Serious Eats / Andrew Janjigian

Until recently, my understanding of pretzels began and ended with the giant ones sold at sports stadiums or mall food courts. I’ve eaten (and loved) German pretzels here and there at bakeries around the U.S., but I’ve never been to Germany and have honestly never given much thought to how they’re made. So when it came time to create a recipe, I called up my friend Heike Meyer, a German baker who runs Brot Bakehouse School and Kitchen in Vermont, for explanation and advice.

The Different Kinds of German Pretzels

The first thing Heike taught me is that there isn’t one kind of German pretzel, but  several, each one from a different region of Southern Germany, where pretzels originated. Each varies mainly in the way it is shaped and scored  prior to baking. In Swabia, pretzels are known for having very thin criss-crossed arms and a thick “belly,” which is often scored to allow it to expand fully and uniformly, resulting in a range of textures in one bread—crunchy where thin, soft and doughy where thick. Swabian pretzels also tend to have one large “window” below the arms, and two much narrower ones between them. 

Serious Eats / Andrew Janjigian

Bavarian pretzels are nearly even all around, with three equally-sized windows framed by arms of even diameter. The belly does not get a slash, and the dough should burst randomly while the pretzel bakes. Badisch pretzels from Baden, meanwhile, are a compromise between the two extremes of Swabian and Bavarian pretzels, with a slight taper from the arms to the belly (which, like Swabian pretzels, is scored) and a lower window a tad larger than the upper two. I decided to focus on Bavarian-style pretzels, because they are the ones most familiar to non-Germans—and because they are the most straightforward to make.

A Formula for Chewy, Tender Pretzels

With all the intel that Heike shared, I got down to creating a recipe of my own. My pretzels started out pretty ugly—they were nothing like the glossy, mahogany-brown ones with elegantly criss-crossed arms I saw in my research online or in books, and certainly nothing I’d proudly and willingly share with Heike.

Still, I sought feedback from her with each round of testing, and after a few months, I had pretzels that both Heike and I approved of. Some of this improvement was the result of repeated practice, but my pretzels became noticeably better once I came up with a dough formula that was both easy to work with and gave the pretzels the texture that Heike said they should have: a crisp, almost snappy skin, with a chewy yet tender interior.

Getting the Fat Percentage Right

German pretzels are usually made with little more than bread flour, water, yeast (or a sourdough culture), salt, and fat like butter or lard. (According to Heike, the latter is traditional in Bavaria, though butter is an acceptable choice nowadays.) Some recipes include diastatic malt, an enzyme that promotes yeast activity and browning. (Unlike malt syrup or malt sugar, diastatic malt is not a sugar and does not impart sweetness.) Doughs for German pretzels are typically fairly low-hydration—which refers to how much water the dough contains relative to flour—and makes for a dry, firm dough that is easy to shape and, when baked, has a dense crumb. 

Unlike their softer American counterparts, German pretzels usually contain a modest amount of fat that’s just enough to tenderize them, but not so much that the resulting pretzel would be considered soft. Heike said Bavarian pretzels usually don’t contain more than 3% fat. Pretzels in Germany are extremely quick to stale; they are meant to be eaten on your way home from the bakery and aren’t meant to be kept for more than a few hours. For my own formula, I landed on 5% butter. While not traditional, I liked the way a little extra fat seemed to keep the pretzels soft a while longer.

How to Make Shaping Easier and Improve Flavor at the Same Time

Shaping a pretzel starts with rolling a blob of dough into an evenly-tapered rope that’s about 24 inches long. In order for a pretzel to have the right texture—one that’s both crispy and chewy—the dough needs a fair amount of gluten strength. But that same strength can become a liability when shaping. If the dough is too elastic, it will spring back when you attempt to roll it out. And the more you fight with an elastic dough, the more likely it is going to end up torn, misshapen, or overworked, which would leave the finished pretzels ugly and/or tough.

The ideal dough for pretzels is both elastic and extensible: springy, but with some effort, still able to stretch out a little further. One way to achieve this is with something called a preferment, which also makes for a more flavorful dough. A mixture of flour, water, and yeast, preferments are made ahead of time before the mixing of the final dough. (A sourdough starter is another form of preferment, and works in a similar way.) During the fermentation of a preferment, enzymes break down a portion of the gluten present, weakening it slightly and making the dough it’s incorporated into more easy to manipulate without it seizing up.

Serious Eats / Andrew Janjigian

Another way to temper elasticity in a dough is to minimize kneading. Gluten forms passively when you mix flour and water together, and often, this is more than enough to give a dough the appropriate structure. (This is how so-called “no-knead” bread recipes work.) To make a German pretzel dough that wouldn’t fight back, I used a preferment and kept kneading to a minimum. For the former, I chose a poolish, which is the French term for a preferment containing equal parts flour and water and is fermented for a few hours at room temperature before it’s moved into the fridge overnight. With the exception of a single hand-kneading after 30 minutes of proofing to help even out the texture of the dough, I decided to eliminate kneading entirely.

