Pretzels: German-style pretzels are completely different from those gigantic soft, doughy ballpark pretzels. It was very difficult to make the pretzel dough work at first. In Europe, the standards of flour are very consistent, but that is not the case here. It took several years to get them just right.
Let the kids help out with shaping – half the fun of making pretzels -- but be sure an adult always handles the lye wash to prevent burns. You can find pretzel salt at many German markets and online (
americanspice.com), but coarse sea salt also works well. When it’s a really hot summer, I sprinkle sesame seeds on the pretzels. Salt has a tendency to melt into the dough.
Dough: • 1 ½ cups (12 ounces) lukewarm water
• 2 ¼ teaspoons (1 package) active-dry yeast • 3 ½ cups (17 ½ ounces) bread flour, divided, more for dusting • ½ teaspoon kosher salt • ¼ cup plus 1 tablespoon (2 ½ ounces) unsalted butter, room temperature
Lye wash: • 2 tablespoons food grade lye • Coarse pretzel, sea, or kosher salt, for sprinkling
In a stand mixer fitted with the dough hook, stir together warm (but not hot) water, yeast, and ½ cup bread flour. If yeast does not begin to bubble after 5 minutes, discard and begin again with new yeast. Add remaining 3 cups flour and salt, and mix on low speed until well combined, scraping down bowl as needed. Continue to knead for 5 minutes and scrape dough off hook. Dough will be very sticky. Allow to rest, uncovered, for 5 minutes. Add softened butter (if butter is firm, warm slightly to soften) and continue to knead until dough is smooth and elastic, about 5 more minutes.
Lightly flour a medium bowl and add dough. Quickly run a kitchen towel under water, wring tightly to remove excess water, and place over bowl. Allow dough to rise for 1 hour, or until about doubled.
Lightly dust a work surface with flour and place a small bowl of water nearby. Cut dough into 8 equal pieces and roughly form each into a ball.
Dip you hands in water, shake off the excess, and roll and stretch 1 ball of dough into a rope roughly 14 to 16 inches long. Set aside to rest and repeat with remaining dough. If you run out of room on your work surface, transfer ropes to a lightly floured baking sheet.
Extend first rope to 20 to 24-inches and taper both ends so rope is significantly wider in the middle and gradually thins (length doesn’t need to be precise nor rope perfectly uniform in width). Form rope into a U-shape, lightly moistening hands if necessary, and cross approximately at the middle into an X-shape. Twist one full time so you can bring both ends down to bottom of the pretzel. Gently press ends into bottom piece of dough to lightly adhere.
Transfer pretzels to a large, lightly floured baking sheet and use your hands to expand the 3 "windows" of each pretzel so slightly expanded. Refrigerate, uncovered, for 1 to 1 ½ hours.
Preheat oven to 400°. Place racks in top and bottom third of oven. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper.
Fill a large glass or ceramic bowl with 1 quart of lukewarm water (do not use a metal bowl or add lye to a dry bowl; see sidebar). Wearing thick rubber kitchen gloves, safety or swim goggles, and a long-sleeved shirt, add lye, and stir well with a long-handled spoon or spatula. Continue to stir occasionally until beads have all dissolved, about 2 to 3 minutes.
Use a sharp blade or knife to make a 2-inch horizontal slash at bottom of pretzels. With your kitchen gloves or a long-handled skimmer (tongs will tear dough), completely submerge each pretzel, one-by-one, in solution for 10 to 15 seconds. Press top of pretzel down gently with your gloves or a small plastic cutting board. Divide pretzels among both baking sheets, 2 to 3 inches apart, and sprinkle with salt or sesame seeds. Set aside at room temperature for 15 minutes to slightly rise.
Bake pretzels until surface is shiny and dark brown, about 22 to 25 minutes. Rotate pans top to bottom and front to back halfway through baking time. Cool pretzels for 10 minutes on baking sheets, peel from parchment, and enjoy warm. Allow remaining pretzels to cool completely on baking sheets. Serve the same day, or freeze for up to 2 months.
Food Grade Sodium Hydroxide:
Commonly known as lye, food grade sodium hydroxide is an alkali similar to baking soda that gives an authentic pretzel the telltale dark crust. Lye reacts with some metals, so always line your baking sheets with parchment paper. Do not use a metal bowl or add lye to a dry bowl when mixing it with water.
Be sure to wear goggles, thick rubber kitchen gloves, and a long sleeved-shirt to prevent burns. If you don’t have professional goggles, swim goggles also work well to protect your eyes.
You can find food-grade lye at specialty baking shops and online at Essential Depot (essentialdepot.com).