Why This Recipe Works
- The use of a poolish—a pre-fermented mixture of flour, water, and yeast—along with minimal kneading creates a flavorful dough that is easy to roll out into long ropes.
- The use of a traditional lye bath gives these pretzels their signature flavor, deep brown color, and glossy finish.
- Misting the pretzels with water at the end of the bake further enhances their sheen.
Until recently, my understanding of pretzels began and ended with the giant ones sold at sports stadiums or mall food courts. I’ve eaten (and loved) German pretzels here and there at bakeries around the U.S., but I’ve never been to Germany and have honestly never given much thought to how they’re made. So when it came time to create a recipe, I called up my friend Heike Meyer, a German baker who runs Brot Bakehouse School and Kitchen in Vermont, for explanation and advice.
The Different Kinds of German Pretzels
The first thing Heike taught me is that there isn’t one kind of German pretzel, but several, each one from a different region of Southern Germany, where pretzels originated. Each varies mainly in the way it is shaped and scored prior to baking. In Swabia, pretzels are known for having very thin criss-crossed arms and a thick “belly,” which is often scored to allow it to expand fully and uniformly, resulting in a range of textures in one bread—crunchy where thin, soft and doughy where thick. Swabian pretzels also tend to have one large “window” below the arms, and two much narrower ones between them.
Bavarian pretzels are nearly even all around, with three equally-sized windows framed by arms of even diameter. The belly does not get a slash, and the dough should burst randomly while the pretzel bakes. Badisch pretzels from Baden, meanwhile, are a compromise between the two extremes of Swabian and Bavarian pretzels, with a slight taper from the arms to the belly (which, like Swabian pretzels, is scored) and a lower window a tad larger than the upper two. I decided to focus on Bavarian-style pretzels, because they are the ones most familiar to non-Germans—and because they are the most straightforward to make.
A Formula for Chewy, Tender Pretzels
With all the intel that Heike shared, I got down to creating a recipe of my own. My pretzels started out pretty ugly—they were nothing like the glossy, mahogany-brown ones with elegantly criss-crossed arms I saw in my research online or in books, and certainly nothing I’d proudly and willingly share with Heike.
Still, I sought feedback from her with each round of testing, and after a few months, I had pretzels that both Heike and I approved of. Some of this improvement was the result of repeated practice, but my pretzels became noticeably better once I came up with a dough formula that was both easy to work with and gave the pretzels the texture that Heike said they should have: a crisp, almost snappy skin, with a chewy yet tender interior.
Getting the Fat Percentage Right
German pretzels are usually made with little more than bread flour, water, yeast (or a sourdough culture), salt, and fat like butter or lard. (According to Heike, the latter is traditional in Bavaria, though butter is an acceptable choice nowadays.) Some recipes include diastatic malt, an enzyme that promotes yeast activity and browning. (Unlike malt syrup or malt sugar, diastatic malt is not a sugar and does not impart sweetness.) Doughs for German pretzels are typically fairly low-hydration—which refers to how much water the dough contains relative to flour—and makes for a dry, firm dough that is easy to shape and, when baked, has a dense crumb.
Unlike their softer American counterparts, German pretzels usually contain a modest amount of fat that’s just enough to tenderize them, but not so much that the resulting pretzel would be considered soft. Heike said Bavarian pretzels usually don’t contain more than 3% fat. Pretzels in Germany are extremely quick to stale; they are meant to be eaten on your way home from the bakery and aren’t meant to be kept for more than a few hours. For my own formula, I landed on 5% butter. While not traditional, I liked the way a little extra fat seemed to keep the pretzels soft a while longer.
How to Make Shaping Easier and Improve Flavor at the Same Time
Shaping a pretzel starts with rolling a blob of dough into an evenly-tapered rope that’s about 24 inches long. In order for a pretzel to have the right texture—one that’s both crispy and chewy—the dough needs a fair amount of gluten strength. But that same strength can become a liability when shaping. If the dough is too elastic, it will spring back when you attempt to roll it out. And the more you fight with an elastic dough, the more likely it is going to end up torn, misshapen, or overworked, which would leave the finished pretzels ugly and/or tough.
The ideal dough for pretzels is both elastic and extensible: springy, but with some effort, still able to stretch out a little further. One way to achieve this is with something called a preferment, which also makes for a more flavorful dough. A mixture of flour, water, and yeast, preferments are made ahead of time before the mixing of the final dough. (A sourdough starter is another form of preferment, and works in a similar way.) During the fermentation of a preferment, enzymes break down a portion of the gluten present, weakening it slightly and making the dough it’s incorporated into more easy to manipulate without it seizing up.
Another way to temper elasticity in a dough is to minimize kneading. Gluten forms passively when you mix flour and water together, and often, this is more than enough to give a dough the appropriate structure. (This is how so-called “no-knead” bread recipes work.) To make a German pretzel dough that wouldn’t fight back, I used a preferment and kept kneading to a minimum. For the former, I chose a poolish, which is the French term for a preferment containing equal parts flour and water and is fermented for a few hours at room temperature before it’s moved into the fridge overnight. With the exception of a single hand-kneading after 30 minutes of proofing to help even out the texture of the dough, I decided to eliminate kneading entirely.
