German Soft Pretzels

Last modified 19 February 2015

The following recipe originated on About.com. I have reorganized, edited, and modified it.


Pretzels (brezeln) are eaten often in Germany as a popular snack. Unlike in the US, Germans eat soft pretzels with butter, not mustard or dipped in cheese sauce. The bakeries also sell pretzel rolls (lye rolls), which are good with liverwurst or other “Aufschnitt” (bologna) in the middle. I like them with hard salami and spicy brown mustard, but that's me.

Pretzels are not made at home very often because their taste is due to their being dipped in an alkaline solution. Something is alkaline, or base, when it has a high pH. The pH scale measures how acid or base a solution is and goes from 0 to 14. Distilled water has a pH of 7, the middle of the scale. Anything lower than 7 is acidic, the lower, the stronger. Anything higher than 7 is a base, the higher, the more basic/alkaline. A more extensive explanation is available at the Wikipedia article for pH. Dipping the pretzels in the alkaline solution causes a Maillard reaction, which gives the pretzels their crust, browning them more during baking.

Lye (caustic soda, sodium hydroxide, chemical formula: NaOH, pH around 14, a very strong base), burns skin and eyes, so gloves and safety glasses are required when making this pretzel recipe using lye. If you use the lye solution, this recipe is not recommended for baking with children! But keep reading, since you can do some of this with kids, and there's an alternative base you can use.

Instead of lye, you can use baking soda (sodium bicarbinate, chemical formula: NaHCO3, pH around 8.2 to 9). Because of the lower pH, the Maillard reaction will not be as significant, so the crust won't be as good. But it can be done without the precautions of lye, and it's easier to get. See lye roll for details of what's going on with using either lye or baking soda. More when we get to that point.

I got my lye from Essential Depot. I've heard people, perhaps in jest, talking about using drain cleaner for the lye in it. I do not recommend this, as drain cleaner contains substances in addition to lye, to perform its task better. Since its task is not making pretzels but clearing drains, it's best to take the time to get the proper substance rather than going with the quick-and-(very)-dirty... solution. Drano and Liquid Plumbr are good for drains, not for pretzels.

Anyway, enough exposition. On to the recipe!


Prep Time: 3 hours (with rising)

Cook Time: 20 to 25 minutes

Total Time: 3 hours, 25 minutes

Ingredients:

  • 1 T. or 1 package yeast
  • 2 tsp. sugar
  • 1 1/4 c. warm water
  • 4 1/4 c. bread flour
  • 2 tsp. Kosher salt or sea salt for dough
  • 2 1/2 T. salted butter, softened
  • Salt for pretzel tops, large flakes like Kosher salt are best

One of either of the following (not both!):

  • 1 oz. food-grade lye, dissolved in 1 quart of water (do not make until needed)
  • 2/3 cup baking soda in 10 c. of boiling water, with gloves and goggles not required (do not make until needed)

Equipment:

  • If using lye:
    • plastic gloves
    • plastic safety goggles
    • 2 qt. or larger glass or plastic bowl
    • small glass or plastic bowl to measure lye into
    • distilled vinegar, for cleanup and in case of emergencies
  • If using baking soda:
    • a large pot which can hold over 10 c. of boiling water
  • Wide and shallow slotted spoon.
  • plastic-bladed lamé
  • waxed paper
  • parchment paper with baking trays, or non-metal baking trays
  • large bowl and wet towel for first rise

Makes 10-12 soft pretzels.

Ready to eat!

Preparation:

  1. Proof the yeast by dissolving it and the sugar in 1/4 c. warm water for 5 minutes.

  2. Measure the flour into a mixing bowl, add the dough salt and the proofed yeast and 1 cup of warm water. Mix by hand or with a stand mixer with dough hook until flour mixture comes together into a stiff ball. Add water as needed to form dough.

  3. Knead for 5 minutes. Let rest for a few minutes, then add the butter and knead for at least 5 more minutes, or until butter is fully incorporated. At this time, the dough should be firm and soft, velvety to the touch.

  4. Form into a ball, butter both the dough surface and the inside of the bowl you are using for the first rise, put the dough in the bowl, cover with the wet towel, and let rise in a warm spot until doubled, about 1 hour.

  5. Place wax paper on a baking sheet.

  6. Degas the dough (punch down) and divide into 12, 2 ounce pieces. Form into balls. Using very little flour, form balls into 1-foot long strands, thicker in the middle and tapering towards the ends. I dip strands very briefly in tap water to make the dough slightly sticky. This helps with shaping.

  7. Take each strand and roll out again to form 2-foot strands. Twist into pretzel shape, using a little water again to make the ends stick to the loop. Experienced pretzel bakers can flip pretzels into shape, which is nice if you can do it.

    Opinion (from the original version of this recipe): a good, German Brezel is thick and soft in the middle, thin and crunchy but not dry on the arms or ends, and splits the loop of dough into three equal parts. [I'm not that fussy. It's all good!]

  8. Place the pretzels on the baking sheet and refrigerate for 1 hour. This dries out the surface and makes them easier to handle. Alternatively, leave out in a very dry location. "Dry" in this case means "dry like a desert". Flip the pretzels over after 30 minutes for uniform drying. This also helps the pretzels bake more evenly.

