kevin to cook, and Kevin got a million pretzel bites to eat. Win-win.
Everything was hunky dory. We graduated from college, started grad school, got married, and pretzels would occasionally make an appearance in our lives amidst the other things we learned how to cook. Every now and then we’d pull out that recipe, make a batch of pretzels, eat them and think, “it’s so awesome that we know how to make pretzels,” and we’d feel all smug that we had mastered the soft pretzel. But all that changed last fall. In September 2013, Kevin flew to Munich for a conference, and in between countless talks about cavities and semiconductors and photons, he had a chance to explore a little slice of Germany. Most notably, he had a chance to try a Bavarian pretzel, and he came back from Germany a changed man.
Kevin returned, thoroughly obsessed with the Bavarian pretzel: the dense crumb, the fluffy belly, the crunchy arms, and most importantly, the tantalizingly smooth and shiny mahogany crust. His first week back, I managed to sate his newfound obsession by taking him to purported beer gardens around the area until he approved of their pretzel. After being disappointed a couple times, we finally found Esther’s German Bakery. They have the real, Bavarian deal. But after several months of occasional drives 20 minutes south to pay $1.75 per pretzel (and we’d usually buy a half dozen, at least, per trip), we decided that it might be fun to try making them at home. After all, we’d made pretzels before–how difficult could this be? Surely we’d just swap the baking soda dip for lye, and we’d be on our way to having pretzels all the time. So we bit the bullet, purchased some food grade lye, and gave this recipe a casual try.
Little did we know that it would take over a month, more than 15 pounds of flour, and one call to Poison Control (don’t worry, I’ll tell you the full story below) to figure out the subtleties of the Bavarian pretzel. “Why?” you might ask, “didn’t you have a recipe?” Yes, we did have the recipe, but we didn’t know how to properly knead bread, and we didn’t know strains of yeast from Adam, and we didn’t have a clue about how to shape dough or let it rest, and darn it all, for the longest time we couldn’t figure out how to get the amazingly shiny and crunchy exterior that a true German pretzel boasts. But after eating over 10% of Kevin’s weight in flour, we have figured all these things out and we have produced a ridiculously comprehensive guide to baking and troubleshooting the laugenbrezel. Below I have written out the recipe, followed by more troubleshooting tips than you could possibly want, and hopefully you can attain your own perfect pretzel. Note that some of the picture galleries contain notes and expanded pictures, so be sure to hover your mouse or click on galleries if you want further information.
Laugenbrezel (makes 6) – by volume (and weight, in grams)
0.5 tbsp (7 g) dark brown sugar
1 tbsp softened unsalted butter
1 tablespoon (10.5 g) bread machine (instant) yeast
3 c (432 g) bread flour
1.75 tsp (11.5 g) salt
1 c (225 g) very warm water (our hot tap water is ~110F)
Food-grade lye crystals
Coarse sea or pretzel salt for sprinkling
- In a mixing bowl, whisk together sugar, butter, yeast, salt and 1.5 cups of the flour. Add the water, and stir until the mixture is a gloopy porridge. Loosely mix in the remaining 1.5 cups of flour, stirring only once or twice until you achieve a “shaggy mass.”
- Turn out onto the counter and knead for 8 to 10 minutes, until smooth and supple.
- Let rise until doubled at room temperature (about one hour). You can check that the dough is done by poking it–if it springs back, it needs to rise more. If it doesn’t spring back, you’re good to go.
- Punch down dough and knead briefly. Cut into six pieces and vigorously roll into balls.
- Roll balls into ~1 foot logs, and let rest for ~1 minute. Roll out the logs further into ~2 foot logs, then shape into pretzels. Place on ungreased baking sheets.
- Refrigerate for at least 3 hours, uncovered.
- Preheat oven to 370F. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper or silpat mats. Set aside.
- Put on protective clothing (long sleeves, gloves and goggles) and open a window. Prepare a lye solution in a chemical-proof bowl by adding 0.25 cups lye beads to 5 cups cold water. Stir to dissolve the lye crystals.
- Dip each pretzel in solution for ~30s, making sure that the pretzel is completely submerged but not touching any of the bowl’s surfaces. Place dipped pretzels on the lined baking sheets, three to a sheet. Slash the bellies with a knife.
- Sprinkle pretzels with salt. Bake for ~25 minutes or until deep brown. Remove to a rack and serve warm with Luise Händlmaier’s mustard.
