Seriously Soft Sourdough Pretzel Recipe

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As I walked through the two enormous wooden doors of the German beer hall, each host to a gold-emblazoned crown, my senses were first assaulted by the aromas of beer, mustard, and sauerkraut. It was the beginning of an awakening. An unknown, or perhaps forgotten, craving began to bubble to the surface as I scanned for an empty bench. People were packed tight with broad grins, large mugs of beer, and that happy demeanor that only comes when the world outside is forgotten. My natural desire to raise my voice and tell a few stories was only matched by the desire for a seriously soft (sourdough) pretzel.

In recalling my travels through Germany a few years back, my memories of these beer halls are still fresh. We'd duck the incessant rain by dropping in on a beer hall where we’d have sausage with sauerkraut, a laugenbrezel (pretzel), and a maß (1 liter) of beer. It seemed our entire time in Germany consisted of a series of strung-together visits to these fine establishments. I can confidently say I ate more pretzels during that week-long trip than in all the previous years of my life combined.

Seriously Soft Sourdough Pretzel via @theperfectloaf

And there are so many ways to enjoy pretzels. There are countless variations not only in the final shape, but also in the toppings and accompanying condiments. I've also come to find out that there are pretty heated discussions on these topics among pretzel aficionados! It's safe to say one could spend a fair amount of time traveling around and still fail to encounter all the variants. Laugenbrezel, brezel, brezen, butterbrezel… So many names, varieties, and options–so little time.

Admittedly, my attempts at a soft sourdough pretzel should have started long ago. To make up for my lack of appropriate focus on this wonderful food, I've been working on this recipe relentlessly over the past few months. I've made them almost every day (as you might have seen on my Instagram feed), and I've really come to expect a fresh pretzel for lunch. Now, days without a fresh pretzel have become a day of deprivation.

The beauty of this pretzel recipe is that it can be made in a single day using your already-ripe starter or an overnight levain. However, the work for this flexible dough can also be split over the course of two days, forcing you to make the difficult choice of fresh, warm pretzels in the morning or the later afternoon. Further, the dough is rather easy to get together, mix, and bulk—the only slightly involved part of the process is the lye bath.

Watch a video of me making these sourdough pretzels

The lye (sodium hydroxide) bath

What does lye do to pretzels?

Traditional pretzels are made by dipping (not boiling) the proofed and chilled pretzel dough in a 3 to 4% lye solution before baking. Lye is a corrosive alkali that amplifies the Maillard reacation on the outside of pretzel dough when briefly dipped in a lye bath. This lye bath will give the German style pretzel a deep brown color, shine, a chewy crust that, and a typical “pretzel” flavor.

When baked in the oven, the lye dissipates and becomes harmless while imparting that signature pretzel flavor and a beautiful brown crust (thanks again to the Maillard reaction).

What lye should I use to make pretzels?

I use 100% food-grade lye and have used the same brand for all of my tests. It comes in a coarse powder form and you mix the powder in a stainless steel bowl that is already filled with water, stirring until completely dissolved.

I use a 4% lye solution for these sourdough pretzels:

Cool water4940g (1 quart)
100% food-grade lye (sodium hydroxide)38g

Lye is caustic (corrosive) and can be dangerous if used incorrectly. Always wear long rubber gloves (and eye protection, if desired) and be mindful when handling it. It's best if children and pets aren't present in the kitchen as well. If by chance some of the lye solution does get on your skin, don't panic; just wash it off in the sink as quickly as possible. As with all household chemicals, be sure to keep them up and out of curious reach.

After testing this recipe countless times, I've found that lye isn't quite the big deal many make it out to be. If you are careful and use proper precautions when handling the solution, the whole process is safe and over in a matter of minutes.

What can I substitute for lye?

If you don’t want to use lye, another option is a baking soda solution. Baking soda isn't as caustic as lye but it should have a similar, less potent, effect. I haven't yet tested the substitution myself, but I've read it won't garner you quite the same result. However, it might be preferential to those who choose not to bring lye into their kitchen.

Finally, another substitute for lye was made famous by Harold McGee, and it was to use baked baking soda. Baked soda (also called jian in Chinese kitchens) becomes a more powerful alkali than traditional baking soda which will help add more flavor and color to a baked pretzel.