  9. Children can help up to this point. Now we start working with lye, and children should be banished from the area at least until all possible remnants of lye on anything are cleaned up. I'm defining “children” as anyone who does not understand what a chemical or regular burn is, and/or is not willingly wearing protective goggles and gloves.

    If you use a boiling baking soda bath instead of a lye solution, children should still be cautioned because of the boiling water.

    Let no one touch the pretzel shapes without gloves after they are dipped, until they come out of the oven. It's probably best to keep kids out of the kitchen during the dipping until the baking has started and cleanup is complete.

    Note: When multiplying or dividing quantities for this recipe, do not change the quantity of lye or baking soda specified or the amount of water specified. That is, these are necessary concentrations, and you really won't need more of them unless you make lots more pretzels. Nor will you be able to make pretzels if you halve them or whatever. Just use the amounts specified.

    Using lyeUsing baking soda
    Time to make the lye solution. USE EXTREME CAUTION: Lye is caustic and the 3% solution we're going to make is dangerous. Always use gloves and safety glasses. Wearing long sleeves, pants and close-toed shoes is recommended. Keep metal utensils and containers well away from the action. DO NOT USE ANY METAL UTENSILS OR CONTAINERS! You will get hurt, such as chemical burns on skin and/or permanent blindness if you do not follow these instructions carefully! If any of this is news to you, it might be better to use baking soda instead of lye. Continuing from here means you accept the risks. Instead of lye, you can use a baking soda bath. Using baking soda, the results won't be as good, but it's safer. You can use the pretzel shapes you've already made.

    Don gloves and goggles. Place 1 quart of room-temperature (not heated!) water in a plastic or glass container (bowl), weigh 1 ounce of food grade or reagent grade sodium hydroxide into a different glass or plastic container and slowly add the lye to the water, stirring with a plastic spoon or similar object. ALWAYS ADD THE LYE TO THE WATER! Adding the water to the lye will cause major problems, because it creates a lot of heat, making your container break without warning, spilling lye and water all over the counter, you, and the children you failed to banish from the area earlier. Make sure to slowly add the lye TO the water! Stir carefully (no splashing!) until dissolved.

    Wipe up spills with paper towels and dispose immediately. Rinse with water or distilled vinegar (diluted (5% to 8%) acetic acid (CH3CO2H), pH between 2 and 3). Rinse all utensils and gloves with large amounts of running water and wash arms and hands after working with the solution. If you feel anything itching or burning on the skin, wash with soap and water, rinse and dry. If it gets in your eyes, wash with large amounts of water and get to the hospital immediately!

    For the scientifically-minded: the lye solution will be approximately 0.75 M NaOH (FW 39.99g/mol) or almost 3% w/w.

    In 10 cups of water, add 2/3 cup of baking soda. Bring to a rapid boil and keep it there until you are done dipping.

  10. Remove pretzels from refrigerator and dip each for 30 seconds in the prepared solution. Be sure to get all sides of the pretzels in the dip. Remove each pretzel from the solution with a plastic slotted spoon and place on greased or parchment-paper-lined baking sheet. Make CERTAIN that lye-dipped pretzels do not come in contact with metal! I've noticed the dipped pretzels turn from white to a very pale yellow. That's nothing compared to what will happen to metal if it comes in contact with lye solution! The combination can generate hydrogen gas, which is a Bad Thing since it's explosive, especially if you're cooking with fire. Remember the Hindenberg! Let's not make any explosions. Keep lye away from all metal, just in case.

  11. Sprinkle pretzels with salt by hand. Using a spoon to sprinkle salt will waaaay over-salt the pretzels! For that matter, it's easy enough to over-salt them by hand. Make a deep cut through the thick part of the pretzel horizontally with a plastic-bladed lamé, not a metal cutting edge. Metal and lye again: nonono. Heat oven to 375°F. Let pretzels rest for 15 minutes. They will continue to rise a bit.

    Dipped and salted

    Dipped and salted, resting before being baked. I do not claim to be a master pretzel shaper.

  12. Bake pretzels for 20-25 minutes, or until deep golden brown.

    Cooked and ready

    The same tray, baked. Note the pretzels rise a bit more during baking. The two pretzels in the front row, left, have joined together. I did not cut the pretzels with a lamé, so they split randomly.

  13. Dispose of lye solution according to county and state hazardous waste regulations. This might include dilution of the solution with water, neutralization with an acid (such as distilled vinegar) and subsequent dilution, or taking the waste to a disposal facility. You might also keep the lye solution in a tightly closed, clearly labeled, non-metallic container, to use again, although I don't recommend this. The solution will etch whatever container it is kept in, and the stored solution will not be as good as a fresh one.

    Disposing of the baking soda bath is pretty simple. Just let it cool and pour it down the drain. I don't know what either of these solutions will do to a septic tank.

    Clean up time

    Disposing of the lye solution by dilution in the right-side sink, the one without a garbage disposal. It's likely a bad idea to put lye solution into a garbage disposal, given the metal in there and how the disposal might splash the lye next time it's used. Note the plastic slotted spoon and plastic measuring scoop on the left.

  14. Children can come back now to eat the pretzels! I bet the pretzels are gone in minutes. Don't you wish you'd made more? Of course, you might have made your own butter or mustard too...

    Ready to eat!

    Two pretzels, one cut open horizontally, ready for buttering!