Now for the troubleshooting section:
Note that this recipe uses bread machine, or instant yeast. This recipe will not work with active dry yeast, which requires proofing (i.e., dissolving in warm water and giving time to activate before adding to other ingredients). You can certainly adapt the recipe to use active dry yeast if you like, but we have found the use of bread machine yeast to be immensely easier and faster. Among the benefits of bread machine yeast is that it’s really easy to work with; Kevin for one was initially very nervous to work with yeast of any kind because he had heard that it was ridiculously finicky and easy to kill. With bread machine yeast, however, you can mix all the dry ingredients in with the yeast, and we think (admittedly, neither of us have backgrounds in thermodynamics, but this is our best educated guess!) that the extra mass helps act as a thermal buffer when adding in the hot water to activate the yeast.
Bread flour is not exactly equivalent to all-purpose flour. In general, bread flour has a much higher protein content, specifically gluten. The process of bread making (rising via yeast, as well as kneading) aligns individual gluten proteins into long, elastic chains that are responsible for the amazing chewy quality of bread. Using more protein results in more chains, and more of that long sought-after elastic chewiness. We use Gold Medal “Better for Bread” flour, and if you use a different brand you may need to add more or less flour and/or water since each brand has a slightly different formula. Indeed, since we bake this recipe volumetrically (and not by weight), we have sometimes found it necessary to add more flour and/or water for each batch (depending of course on the temperature, humidity, barometric pressure, alignment of the sun, moon and outer planets, and the ratio of our humors), so don’t be alarmed if you find yourself adding extra flour and water during baking.
When mixing the dough, you’ll want to do it by hand since it’s so stiff that it’ll probably grind away the gears of your stand mixer into puffs of machine oil. It’s really not all that hard to stir into a gloopy porridge, and after you’ve added in the remaining flour just give the dough mix a couple quick stirs–don’t expect all the flour to be incorporated at that point. Turn out everything onto a smooth surface (no kitchen tile counters, either a smooth cutting board or stone or wooden counter) and begin kneading by hand. You’ll want to knead by hand, trying to maintain only one direction in order to help the gluten strands align. After about 7 minutes, check the dough consistency. If it feels sticky and wet, add more flour. You want to end up with a dough that doesn’t stick to your hand when touched, and that is uniformly smooth with no lumps.
This part is the most fun, but also the most important. Pretzel shaping affects not only the final shape of the pretzel, but also the consistency of the outer skin of the pretzel. We found out through trial-and-error that working the dough more during shaping results in a beautiful, smooth pretzel that browns more uniformly and easily. If you have pretzels that look like they have a bad case of the chicken pox, or have weird wrinkles baked into the surface, or that just don’t seem to be browning well, you need to be more aggressive with your dough. This means that you should be pressing down harder on the dough when rolling it out, and making sure that you roll it many times. Now as you use more pressure, you might encounter an issue where your dough starts skidding along your table as you roll it. This is because the dough is too dry. Take a moment to wet your hands or spritz the dough with a few drops of water, and you’ll find that you’ll be able to roll it again.
Another note about generally shaping the dough – this recipe is for laugenbrezel, not Auntie Anne or Wetzel’s poofy, soft, buttery pretzels. These lye pretzels must have the characteristic pillowy bellies at the bottom, but the slender arms at the sides which end wonderfully mahogany and crunchy. You can achieve this unique shape only with a pliable dough. If you notice your dough refusing to be shaped, and springing back as you roll it out, you’ll end up with the pretzel that resembles more a spherical bun, which is not what you want. A dough that springs back upon shaping needs to rest. Just set it aside for a couple minutes under a wet cloth, and then try shaping it again.
Now for the shaping. During your first rolling, you’ll take the dough from a ball to a log. At this stage, you want to be using a lot of pressure so that all parts of the pretzel, including the future belly of the pretzel, receives a good work-out. During your second rolling, you’ll want to start with your hands centered on the long, but separated by about three inches. Those three inches will be the belly of the pretzel, and won’t receive much working after the initial roll-out, so the first rolling is the only chance it gets at a smooth and beautifully brown surface. Now start rolling the pretzel out. I’ve found that it helps to roll out by pushing away from you with more pressure on your thumbs, and then towards you with more pressure on the edges of your hand near your pinky. Doing this motion continually will naturally help stretch out the log as you roll it, until you obtain the desired tapered ends. The thinner the ends, the better. A thick pretzel gets tied up into something that will end up more like a bun, and this is not only undesirable taste-wise, I’ve heard that it can be a bit dangerous because the deep wrinkles and crevices can hold lye that will have a tough time being heated and broken down into sodium bicarbonate.
Once you have the arms tapered at the ends, bring the arms up next to each other to form a big “U.” Then twist the arms around each other once, and bring them down over the pretzel. Secure the arms on the pretzel edges by pressing down with your fingers.
