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.
A recent visit to that restaurant reminded me of my deep and abiding love for this salty, chewy, soft-centered bread and how, once upon a time, Id even made them myself.
Soft pretzels arent that hard. 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. Im here to show you how. 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 Perelmans recipe from Smitten Kitchen, Martha Stewarts excellent recipe, which was Debs own inspiration, Alton Browns excellent and scientifically-researched version, the basic pretzel recipe from 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 ratio of liquids to flour (1 cup liquid to 3-ish cups flour), with slight variations. Some used beer and some added a touch more sugar. 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 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 its a hazardous chemical and requires special precautions. Baking soda makes a fine substitute. Your pretzels wont get quite the same depth of color or deep pretzely flavor, but its the method that I recommend.
If you are interested in making soft pretzels using a traditional lye bath, pick up a copy of Pretzel Making at Home by Andrea Slonecker. She provides lots of details about how to prepare a lye bath for dipping the pretzels.
As a final note, I encourage you to branch out once youve 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.
Emma Christensen is recipe editor at TheKitchn.com, a website for food and home cooking.
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 flour, sugar and salt. Stir with a stiff spatula to form a floury, shaggy 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. (Or knead the dough for 5 to 7 minutes, until it is soft, slightly tacky, and holds a ball shape.)
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. (The dough can be made ahead to this point and refrigerated up to three days or frozen for three months. Thaw frozen dough in the refrigerator before using.)
TURN the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface. Use a bench scraper to divide the dough into 8 equal pieces.
ROLL one piece of dough into a long, skinny rope using your palms. 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.
LINE a baking sheet with parchment paper and place the shaped pretzels on it. Cover loosely and set aside to rise until puffy, 20 to 30 minutes.
PREHEAT the oven to 450 degrees. Place a rack in the middle-bottom position.
PLACE 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 to a rapid simmer, and then add the baking soda and the barley malt syrup. Stir to dissolve, then reduce the heat to medium to maintain a simmer.
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 30 seconds, then scoop the pretzels out of the water and return to the baking sheet. Continue with remaining pretzels.
BRUSH with the egg and water mixture and sprinkle them with salt. Bake until they are deep brown and glossy, 12 to 15 minutes.
COOL briefly on a rack. Pretzels are best when fresh and hot, but they’ll be good for up to a day later. Store in a paper bag at room temperature.
VARIATIONS: For pretzel rolls, 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 before baking. For bites, roll the pieces of dough into long ropes, then cut each rope into 1 1/2-inch bites.Yield: 8 pretzels.