How to Make Soft Pretzels
Ingredients for Homemade Pretzels Recipe:
- Active dry yeast – You can use instant yeast instead, but note that your pretzels may just be slightly more fluffy than chewy. Read our blog post on active dry vs. instant yeast.
- Barley malt syrup – This helps give the pretzels that distinct deep yet slightly bittersweet flavor. I ordered online, but have also seen it at some health food stores. If you can’t find this, simply use brown sugar (light or dark – the difference won’t be noticeable as it’s a small amount).
- All-purpose flour – I’ve tested this recipe with bread flour and didn’t find that it made enough of a positive impact to recommend using it instead. AP works great here! To be specific, I tested with bleached Gold Medal AP flour.
- Fine sea salt – This is for the dough.
- Pretzel salt – This is for sprinkling on the pretzels before baking. I’d highly recommend ordering the pretzel salt for the most impressive pretzels possible and best flavor. If that’s not an option, use coarse sea salt instead. Just note it’ll dissolve into the dough more.
- Food grade lye – More on this below.
How to Knead Soft Pretzel Dough:
I like to use my 6-quart Professional KitchenAid stand mixer with the dough hook attachment. This dough is quite stiff and dense, so if your stand mixer is on the small side or quite old, the motor may not want to knead it. You could always knead the dough by hand, it’ll just take some upper body strength and a few more minutes.
The Key to Perfect Pretzels? Lye!
Take a look at the pretzel comparison below. One was made by dipping the unbaked pretzels in a lye bath, the other by dipping in a boiled baking soda bath:
You can see just how much darker the lye pretzels turn out! What you can’t see is they also have that distinct, slightly alkaline pretzel flavor and a chewier texture.
Lye has a pH of around 13 whereas baking soda has a pH of around 8. This extra alkalinity accelerates the Maillard reaction, allowing that caramelization to develop on the exterior of the pretzels. That ultra-deep color and slightly crispy, crunchy exterior crust is only made possible with lye. Lye is what professional bakers use, and it’s what’s authentic in a traditional Bavarian pretzel!
Do I Have to Use Lye?
No. You can prepare a baking soda bath instead. See more directions below. But if you want the most perfect pretzels possible, give lye a try! It’s not as scary as you may think.
Where to Buy Food-Grade Lye?
I know I just said not to be afraid of lye, but it is sodium hydroxide (also called caustic soda) which is the main ingredient in soap making and in products like Draino.
You can purchase food-grade lye most easily online or at some craft and hobby stores in the soap-making section.
How to Use Lye Safely
Lye is a caustic material, meaning if used improperly, it can cause chemical burns. Before you freak out, check out the safety tips below, and also remember that lye in this recipe’s application is diluted and therefore is similar to household bleach. Once lye is baked, it’s totally safe to eat.
- Only use in a well-vented controlled area. You don’t want to do this in a small space without a window open or the fan on (blowing any fumes away).
- Always add lye to water, never water to lye. The idea is to avoid any potential for splashing.
- Use only heat-resistant plastic or glass containers to prepare your lye bath. Never use metal.
- If lye does touch your clothes, remove that clothing item. If it touches your skin, simply run the skin under running water for a few minutes.
- If you’re concerned about safety, use plastic gloves when handling the pretzels in the lye bath. For extra security, feel free to wear goggles and even a face mask (now that we all own one!).
How to Prepare a Lye Bath for Pretzels:
- In a well-vented area, place a plastic or glass container (do not use metal) on top of a few pieces of parchment paper to protect your counter from splashes.
- Carefully sprinkle the lye into the water. Use a heat-safe silicone spatula to carefully stir the lye to dissolve. The lye is dissolved when the water looks clear (the container will feel warm to the touch – this is normal).
- Dip a shaped pretzel into the lye bath for about 30 seconds. Remove and let drip off then place on the prepared greased parchment-lined baking sheets.
If you wind up making pretzels often, you may want to avoid using the same glass container each time. Lye is corrosive and will eventually weaken the glass. Your best bet is a dedicated high-quality plastic container.
How to Prepare a Baking Soda Bath (lye alternative):
If working with lye isn’t an option for you, here are the directions for using baking soda instead. You simply dip the pretzels in boiling water that’s been alkalized with baking soda. Note that the pretzels will be much lighter in color and won’t have the same chewy texture.
For Baking Soda Bath:
- 2/3 cup of baking soda
- 10 cups of water
Directions: In a large pot, bring the baking soda and water to a boil. Boil the pretzels in small batches in the soda solution for about 45 seconds to 1 minute, pressing them down to submerge. Proceed with the recipe as written after the lye bath step.
Making Baking Soda More Alkaline
There are some ‘hacks’ online for baking the baking soda to increase its pH level from 8 to about 11. This is done by spreading the baking soda on a baking sheet and baking at 250°F for 2 hours. I don’t prefer this method because it’s time-consuming and the resulting baking soda is now caustic and corrosive. You may as well use lye, which is easy to order online.
Choose Your Own Pretzel Adventure:
As I see it, there are TWO pretzel journeys, aka options for customizing your soft pretzels.
- One is what’s pictured in these photos: A more traditional Bavarian-style pretzel with a deeply browned exterior and chewy texture. The recipe as written will yield this result.
The other is a more American-ized pretzel that’s lighter in color and fluffier in texture. A pretzel reminiscent of those frozen pretzels many of us grew up eating or even the shopping mall pretzels.
If you prefer the latter, use a baking soda bath instead of lye. You can also allow the shaped pretzels to rise for about 30 minutes before dipping in baking soda and baking. This will create a fluffier texture (but also less distinct pretzel shapes).
- For a last option on this journey, brush the freshly baked pretzels with melted butter.
How to Shape Pretzels:
Shape the log into a letter U. Cross the arms placing one over the other, then twist them around each other once. Bring the ends down to the bottom of the U and gently press to stick. Place on two greased parchment-lined baking sheets.
How to Make Pretzel Buns:
After you portion the dough into ten equal pieces, take one piece and begin to grab bits of the dough from the top to bring around to the bottom to create a smooth ball shape. Roll around on a clean counter to smooth out further. Bake as the recipe states.
How to Serve Pretzels:
Serve them with my Beer Cheese Dip or simply alongside some whole grain mustard or spicy honey mustard.
You can also slice pretzels open, toast them, and smear them with cream cheese for a pretzel-bagel situation.
How to Store Pretzels:
Store in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 2 days. Reheat in the toaster oven at 350°F for a few minutes to refresh.
How to Freeze Pretzels (best option!):
Store the baked pretzels in an airtight container in the freezer for up to 2 months. The longer they’re frozen, the more the pretzel salt will dissolve into the pretzels, but they’ll still taste great.
Defrost by letting them sit on the counter for about an hour. Or, simply microwave for about 30 seconds. If desired for a crispier texture, once defrosted, refresh in the toaster oven for about 5 minutes.