Unlike puffier American pretzels, German ones are fairly slender in form. To keep them that way, I learned that it was best to minimize proofing both before and after they were shaped. I let my dough proof in bulk (meaning before it was divided and shaped) until it expanded by about half, which took less than 90 minutes. I then moved the shaped pretzels to the fridge immediately after shaping, which keeps them from expanding too much until they’re baked.

Techniques for Properly Shaping the Pretzels

I’ve yet to learn the in-the-air, flick-of-the-wrist method most professional pretzel makers use to shape the twists, but shaping pretzels on the counter is relatively easy, and the result is identical. Here’s the gist of it: You’ll roll out the divided dough into a log, then into a rope that’s eventually 24-inches long before shaping it into an upside down U and twisting the arms around themselves twice. Finally, you fold the twist back toward the curve of the U and adjust the arms so they form three even windows, and press the tips down into the dough to seal.

Serious Eats / Andrew Janjigian

Refrigerating and Dipping the Pretzels

Because pretzels are easier to move around and dip in lye once cold, many recipes will have you place them in the fridge before baking. Refrigerating the pretzels also makes the recipe a little more convenient, since you can dip and bake them within a few hours or wait as long as 24 hours to do it. (Keep in mind that if you refrigerate them for longer than a few hours, tiny micro-blisters tend to form on the pretzels during baking. Heike says that most Germans would consider this a defect, though it’s one that is purely aesthetic and not textural.) To ensure the pretzels form the snappy skin that Heike insists they should, I let them sit uncovered in the fridge so they can dry out a little while the oven preheats. 

To give German pretzels the appropriate flavor, aroma, color, and shine, there’s only one real option: lye. Unlike many other breads, pretzels are traditionally bathed in an alkaline solution before baking, which alters the structure of their starches and proteins This subsequently helps the exterior of the pretzels brown more deeply, changes their flavor, and gives them their signature shine.

How to Work With Lye Safely

Lye, or sodium hydroxide, is a strong base that’s dangerous when handled improperly and can cause severe burns. With that said, dipping your pretzels in lye will give you far superior results to other alternatives, like baking soda or “baked” baking soda. (More on that below.) To dip your pretzels in lye, you’ll let them sit in a 4% lye-to-water solution for 30 seconds or so, then let them drain on a rack before sprinkling them with salt and baking them.

Yes, lye is dangerous stuff, particularly when used carelessly, but so are many things we all commonly work with in the kitchen: boiling water, hot frying oil, the sharp edge of a knife, to name just a few. And as with most of these things, the trick is to keep it far from bare skin or eyeballs. With the proper safety gear (protective eyewear and a pair of gloves), a neat, organized setup, and the appropriate level of respect, lye need not be something to fear. I’ve now made dozens of lye-dipped pretzels and, thanks to a cautious approach, have never spilled lye on myself or my countertops. (For specific tips on how to work with and dispose of  lye, see below.)

Serious Eats / Andrew Janjigian

But if using a lye solution still feels too intimidating, dipping your pretzels in baking soda—or sodium bicarbonate—is an alternative option. Baking soda is also a base, but it’s much weaker compared to lye. You can heat baking soda in the oven to convert it into sodium carbonate, a somewhat more powerful base, but it still won’t be as potent as lye and thus won’t produce a pretzel’s signature deep-brown crust and unmistakable pretzel-y flavor.

Regardless of whether you use baking soda or sodium carbonate, you’ll need to simmer the pretzels in those non-lye baths—and not just dip them—in order to get that glossy sheen when baking. Furthermore, unlike lye, which cooks off completely in the oven, both baking soda and sodium carbonate leave a soapy taste unless you give the pretzels an additional rinse in cold water before baking. While the baking soda method is an acceptable substitute, especially if you use the “baked” version, I highly recommend using lye if you’re after the real-deal look and flavor of pretzels.

Baking the Pretzels

Once the pretzels have been dipped, all that’s left to do is sprinkle them with pretzel salt—which is specially formulated to have a dense texture and a square shape so it sticks well to the pretzels—and bake. If you don’t have pretzel salt, coarse kosher or flaky salt will work in a pinch. It’s essential to bake the pretzels on a nonstick surface, whether that be a silicone baking mat or nonstick parchment paper, since the pretzels are prone to sticking to unlined baking sheets. (Do not use uncoated parchment paper, or you’ll be picking bits of it out of your teeth later on.)

Serious Eats / Andrew Janjigian

The last trick I learned from Heike was to mist the pretzels lightly with water at the end of the bake, which gives them their mirror-like sheen. 

Like certain other breads (baguettes, for example), soft pretzels, German or otherwise, are ephemeral things: at their peak within a few hours of baking (or even better, fresh from the oven), but quick to fade into staleness. Without a bakery nearby that made them regularly, I never really knew just how amazing they could be. But with lots of help from Heike and a bit of practice, this recipe changed everything, and they have been in regular rotation in my kitchen ever since. I’m guessing that once you try it, you’ll feel the same way too.

