Seriously Soft Sourdough Pretzel

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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 aroma of beer, mustard, and sauerkraut. This is not a bad thing, mind you, but instead, it's 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 are packed tight with broad grins, large mugs of beer, and that happy demeanor that only comes when the world outside is forgotten. The atmosphere and craving for something salty, something hoppy, and something delicious plants you firmly in the German beer hall. The natural desire to raise your voice and tell a few stories is only matched by the desire for a seriously soft (sourdough) pretzel.

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

Seriously Soft Sourdough Pretzel via @theperfectloaf

And there are so many ways to enjoy pretzels. 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 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 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 a 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 ripe starter or utilizing 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.

The lye (sodium hydroxide) bath

Traditional pretzels are made by dipping (not boiling) 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 use a 4% lye solution for these pretzels:

Cold Water From Fridge4940g (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'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 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 via @theperfectloaf
Dipping pretzel dough in a lye bath gives them an unmistakable color and flavor.

How to store and freeze 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 warm thoroughly in a low 350°F (175°C) oven.

How to reheat pretzels

If kept at room temperature, these sourdough pretzels will reheat nicely when warmed 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 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) 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.

Vitals

Total Dough Weight1,600 grams
Pre-fermented Flour12.0%
Hydration55.0%
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
715gHigh protein bread flour, malted (King Arthur Bread Flour)74.0%
193gAll-purpose flour (King Arthur All-purpose Flour)20.0%
58gWhole wheat flour (King Arthur Whole Wheat Flour)6.0%
532gWater55.0%
19gFine sea salt2.0%
68gUnsalted butter (Kerrygold) at room temperature7.0%
3gDiastatic malt powder0.3%
12gRipe sourdough starter (100% hydration)1.2%
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
12gRipe sourdough starter (100% hydration)10%
58gAll-purpose flour (King Arthur All-purpose Flour)50%
58gWhole wheat flour (King Arthur Whole Wheat Flour)50%
116gWater100%

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 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 recipe because it excels at working with stiff doughs.

WeightIngredient
715gHigh-protein bread flour, malted (King Arthur Bread Flour)
135gAll-purpose flour (King Arthur All-purpose Flour)
416gWater
19gFine sea salt
68gUnsalted butter (Kerrygold) at room temperature
3gDiastatic malt powder
244gRipe liquid levain (see Levain section, above)

When the levain is ripe add the flour, water, salt, softened butter, diastatic malt powder, and levain to the bowl of a stand 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 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. 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.

4. 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 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

Dump out the dough to an unfloured work surface. Divide 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

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.

5. 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 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

If the dough resists rolling outward, let it rest for 5 to 10 minutes and try again.

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, the classic technique suggests leaving small little bulbs at the extremes of the rope— I'll leave that up to your preference.

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

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 your 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 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 dough proof on the counter at room temperature for 30 minutes, uncovered.

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, cut this time in half, cover the trays with plastic, and place them in the fridge. The next day uncover them and let them sit in the fridge for 20 minutes (to develop a skin, as mentioned previously), then continue with the rest of the process.

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 dry skin on the outside. Not only will this make handling easier, it helps the pretzels keep shape when dipping in the lye bath.

Shaped pretzels

7. Lye bath – 2:45 p.m.

After the one-hour rest in the fridge, 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 (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:

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

The goal is to set up an assembly line where you grab a piece of dough with gloves, dip it into the lye bath, transfer it to a metal rack to drain, then finally place it on a baking sheet for the oven.

While wearing long latex or rubber gloves, add 940g cool water to the stainless steel bowl. 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 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 15-20 seconds (upper-right image, above) and then transfer it to the cooling rack on top of the parchment paper inside a baking sheet (bottom-left and right image, above). Proceed with the next pretzel in the same fashion until all 6 are on the cooling rack. Then, transfer the first pretzel back to the original baking sheet (it should still have parchment paper or a silicone sheet on top). Move the finished tray aside and perform the same steps with the remaining sheet of dough.

Once all the pretzels have been dipped, carefully flush the remaining lye solution down the toilet. 

8. 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 convection for 10 minutes. Rotate the trays (bottom to top, back to front) and turn the oven down to 425°F (220°C) 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 them 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.

Seriously Soft Sourdough Pretzel via @theperfectloaf

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 the 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. 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. 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.

Guten appetite!

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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

  • 12g ripe sourdough starter, 100% hydration
  • 58g all-purpose flour
  • 58g whole wheat flour
  • 116g water

Main dough

  • 715g high-protein flour (“bread” flour)
  • 135g all-purpose flour
  • 416g water
  • 19g fine sea salt
  • 68g unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
  • 3g diastatic malt powder

Lye bath

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

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.

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. Pretzel dough typically has lard or butter added to the dough whereas 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 (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 and use the hashtag #theperfectloaf 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.

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