Seriously Soft Sourdough Pretzel via @theperfectloaf
Dipping pretzel dough in a lye bath gives them an unmistakable color and flavor.

Can I freeze and store pretzels?

After baking, these pretzels will keep well for a few days stored in a bread box on the counter. Alternatively, once they are completely cool, you can place them in a freezer bag and keep them frozen for months. To thaw, place them in the refrigerator overnight, and then warm them thoroughly in a low 350°F (175°C) oven.

How do I reheat pretzels?

If kept at room temperature, these sourdough pretzels will reheat nicely in a 350°C (175°C) oven for a few minutes until soft.


Seriously soft sourdough pretzel recipe

Through testing, reading, researching, and discussing with other bakers, I've found there are a few key points to making these pretzels.

While some of these are seemingly insignificant, they are small steps that add up to achieving that spectacular result:

  • Degas heavily when dividing
  • Don't cover your baking trays when chilling the shaped pretzel in the fridge (this helps to develop a skin on the pretzel)
  • Bake in a very hot oven, 450°F (230°C)
  • Using lye for the pre-bake bath imparts that classic pretzel color, flavor, and texture

Vitals

Total Dough Weight1,420 grams
Pre-fermented Flour12.0%
Hydration55.0%
Levain in the final dough28.6%
YieldTwelve pretzels

Total formula

Desired dough temperature: 76°F (24°C) (see my post on the importance of dough temperature). I typically make these in the cooler months of the year, and if you find yourself doing the same, be sure to review my guide to baking in the winter.

This table shows the entire quantity and baker's percentages for each ingredient. If you'd like to make fewer or more pretzels, scale up the quantities using baker's math.

WeightIngredientBaker's Percentage
635gHigh protein bread flour (12-13% protein; King Arthur Bread Flour)74.0%
171gAll-purpose flour (11.5% protein; King Arthur All-purpose Flour)20.0%
51gWhole wheat flour (King Arthur Whole Wheat Flour)6.0%
60gUnsalted butter at room temperature7.0%
471gWater55.0%
3gDiastatic malt powder0.4%
17gFine sea salt2.0%
10gRipe sourdough starter, 100% hydration1.2%
Seriously Soft Sourdough Pretzel via @theperfectloaf

Seriously soft sourdough pretzel method

1. Prepare the levain – 9:00 p.m., the night before mixing

To make the levain, mix the following ingredients in a jar and leave them covered at a warm temperature, 74-76°F (23-24°C), to ripen overnight.

WeightIngredientBaker's Percentage
10gRipe sourdough starter, 100% hydration10.0%
51gAll-purpose flour50.0%
51gWhole wheat flour50.0%
102gWater100.0%

2. Mix – 9:00 a.m.

Note: this sourdough pretzel dough is extremely stiff. If you're using a KitchenAid mixer, it could cause your machine harm in the long run. You could mix for a few minutes in the mixer to incorporate, then turn the dough to the counter and finish kneading by hand (similar to a firm pasta dough). I used my Haussler Alpha dough mixer with a dough hook for this recipe because it excels at working with stiff doughs.

WeightIngredient
635gHigh-protein bread flour
120gAll-purpose flour
60gUnsalted butter at room temperature
369gWater
3gDiastatic malt powder
17gFine sea salt
214gRipe levain (from step 1)

Cut the butter into 1/2-inch pats. Set them on a plate to warm to room temperature.

To the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the dough hook attachment,  add the flour, water, salt, butter, diastatic malt powder, and levain. Mix on speed 1 for 2 to 3 minutes until all of the ingredients are incorporated. Let the dough rest for 5 minutes. 

Continue to mix on speed 2 for 4 to 6 minutes until the dough becomes smooth and cohesive. I've found the stronger the mix, the better the result.

Transfer the dough to a container for bulk fermentation and cover it with reusable plastic.

Mixing sourdough pretzel dough in a stand mixer.

3. Bulk fermentation – 9:15 a.m. to 12:45 p.m.

At a warm room temperature, 74-76°F (23-24°C), bulk fermentation should take about 3 1/2 hours. The dough is ready when it is risen and is slightly puffy. 

This dough requires one set of stretch and folds during bulk fermentation. After the first hour of bulk fermentation, turn the dough out onto a clean  counter surface, and using two hands, stretch each side of the dough out and over to the middle.

Return the dough to the bulk container and let rest for the remainder of bulk fermentation.

