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Walking through the two enormous wooden doors, each host to a gold-emblazoned crown, the first assault on your senses is the smell: beer, mustard, and sauerkraut. These are not bad things, mind you, but instead, they’re the beginning of an awakening. An unknown, or perhaps forgotten, craving begins to bubble to the surface as you scan for an empty bench. People
In recalling my travels through Germany a few years back memories of these
And there are so many ways to enjoy pretzel. Countless variations not only in the final shape but also the toppings and accompanying condiments — which I’ve come to find out is a pretty heated discussion among pretzel afficianados. 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 as of late. I’ve been focused on making them almost every day (as you might have seen on my Instagram feed) and I’ve really come to expect fresh pretzel for lunch. Those days without a fresh pretzel have transformed into a day of deprivation.
The beauty is these pretzels can be made in a single day using your already mature starter or utilizing a levain built to mature overnight while you sleep. However, the work for this flexible dough can also be split over the course of two days, imparting the terrible burden of deciding whether you want fresh, warm pretzels in the morning or the later afternoon1. Further, the dough is rather easy to get together, mix, and bulk — the only slightly involved part of the process is the lye bath.
The Lye (Sodium Hydroxide) Bath
Traditional pretzels are made by dipping the proofed, and chilled, dough in a 3-4% lye solution before baking. When baked in the oven, the lye dissipates and becomes harmless but imparts that signature pretzel flavor and a beautiful brown crust contributed to by a Maillard reaction.
I sourced 100% food-grade lye online and have used the same brand for all of my tests. It comes in a coarse powder form and you mix the powder into a stainless steel bowl already filled with water, then stir until completely dissolved.
I utilize a 4% lye solution for these pretzels:
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’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 it up and out of curious reach.
After testing this recipe countless times I’ve found lye isn’t quite the big deal many make it out to be. If you are mindful and use proper precautions when handling the solution, the whole process is over in a matter of minutes.
Another approach is to use 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, this might be preferential to those who choose not to bring lye into their kitchen.
Seriously Soft Sourdough Pretzel
Through testing, reading, researching, and in discussion 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 toward 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) true convection (if available)
- Using lye for the pre-bake bath imparts that classic pretzel color, flavor, and texture
While the above tips are ones I’ve found to inch me in the direction of a truly outstanding pretzel, these still do take quite a bit of practice. Shaping can get frustrating at times and there’s no replacement for the intuition and muscle memory built up through repetition.
|Total Dough Weight||1,600 grams|
|Yield||12 x 115g pretzel|
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 while respecting the percentages.
|715g||High protein bread flour, malted (King Arthur Bread Flour)||74.00%|
|193g||All-purpose flour (King Arthur All-purpose Flour)||20.00%|
|58g||Whole wheat flour (King Arthur Whole Wheat Flour)||6.00%|
|68g||Unsalted butter (Kerrygold)||7.00%|
|3g||Diastatic malt powder||0.30%|
|12g||Sourdough starter (100% hydration)||1.20%|
|12g||Mature sourdough starter (100% hydration)||10%|
|58g||All-purpose flour (King Arthur All-purpose Flour)||50%|
|58g||Whole wheat flour (King Arthur Whole Wheat Flour)||50%|
Target final dough temperature (FDT) is 76°F (24°C).
Note that the table below shows the weights for the ingredients only for the final dough mix. In other words, the weights of the ingredients here will be less than the Total Formula above because this table doesn’t show the levain build.
|715g||High protein bread flour, malted (King Arthur Bread Flour)|
|135g||All-purpose flour (King Arthur All-purpose Flour)|
|68g||Unsalted butter (Kerrygold), softened|
|3g||Diastatic malt powder|
|244g||Mature liquid levain (see Levain section, above)|
Liquid Levain – Night before, 9:00 p.m.
The night before you plan to make the pretzel, mix together everything in the Levain section above and leave out at warm-ish room temperature. The levain should be mature in about 12 hours.
Mix – Next morning, 9:00 a.m.
Note: this dough is extremely stiff. If you’re using a KitchenAid mixer it could cause your machine harm in the long run. You could first mix for a few minutes in the mixer to incorporate, then turn the dough out to the counter and finish kneading by hand (similar to a firm pasta dough). I used my Haussler Alpha mixer with a dough hook for this dough.