Unlike puffier American pretzels, German ones are fairly slender in form. To keep them that way, I learned that it was best to minimize proofing both before and after they were shaped. I let my dough proof in bulk (meaning before it was divided and shaped) until it expanded by about half, which took less than 90 minutes. I then moved the shaped pretzels to the fridge immediately after shaping, which keeps them from expanding too much until they’re baked.
Techniques for Properly Shaping the Pretzels
I’ve yet to learn the in-the-air, flick-of-the-wrist method most professional pretzel makers use to shape the twists, but shaping pretzels on the counter is relatively easy, and the result is identical. Here’s the gist of it: You’ll roll out the divided dough into a log, then into a rope that’s eventually 24-inches long before shaping it into an upside down U and twisting the arms around themselves twice. Finally, you fold the twist back toward the curve of the U and adjust the arms so they form three even windows, and press the tips down into the dough to seal.
Refrigerating and Dipping the Pretzels
Because pretzels are easier to move around and dip in lye once cold, many recipes will have you place them in the fridge before baking. Refrigerating the pretzels also makes the recipe a little more convenient, since you can dip and bake them within a few hours or wait as long as 24 hours to do it. (Keep in mind that if you refrigerate them for longer than a few hours, tiny micro-blisters tend to form on the pretzels during baking. Heike says that most Germans would consider this a defect, though it’s one that is purely aesthetic and not textural.) To ensure the pretzels form the snappy skin that Heike insists they should, I let them sit uncovered in the fridge so they can dry out a little while the oven preheats.
To give German pretzels the appropriate flavor, aroma, color, and shine, there’s only one real option: lye. Unlike many other breads, pretzels are traditionally bathed in an alkaline solution before baking, which alters the structure of their starches and proteins This subsequently helps the exterior of the pretzels brown more deeply, changes their flavor, and gives them their signature shine.
How to Work With Lye Safely
Lye, or sodium hydroxide, is a strong base that’s dangerous when handled improperly and can cause severe burns. With that said, dipping your pretzels in lye will give you far superior results to other alternatives, like baking soda or “baked” baking soda. (More on that below.) To dip your pretzels in lye, you’ll let them sit in a 4% lye-to-water solution for 30 seconds or so, then let them drain on a rack before sprinkling them with salt and baking them.
Yes, lye is dangerous stuff, particularly when used carelessly, but so are many things we all commonly work with in the kitchen: boiling water, hot frying oil, the sharp edge of a knife, to name just a few. And as with most of these things, the trick is to keep it far from bare skin or eyeballs. With the proper safety gear (protective eyewear and a pair of gloves), a neat, organized setup, and the appropriate level of respect, lye need not be something to fear. I’ve now made dozens of lye-dipped pretzels and, thanks to a cautious approach, have never spilled lye on myself or my countertops. (For specific tips on how to work with and dispose of lye, see below.)
But if using a lye solution still feels too intimidating, dipping your pretzels in baking soda—or sodium bicarbonate—is an alternative option. Baking soda is also a base, but it’s much weaker compared to lye. You can heat baking soda in the oven to convert it into sodium carbonate, a somewhat more powerful base, but it still won’t be as potent as lye and thus won’t produce a pretzel’s signature deep-brown crust and unmistakable pretzel-y flavor.
Regardless of whether you use baking soda or sodium carbonate, you’ll need to simmer the pretzels in those non-lye baths—and not just dip them—in order to get that glossy sheen when baking. Furthermore, unlike lye, which cooks off completely in the oven, both baking soda and sodium carbonate leave a soapy taste unless you give the pretzels an additional rinse in cold water before baking. While the baking soda method is an acceptable substitute, especially if you use the “baked” version, I highly recommend using lye if you’re after the real-deal look and flavor of pretzels.
Baking the Pretzels
Once the pretzels have been dipped, all that’s left to do is sprinkle them with pretzel salt—which is specially formulated to have a dense texture and a square shape so it sticks well to the pretzels—and bake. If you don’t have pretzel salt, coarse kosher or flaky salt will work in a pinch. It’s essential to bake the pretzels on a nonstick surface, whether that be a silicone baking mat or nonstick parchment paper, since the pretzels are prone to sticking to unlined baking sheets. (Do not use uncoated parchment paper, or you’ll be picking bits of it out of your teeth later on.)
The last trick I learned from Heike was to mist the pretzels lightly with water at the end of the bake, which gives them their mirror-like sheen.
Like certain other breads (baguettes, for example), soft pretzels, German or otherwise, are ephemeral things: at their peak within a few hours of baking (or even better, fresh from the oven), but quick to fade into staleness. Without a bakery nearby that made them regularly, I never really knew just how amazing they could be. But with lots of help from Heike and a bit of practice, this recipe changed everything, and they have been in regular rotation in my kitchen ever since. I’m guessing that once you try it, you’ll feel the same way too.