4. Divide and preshape – 12:45 p.m.

When I'm not handling this dough, I like to keep it covered with plastic at all times. Because the dough is low hydration, it can quickly dry out and form a skin on the outside. To cover, I'll drape one large proofing bag over the mass of dough yet to be divided and one bag over the “cigars” as I finish preshaping each one.

Seriously Soft Sourdough Pretzel via @theperfectloaf

Scrape the dough onto a clean counter surface. Divide the dough into twelve 115g rectangular pieces. For each piece, degas heavily with a flat hand (really be assertive with the dough) and gently stretch it into a small rectangle. The fewer the seams, pits, and uneven sides, the cleaner and more uniform the resulting pretzel will be.

Seriously Soft Sourdough Pretzel via @theperfectloaf
How to preshape pretzel dough

Working with one rectangular piece at a time, using your fingertips, fold down the long, top side of the rectangle and gently press down into the dough with your fingers to begin rolling a cylinder (upper-left image, above). Continue to roll the dough down, gently sealing each revolution, until the dough is rolled up. Seal the seam with your fingers or the palm of your hand.

Transfer the cylinder to the side of your work surface and cover with plastic.

Let the cylinders rest for 15 minutes.

5. Shape – 1:00 p.m.

Prepare two large sheet pans by lining them with parchment paper or a silicone baking mat. Depending on how large you roll out and shape your pretzels, you should be able to fit six per 13 x 18-inch sheet pan.

First, a few tips when shaping:

  • If at any point the dough starts to become extraordinarily elastic and resist rolling outward, let it rest for a few minutes before continuing.
  • The dough should be moist enough to stick to the work surface when rolling. If the dough dries out excessively, use a handheld spray bottle to lightly mist the dough, your hands, and the work surface to encourage a little friction.

Starting with the piece that you preshaped first, place the cylinder in front of you such that the tips are at your sides. Begin with your hands slightly overlapping in the middle, press down and roll the dough back and forth, away and then toward your body. As you are rolling, begin moving your hands outward to encourage the cylinder to elongate and taper as you move from the center out to the ends. You want to keep an exaggerated bulge in the very center of this rope–this will be the large part of the pretzel you score to encourage rise in the oven.

Finally, classic technique suggests leaving small little bulbs at the extremes of the rope, but that is up to your preference.

Seriously Soft Sourdough Pretzel via @theperfectloaf
How to shape pretzel dough

Grab the ends of the dough and arrange the dough so it loops away from you (upper-left image, above). Take one end and fold it over the other side (upper-right image above). Switch your hands so your right hand is holding the new right end and your left is holding the new left end. Fold the same side over the other as previously done (you'll now have performed two twists). Grab the two ends, fold them up over the knot in the middle, and place each end on its corresponding side inside the loop. It looks nice to have a little overlap with each tip. Then, gently press it down into the side to seal (lower-right image, above).

soft sourdough pretzels shaped and ready for proofing

Transfer the shaped dough to the prepared baking sheet. I like to keep the sheet loosely covered while I'm shaping the remaining pretzels.

6. Proof – 1:15 p.m. to 1:45 p.m.

Let the sourdough pretzel dough proof on the counter at room temperature for 30 minutes, covered.

OVERNIGHT OPTION: At this point, you could also retard the shaped pretzels in the fridge overnight to make them the next day. Instead of leaving them out for 30 minutes to proof, leave them for only 15 minutes, cover the sheet pans with plastic, and place them in the fridge. The next day, uncover the sheet pans, return them to the fridge, and chill for 20 minutes (to develop a skin, as mentioned previously). Then continue with the rest of the process.

Transfer the uncovered sheet pans holding your pretzels to the fridge for 45 minutes to 1 hour. Be sure to let the dough chill thoroughly and develop a dry skin on the outside. Not only will this make handling the dough easier, it helps the pretzels keep their shape when dipping them in the lye bath.

Shaped pretzels

7. Lye bath – 2:45 p.m.

After the one-hour rest in the fridge, place an oven rack in the bottom third of the oven and another in the top third. Preheat the oven to 450°F (230°C).

