Soft pretzels might be one of the best hand-held snack foods ever baked. It’s filling, a little salty (or sweet, depending on your interests), and portable. It’s an amazing thing to eat while drinking a beer at a baseball game, beer garden, Philly market trip, or our French apartment. That’s why I asked for Classic German Baking by Luisa Weiss for Christmas this year (well, I also wanted to learn to make other German treats) and this weekend we tackled our first recipe – brezeln.
My first introduction to pretzels were the hard kind (mini, stick, large, rods). In some ways I’d say I grew up in a pretzel over chip family…and I have many fond memories of biting off the end of a pretzel rod with my brother and then pretending to smoke it like a cigar (my grandparents had a poster of FDR where he was smoking a cigar). I’d say I tried “soft” pretzels a little later in life, probably at a sporting event, served with cheese dip. That version wasn’t my favorite. Fast-forward to my first pretzel from Auntie Anne’s, and I was firmly in the soft pretzel fan club. Little did I know when I moved to Philadelphia that I’d be consuming some of the best pretzels of my life (if you haven’t been to Miller’s Twist in Reading Terminal yet…you’re really missing out) or that when I visited Germany I’d be eating pretzels for breakfast topped with pumpkin seeds. As far as Jim is concerned, pretzels are a delicious and perfect snack. I’m not sure there’s ever been a time when he hasn’t loved pretzels (he’ll even eat the bad ones or order the $20 ones while bowling!). So, you can see why we’re excited to get baking at home.
I read over the recipe to make sure I had all the ingredients before we got into the weekend (remember, nothing is open on Sundays). That’s when I noticed the recipe called for “food-grade lye.” Apparently this ingredient is what gives German pretzels their characteristic crunch. Regardless, lye didn’t sound like a great ingredient (nor did all the cautionary words/advice surrounding wearing cloves and goggles and a face mask while handling it), but I decided to see if it was carried at my local specialty cake shop – Labo & Gato. It was not. So, I took my inquiry to Facebook where a number of friends (thank you guys) recommended a baking soda bath, instead (and one of these friends used to work at Auntie Anne’s, so it seemed highly credible). They said it wasn’t as crunchy, but still worked. Easy-peasy. I always have loads of baking soda on hand. I was also provided with a Alton Brown recipe, which let us know how much water/baking soda to use (2/3 cup baking soda to 10 cups water). Otherwise, we followed the German recipe to a T, and I’d say it was easier and required fewer ingredients.
Set aside an afternoon and make this tasty treat. They won’t last long and if you’re anything like us, you’ll be thinking about when you’ll make them a second time and/or variations (pretzel buns & rolls, here we come).
Below you’ll see the recipe as I followed it. It should be stated that we own a kitchen scale, and I followed all of the weights (not cup measurements) for the dry ingredients. It also makes portioning each pretzel much easier. So, I’d recommend picking up an inexpensive scale if you don’t have one yet – maybe something like this one at Amazon.
You can read the whole recipe here. I’ll add in my substitutions below.
German Brezeln (Soft Pretzels, makes 10)
While the recipe is pretty easy (there’s not a ton of ingredients at play), it’ll probably take you close to 2.5 to 3 hours to make these tasty treats. Well worth the wait/effort if you ask me.
- Electric stand mixer with dough hook attachment
- Kitchen Scale
- Baking Pans (we used silicon mats on the pans, even though the recipe says to cook directly on the pan)
- Deep sauce pan (for the baking soda bath/dipping)
- Spatula (to get the pretzels out of the bath)
- 4 cups/500g, scooped & leveled all-purpose flour
- 1/2 ounce/15g fresh yeast or 3/4 teaspoon instant yeast (we used instant yeast)
- 1 teaspoon granulated sugar
- 1 cup plus 3 tablespoons / 280 ml water, lukewarm
- 2 teaspoons fine salt
Baking Soda Bath:
- 10 cups water
- 2/3 cup baking soda
- Coarse sea salt (not kosher salt), for sprinkling
To make the dough: If using instant yeast, stir the flour, yeast, and sugar together in a large bowl. Proceed immediately with step two.
If using instant yeast, add the full 1 cup plus 3 tablespoons/280ml. Add the salt and butter and stir together by hand. Knead the dough in the bowl until it comes together shaggily, then use your dough hook in your electric mixer (5-10 minutes) until the dough pulls away from the sides and is quite uniform. When the kneading time is up, let the dough rest, covered with the dishcloth, for 15 minutes. Then divide the dough into 10 equal portions and let the portions rest (we used the scale, ours ended up being 83g/each), covered with the dishcloth, for five minutes.
To form Bavarian pretzels, roll the pieces of dough out to more uniformly thick rolls, form a horseshoe and cross the ends (it’s kind of a fun flicking motion, which I saw them do at Miller’s Twist a million times). Place the pretzels on an ungreased, unlined baking sheet and repeat with the remaining dough, filling two baking sheets (we only filled 1 large baking sheet). Let the pretzels rest at room temperature, uncovered, for 30 minutes. Then place the pretzels in the freezer for one hour. If your freezer is too small, place in the refrigerator (our freezer is too small, we put ours in the refrigerator).
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit/220 degrees Celsius. Take the pretzels out of the freezer.
To make the baking soda bath: In a deep sauce pan, add 2/3 cup of baking soda to 10 cups of water and bring to a boil. Stir to dissolve the baking soda completely. Loosen each pretzel from the baking sheet and dip into the water, turning it over, for 10 to 15 seconds. If you haven’t frozen the pretzels, they might stretch a bit during this process, but don’t worry; the dough is forgiving. Just handle them as gently as you can, and when you place them back on the baking sheet, adjust their shape if they have gotten wonky.
Sprinkle the belly of the pretzels lightly with the sea salt. Place one baking sheet in the oven and bake for 15 to 20 minutes, or until the pretzels are a deep mahogany brown. Remove from the oven and let cool on a rack while you slide the second batch in to bake. The pretzels should be served warm or just cooled. They are best the day they are made.
You can see our tray of pretzels above and below. You can also see we had two different methods of shaping. Mine was more traditional, while Jim opted for the double twist in the middle. Both tasted AMAZING. And I might add that both were soft on the side and had a good crunch on the outside (if you tapped, it make some noise). So, I feel safe recommending the baking soda over lye.
We waited for them to cool (Jim made me leave the kitchen until they had cooled). As soon as the timer was dinging I was back in the kitchen, pouring a glass of my favorite beer (La Fin du Monde) and breaking into our first homemade pretzel. It was the most pillowy-salty wonderfulness I’ve had in a while. They’re also dangerous. I think I ate three in rapid succession. As we munched on our pretzels and drank our beer Jim marveled as he couldn’t believe how good they were (confession – he thought they’d be subpar). But, they’re some of the best pretzels I’ve ever had.
As such, we want to share the recipe and hope others can enjoy them at home as much as we did. Now it’s on to replacing our sandwich bread with pretzels rolls!