When the levain is mature 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. I’ve found the stronger the mix the better the result.
Transfer the dough to a container for bulk fermentation and cover with reusable plastic.
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. I found it easiest to turn the dough out to an unfloured work 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 until time to divide.
Divide & Preshape – 12:45 p.m.
When I’m not handling this dough I like to keep it covered at all times with plastic. Because the dough hydration is low, 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.
Dump out the dough to an
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 tube (upper-left image, above). Continue to roll the dough down, gently sealing each revolution until the dough is rolled up. Seal the bottom seam with your fingers or the palm of your hand.
Let the pieces rest for 15 minutes covered with plastic as mentioned above.
Shape – 1:00 p.m.
Prepare two large baking sheets 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 6 per 13 x 18″ (“
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 doughdries 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 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. Additionally, classic technique suggests leaving small little bulbs at the extremes of the rope — I’ll leave that up to your preference.
Once your rope is rolled out, grab the two tips and arrange the dough so it loops away from you (upper-left image, above). Take one tip and fold it over the other side (upper-right image above). Switch your hands so your right hand is holding the new right tip and left is holding the new left tip. Fold the same side over the other as previously done (you’ll now have performed two twists). 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 (lower-right image, above).
I posted a video of me shaping these pretzels over at my Instagram feed.
Transfer the shaped dough the prepared baking sheet. I like to keep the sheet loosely covered while I’m shaping the remaining pretzels.
Proof – 1:15 p.m. to 1:45 p.m.
Let the dough proof on the counter at room temperature for 30 minutes, uncovered.
OVERNIGHT OPTION: At this point
Then, transfer the uncovered baking sheets 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 easier, it helps the pretzels keep shape when dipping in the lye bath.
Lye Bath – 2:45 p.m.
After the one hour rest in the fridge, place two racks in your oven, one at the bottom run and one in the top third. Preheat your oven to 450°F (230°C) true convection (if you don’t have a convection oven, you could try 475°F (245°C)).
Set up your station: take out the trays with fully proofed pretzel dough, gather your pretzel salt, a razor blade for scoring, a half-size baking sheet lined with parchment paper3 and a steel cooling rack inside, a stainless steel bowl for the lye bath, and a pair of rubber gloves. The goal is to set up an assembly line where you grab a piece dough with gloves, dip it into the lye bath, transfer to a metal rack to drain, then finally place on a baking sheet for the oven.
While wearing long latex or rubber gloves, add 940g cool water4 to a stainless steel bowl (make sure the bowl is not aluminum, which will cause a reaction to occur). To the water, add 38g food-grade lye while gently mixing with a stainless steel whisk or large spoon. The mixture will initially be cloudy, keep stirring until all the powder/pellets are dissolved.
While still wearing gloves,
Once all the pretzel have been dipped, carefully flush the remaining lye solution down the toilet.
Bake – 3:00 p.m.
Carefully score each pretzel using a razor blade with a single straight cut across the top of the bulge and sprinkle the bottom area with pretzel salt. Transfer the trays to the oven.
Bake at 450°F true convection for 10 minutes. Rotate the trays (bottom to top, back to front) and turn the oven down to 425°F (220°C) true convection for another 8-12 minutes until done to your liking.
Keep an eye on the pretzel 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 5280 ft. might mean I require a hotter oven and longer duration—adjust as necessary.
Remove the trays from the oven and let cool. These are best the day they are baked — and sublime still warm from the oven — but will keep quite well into day two. Enjoy warm with butter, mustard, and beer, of course.
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.
Depending on how you shape them, you can exaggerate the textural contrast between the “arms” up top and the bulge at bottom by rolling the arms impossibly thin. In this way, they’ll bake completely through and become crunchy, which is a nice counter to the soft bottom.
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. These slightly salty pretzels are the perfect snack for any sporting event, when friends come over for a beer or two, or even just for a tasty weekend treat. And given the multitude of Oktoberfest festivities around here, I’m certain I’ll have these on repeat for the next few weeks. The only real question is whether I’ll be accompanying them with mustard, cheese, or butter… Don’t judge.
If you use this recipe, tag @maurizio on Instagram and use the hashtag #theperfectloaf so I can take a look!