The refrigeration step may seem like a pain, but it’s absolutely crucial to developing that beautiful brown crust that I am apparently obsessed with. Make sure the pretzels are not covered during refrigeration. You want the pretzels to develop a dry, hard exterior during this step, and any kind of covering will prevent that from happening. We found that refrigerating for about 3 hours yields the best results. We wouldn’t recommend refrigerating for longer than overnight (~10 hours), however. We have actually tried making the dough and shaping the pretzels the night before, then freezing overnight, which worked pretty decently. But, the skins will never be quite as shiny and the pretzel will not rise as much. If you prefer a denser pretzel, this may be a better option for you.
The Lye Bath
Don’t freak out, as long as you follow safety precautions. And yes, the lye bath is necessary; baking soda just doesn’t work as well. Here’s a quick summary: the lye bath creates a super chemically basic environment that catalyzes the Maillard reaction when the pretzels are in the oven, resulting in a deep golden color and the creation of new flavor compounds. The lye, or sodium hydroxide (NaOH), is also broken down during baking into sodium bicarbonate (there’s the baking soda!) which is perfectly harmless, so there is absolutely no health risk during consumption.
But seriously, take safety precautions. Kevin has an entire outfit, which we highly recommend, consisting of: a long-sleeved windbreaker, eye protection, a gas mask, long and thick rubber or nitrile gloves, and an open window. First things first: absolutely use eye protection, since lye can seriously damage your eyesight, even blind you. Swimming goggles work just fine. Why the gas mask and open window? Lye baths can give off corrosive fumes, and you don’t want to be breathing that in. Why the other stuff? Lye solution is extremely corrosive and you want to keep it off your skin. If you spill lye on a surface like wood or ceramic, immediately wipe dry with lots of paper towels (don’t let it contact your bare skin) and then neutralize using just plain vinegar, and then wipe clean with water for good measure. If you spill it on yourself, however, it’s best to just stick your exposed skin under running water–neutralizing with vinegar is dangerous and can actually lead to worse burns because the neutralization reaction between the basic lye and the acidic vinegar is exothermic. Read the MSDS for sodium hydroxide before working with lye.
As far as containing lye goes, you should use a container that will not react with or be damaged by the lye. Do not use metal mixing bowls, and avoid glass or ceramic because the lye can apparently slowly etch those materials, resulting in cracks or explosions. High-density polyethylene (HDPE) plastics are a safe bet, and generally come in the form of opaque plastics. We use a giant white plastic tupperware container from IKEA that works just fine. When adding the NaOH to the water make sure to stir and add slowly, otherwise the lye will re-crystalize before dissolving. Don’t place the lye-dipped pretzels directly on the baking sheets; make sure to use parchment paper or a silpat mat to prevent the lye from corroding your sheets.
Dispose of the lye bath in accordance with chemical safety regulations for your area.
Make sure to regularly check your safety equipment for tears, holes, or weak spots. Kevin did actually have a teeny accident, wherein one finger of his glove somehow got a hole, and lye flooded that finger in the glove for tens of minutes before he noticed. When he did, he bolted to the sink and kept his finger under running water for about half an hour. During that time, he had the following conversation with Poison Control (1-800-222-1222):
Kevin: “Uh, hi, I accidentally exposed my finger to lye. Any recommendations for what to do?”
Poison Control: “What product was it?”
K: “Well, we don’t have a product, we bought sodium hydroxide crystals and dissolved them in water to a 7% solution.”
PC: “Pure lye?? What are you using this for?”
K: “We’re baking pretzels.”
PC: “Not to EAT, I hope.”
K: “Oh no, we’re definitely eating them. You see, the lye breaks down during baking into sodium bicarbonate and helps catalyze the Maillard reaction, the reaction responsible for the browning and creation of other flavor and aromatic compounds. It’s perfectly safe.”
PC: “Wow, well…um, are you a chef?”
K: “No, I’m a student.”
PC: “…of…the culinary arts?”
K: “Oh no, just an engineering graduate student.”
K: “So, is my hand going to fall off or what?”
Poison Control eventually could only recommend that he keep flushing his finger until it no longer burned. They were, however, very nice and made a follow-up call in half an hour. Either way, it’s a good idea to have their national and local numbers handy just in case anything happens!
The oven temperature is very important. The first thing you want to do is make sure you have an accurate reading of the oven temperature–get an oven thermometer if necessary. We bake our pretzels at 370F for approximately 25 minutes. Any hotter or longer than that, and bubbles begin to appear on the surface of the pretzels. These aren’t an awful thing, but we try to avoid them for aesthetic purposes. Don’t worry if your pretzels look a bit wrinkly and deflated after all the handling you do when you dip them in lye; they’ll puff right up during baking.
This is our comprehensive guide to the pretzel. If you try this recipe and have trouble, or if you have tips or tricks of your own, please feel free to leave a comment and we’d be happy to discuss.