Set up your station. Take out the sheet pans with fully proofed pretzel dough and gather the following:

  • pretzel salt
  • razor blade
  • half sheet pan lined with parchment paper5 and a stainless steel wire rack inside,
  • stainless steel bowl6 and rubber gloves for the lye bath

The goal is to set up an assembly line where you can work quickly.While wearing long latex or rubber gloves, add 940g cool water to the stainless steel bowl. Add 38g food-grade lye while gently stirring with a stainless steel whisk or large spoon. The mixture will initially be cloudy; keep stirring until all the powder or pellets are dissolved.

How to dip pretzels in a lye bath

While still wearing gloves, pick up one shaped pretzel and transfer it to the lye bath (upper-left image, above). Let it sit in the bath for 15 to 20 seconds (upper-right image, above) and then transfer it to the wire rack (bottom-left and right image, above). Repeat with 5 more pretzels. Then, transfer the pretzels back to the original sheet pan (it should still have parchment paper or a silicone sheet on top) and setaside. Repeat with the remaining dough.

Carefully flush the remaining lye solution down the toilet or the sink and flush with water.

8. Bake – 3:00 p.m.

Carefully score each pretzel using a razor blade to make a single straight cut across the top of the bulge. Sprinkle the bottom area with pretzel salt. Transfer the sheet pans to the oven.

Bake at 450°F convection for 10 minutes. Rotate the sheet pans (bottom to top, back to front) and reduce the oven temperature to 425°F (220°C) convection. Bake for 8 to 12 minutes more until done to your liking.

Keep an eye on the pretzels in the oven; they will color quickly. If the temperature is too high, open the oven door to let it cool slightly and turn it down by 25°. Each oven is different, and my altitude of 5,280 feet might mean I require a hotter oven and longer duration—adjust as necessary.

Remove the sheet pans from the oven and let cool. The pretzels are best the day they are baked—and sublime still warm from the oven—but will keep quite well for up to 2 days. Enjoy warm with butter, mustard, and beer, of course.

Seriously Soft Sourdough Pretzel via @theperfectloaf

Conclusion

These pretzels check all the right boxes: a beautiful dark color, the thinnest of crusts, that traditional pretzel flavor, and a chewy, soft interior that's dense but well-fermented.

If you want, you can exaggerate the textural contrast between the “arms” up top and the bulge at the bottom by rolling the arms very thin. This way, they'll bake completely through and become crunchy, which is a nice counter to the soft bottom.

Print
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Seriously Soft Sourdough Pretzel via @theperfectloaf

Seriously Soft Sourdough Pretzel

  • Author: Maurizio Leo
  • Prep Time: 18 hours
  • Cook Time: 25 minutes
  • Total Time: 18 hours 25 minutes
  • Yield: 12 pretzels
  • Category: Sourdough, Pretzel
  • Cuisine: German

Description

Chewy and soft, these sourdough pretzels are the real deal. Equally delicious with mustard, cheese, and beer, they have that unmistakable pretzel flavor and deep color.


Ingredients

Levain

  • 10g ripe sourdough starter, 100% hydration
  • 51g all-purpose flour
  • 51g whole wheat flour
  • 102g water

Main dough

  • 635g high-protein flour (“bread” flour)
  • 120g all-purpose flour
  • 369g water
  • 17g fine sea salt
  • 60g unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
  • 3g diastatic malt powder

