01 of 09
Soft Pretzels Made the Old-Fashioned Way
Soft pretzels made the old-fashioned way, dipped in lye and sprinkled with salt, make the best tasting pretzels.
In earlier times before the population was mostly literate, pictographic signs explained at a glance what the shop sold. Walk down the street in any small town in Germany and you will find a wooden sign hanging perpendicular to the road. A pretzel like this one in Ulm, Germany, shows you where to find the local bakery. Pretzels are one of the most beloved bakery items, especially in southern Germany, and are not easily mistaken for other wares, making it a universal baker's symbol.
There are many different stories about how the pretzel was invented.Continue to 2 of 9 below.
02 of 09
Form Balls of Dough
Divide the dough that has risen once into twelve dough balls, about 2 ounces apiece.
The German pretzel we are talking about today is the "Laugenbrezel" or lye pretzel, and the burning question is: Who came up with the idea to dunk them in lye?
Again, no one knows. We do know, however, that lye was a common household item, used for kitchen cleaning and food preparation. Olives are cured in a lye bath, hominy and lutefisk are soaked in it, soups and fish were spiced with it, soap is made with it, and even today, lye is used to open clogged drains whenever "Drain-o" is poured down the sink.Continue to 3 of 9 below.
03 of 09
Form Pretzels - Why the Lye?
Form the dough into foot-long strands and let rest a few minutes. This relaxes the gluten and lets the dough be rolled even thinner. Spritz with water, if necessary, to make the dough more manageable.
Two stories about the lye bath, have one thing in common: that the lye dunking was accidental, but the results were so good that the innovation became commonplace. One story is that the bakery's cat knocked them into a vat and there was no time to make a new batch, another story claims that the lye water was mistaken for sugar water and brushed onto the pretzels.Continue to 4 of 9 below.
04 of 09
Forming Pretzels at Home
Once the dough has relaxed, you can roll the strands even thinner. Leave them thick in the middle. Form into a pretzel shape and use water to make the ends stick to the middle. Place on a wax paper-lined pan and put them in the refrigerator for one hour.
The traditional German shape trisects the loop of dough to form three, evenly sized holes.
You don't have to twist them arduously by hand. Professional pretzel bakers can grab the ends, flip once horizontally, once vertically and their pretzels are perfectly formed. Rank amateurs (like us) have to wrestle them into shape.Continue to 5 of 9 below.
05 of 09
Make a 0.75 M NaOH Solution to Dunk the Pretzels
Make the lye solution. Weigh out 30 grams, about one ounce, of the food-grade lye (NaOH) pellets and add it to one liter of water, about one quart. Do not add water to the small pile of lye, you will cause a violent reaction as the lye releases heat. Stir until dissolved.
Can you use something else besides lye? Yes and no. You can dunk the pretzels into hot water with sodium carbonate (not sodium bicarbonate) in it, as in this YouTube video about pretzel baking but according to the connoisseurs, they won't taste the same. Baking soda won't give you quite the same crust and boiling water makes a pretzel-shaped bagel. Egg wash results in a roll with egg wash, nothing more.Continue to 6 of 9 below.
06 of 09
Dunk the Pretzels in Lye
Dunk the cold pretzels in the 3% lye solution for 30 seconds. Drain them well and then place on a greased baking sheet or a sheet lined with parchment paper.
Lye is also known as caustic soda, NaOH or sodium hydroxide and is considered a hazardous material. It absorbs water from the air, so the container must be kept airtight and out of reach of children. If it gets on your skin it will feel soapy. If left on your skin it starts to dissolve the epidermis and causes a burn. You can wash it off with running water or soap and water. It will burn very quickly if it splashes in your eyes, so wearing safety glasses is recommended.
USE EXTREME CAUTION: If you plan on using lye to make pretzels or soap or anything else, treat the area you use it as a laboratory area and clean before and after you are done using it. Always use gloves and safety glasses. Wearing long sleeves, pants, and close-toed shoes is recommended.
You should dispose of lye according to your county and state hazardous chemical codes. This might include dilution of the solution with water, neutralization with an acid and subsequent dilution, or taking the waste to a disposal facility. You might also keep the lye solution in a tightly closed, non-metallic container, clearly labeled, to use again, although I don't recommend this.
Continue to 7 of 9 below.
- Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) for NaOH.
07 of 09
Salt and Cut the Pretzels Before Baking
Sprinkle with salt and cut a deep slit horizontally through the thickest part of the pretzel. Let them rest for a few minutes while the oven heats up to 375°F.
The distinct pretzel shape has been around for over 1000 years and can be made out of many types of dough. It arose from a simple ring of dough, which helps the bread bake evenly. They have been associated with Christianity and often used to bring luck or blessings to a person. In Germany, the pretzel is most often seen around the New Year, "Karneval" and Easter.
The difference between Swabian and Bavarian pretzels is in the shape. Bavarian pretzels are about the same thickness all the way around. Swabian pretzels are thick in the middle, with a slit through the thickest part, and thin and crispy at the ends, or twisted part. As the picture shows, this pretzel maker needs some practice.Continue to 8 of 9 below.
08 of 09
Bake for 25 Minutes at 375°F
Bake the pretzels for 20 to 25 minutes at 375°F. Pretzels are at their best when eaten on the same day they were baked. You may also freeze them and reheat in the oven.
The lye bath breaks down the gluten and gelatinizes the surface of the pretzel. In the oven, the sodium hydroxide reacts with carbon dioxide to form sodium carbonate, which is edible.Continue to 9 of 9 below.
09 of 09
"Brezeln" are eaten as snacks and for breakfast. Cut in half and spread with butter they are sold as "Butterbrezn" in southern Germany especially.
In the Black Forest in Germany the "Fasnacht Hanseln" give out pretzels during Karneval parades to anyone who can sing their song:
mit Kümmer und mit Sorge'.
Bis am Asch,
bis am Asch,
Down the stream,
down the stream,
with worry and anxiety,
Ash Wednesday morning.