Lye bath

  • 940g cool water
  • 38g food-grade lye

Topping

  • coarse pretzel salt

Instructions

  1. Levain (9:00 p.m.)
    In a small bowl or jar, mix the Levain ingredients. Cover the jar and keep it at a warm temperature for 12 hours.
  2. Mix (9:00 a.m., next day)
    Add the flour, water, salt, softened butter, diastatic malt powder, and levain to the bowl of a mixer fitted with a dough hook. Mix on speed 1 for 2 to 3 minutes until all of the ingredients are incorporated. Let the dough rest for 5 minutes. Continue to mix on speed 2 for 4-6 additional minutes until the dough becomes smooth and cohesive—an improved mix.
  3. Bulk fermentation (9:15 a.m. to 12:45 p.m.)
    Give the dough one set of stretch and folds after the first hour of bulk fermentation. Return the dough to the bulk container and let rest until time to divide.
  4. Divide and preshape (12:45 p.m.)
    Because the dough is low hydration, keep it covered at all times. Divide the dough into twelve 115 gram rectangular pieces. Preshape each rectangle into a tapered cigar shape. Let the pieces rest 15 minutes covered with plastic.
  5. Shape (1:00 p.m.)
    Line two half-sheet pans with parchment paper. Starting with the piece preshaped first, place the cigar in front of you so the tips are at your sides. Begin with your hands slightly overlapping in the middle, press down and roll the dough back and forth away from and then toward your body. As you are rolling, start to move your hands outward to encourage the tube to spread out and become increasingly thin as you move from the center out to the tips. You want to keep an exaggerated bulge in the very center of this rope, this will be the part you later score to open in the oven. Grab the two tips and arrange the dough so it loops away from you. Take one tip and fold it over the other side . Switch your hands so your right hand is holding the new right tip and your left is holding the new left tip. Fold the same side over the other as previously. Grab the two tips and fold them up over the knot in the middle and place each tip on its corresponding side inside the loop. It looks nice to have a little overlap with each tip — gently press it down into the side to seal.
  6. Proof (1:15 p.m. to 1:45 p.m.)
    Let the dough proof on the counter at room temperature for 30 minutes, uncovered. Then, transfer the uncovered baking sheets holding your pretzels to the fridge for 45 minutes to 1 hour.
  7. Lye bath (2:45 p.m.)
    Place two racks in your oven, one at the bottom and one in the top third. Preheat your oven to 450°F (230°C) convection (475°F (245°C) without convection). While wearing long latex or rubber gloves, add 940g cool water  to a stainless steel bowl. To the water, add 38g food-grade lye while mixing with a stainless steel whisk or large spoon. The mixture will initially be cloudy, keep stirring until all the powder/pellets are dissolved. With gloves, pick up one shaped pretzel and transfer it to the lye bath and let sit for 15-20 seconds. Transfer to the cooling rack on top of the parchment paper inside a baking sheet. Repeat with remaining dough pieces. Once all the pretzel have been dipped, carefully flush the remaining lye solution down the toilet.
  8. Bake (3:00 p.m.)
    Score each pretzel with the razor blade and sprinkle on pretzel salt. Bake at 450°F (230°C) for 10 minutes. Rotate the pans back to front and top to bottom, turn the oven down to 425°C (220°C) and bake for 8-12 minutes longer until a deep brown color. Remove from the oven and let cool. Enjoy warm from the oven.

Notes

  • For the lye bath, you will need a stainless steel bowl, stainless steel cooling rack, and pair of rubber gloves.

What's next?

There's no question I'll be making these soft sourdough pretzels often. When I'm in the mood for something sweet, my sourdough bomboloni will do, but these are their savory opposite. They're slightly salty and the perfect snack for any sporting event, when friends come over for a beer or two, or even just for a tasty weekend treat. 

Given the multitude of Oktoberfest festivities in my area, I'm certain I'll have these on repeat for the next few weeks. The only real question is whether I'll accompany them with mustard, cheese, or butter… Don't judge.

If you’re in the mood for another recipe that’s in the same vein as these sourdough pretzels, check out my sourdough bagels: a similarly stiff dough but a completely different end product.

Guten appetite!

Sourdough pretzel frequently asked questions

Is pretzel dough the same as bagel dough?

No, they are quite different. Bagel dough typically has barley malt syrup added (and sometimes sugar, too, as I do in my sourdough bagels) to the dough, whereas pretzel dough does not. Additionally, pretzel dough typically has lard or butter added to the dough where bagels do not.

What is different about pretzel dough?

Pretzel dough typically has butter added, whereas most typical bread recipes do not. Additionally, pretzels are dipped in either lye or a baking soda solution before baking for increased browning and that signature “pretzel” flavor (this is especially true with lye).

Does pretzel dough need diastatic malt?

I like to add diastatic malt powder to increase the coloring in the pretzels, add a little more chew, and ultimately, more flavor. However, you can omit the malt powder if you don't have any on hand.

If you use this recipe, tag @maurizio on Instagram so I can take a look!


  1. The cold water helps keep the chilled pretzel dough firm.

  2. While you could use a silicone mat here, it's much easier to dispose of the parchment after it catches any lye solution drippings.

  3. Be sure the bowl is not aluminum which will react with the lye.

  4. The cold water helps keep the chilled pretzel dough firm.

  5. While you could use a silicone mat here, it's much easier to dispose of the parchment after it catches any lye solution drippings.

  6. Be sure the bowl is not aluminum which will react with the lye.

Contents
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