For the Poolish: In a medium bowl, whisk together flour and yeast to combine. Add water and, using a dough whisk or wooden spoon, stir until combined and no dry bits remain. Cover tightly and let sit at warm room temperature (72 to 77˚F; 22 to 25ºC) until dough is bubbly and has expanded by about half, 3 to 4 hours. Refrigerate for at least 8 hours or up to 24 hours.

Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

For the Dough: Add water and butter to bowl with the poolish and, using a dough whisk or wooden spoon, stir until mixture is mostly uniform. In a medium bowl, whisk to combine flour and salt. Add flour mixture to the poolish, water, and butter mixture and knead by hand until shaggy but uniform dough forms. Cover well and let sit at warm room temperature (72 to 77˚F; 22 to 25ºC) for 30 minutes. 

Serious Eats / Andrew Janjigian

Using slightly moistened hands, knead dough in bowl until uniform in texture, 15 to 30 seconds. Cover well and let sit until puffy and expanded by about half, 60 to 90 minutes.

Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

To Form the Pretzels: Line a rimmed baking sheet with a silicone baking mat or parchment paper lightly coated with nonstick cooking spray. Lightly flour top of dough, then transfer to a lightly-floured work surface. Using a dough scraper, divide dough into 6 equal wedges of about 88g (3 ounces) each. Starting with the pointy end of the wedge, roll each wedge into a log about 3 inches long, pinching the edge of the rolled-up log along its length to seal. (Do not pinch the log’s ends closed.) Cover the logs with an inverted container large enough to contain them all without touching, or a clean plastic garbage bag.

Serious Eats / Andrew Janjigian

Clear your countertop of any flour, then, working one log at a time, roll each log into an 18-inch-long rope of even thickness, rolling from the center out to press out any large bubbles. (If the dough sticks to your hands or countertop, lightly flour your hands and not the dough itself; in order to roll the dough evenly, you need friction between the dough and countertop. If the dough begins to slide around on the countertop, lightly mist your hands with water using a spray bottle.)

Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Taper the outer 6 inches on either end of the rope slightly and continue rolling until the rope is 24 inches total. (Be sure to measure the dough after it has sat for a few seconds; if the rope shrinks after sitting for a few seconds, allow the dough to rest for several minutes, then resume rolling until it is 24 inches long.)

Serious Eats / Andrew Janjigian

Lay the rope on the countertop and draw the two ends toward you to form a U-shape. Cross the two ends of the rope over themselves twice, then fold this bundle over itself toward the bend of the U so that the two ends of the rope just overlap the curve. Adjust the placement of the tips so that 3 even windows form, then press the tips down to seal. Transfer the pretzel to the prepared baking sheet and cover loosely with a clean plastic garbage bag. Repeat with the remaining logs, spacing the pretzels evenly apart on the baking sheet.

Serious Eats / Andrew Janjigian

Transfer the loosely covered baking sheet to the refrigerator and chill for at least 2 hours and up to 24 hours.

Serious Eats / Andrew Janjigian

Adjust oven rack to middle position and preheat oven to 400ºF (205ºC). While the oven preheats, remove the bag from the baking sheet of pretzels and allow pretzels to sit in the fridge uncovered, at least 30 minutes (and up to an hour)

For Dipping the Pretzels (see ‘Notes’ for an alternative method using baking soda): If using a lye dip, set a wire rack inside a rimmed baking sheet lined with parchment; spray rack with nonstick cooking spray. Line a second baking sheet with parchment and place it next to the first one. In a large, non-reactive container (such as a Pyrex, glass, or stainless steel bowl or baking dish), add the water. Set the container in the center of the second pan. Wearing gloves and protective eyewear, sprinkle lye over the surface of the water and allow to dissolve, about 5 minutes. (It is very important you put the full amount of water in the container first and then add the lye; if you put the lye in the container and then pour water on top you could cause a violent reaction.) Cover the container loosely with parchment while the oven heats.

Serious Eats / Andrew Janjigian

Wearing gloves and protective eyewear, transfer one pretzel to the lye bath, bottom side up, and let sit for 30 to 40 seconds. (If necessary, use a non-reactive spoon to gently keep the pretzel fully submerged.) Using gloved hands, transfer the pretzel face up to the rack to drain. Repeat with the remaining pretzels. When all the pretzels have been dipped, transfer them back to the original rimmed baking sheet face up and spaced evenly apart. Sprinkle pretzels evenly with pretzel salt and transfer to oven. Bake until dark brown, 12 to 14 minutes. (The lye-dipped pretzels will naturally be darker than the ones dipped in baking soda.) Using a spray bottle, mist pretzels lightly with water and return to oven until the pretzels have a glossy sheen, 30 seconds.

Serious Eats / Andrew Janjigian

Remove pretzels from oven and allow to cool for 5 minutes before serving.

Serious Eats / Andrew Janjigian

Special Equipment

Silicone baking mat or nonstick parchment, spray bottle filled with water


King Arthur Baking happens to make an all-purpose flour with an unusually high protein percentage, but most all-purpose flour is not high-protein and wouldn’t work well here. If you aren’t using a high-protein all-purpose flour like the one from King Arthur, bread floru is the next best option.

If using baking soda to dip the pretzels: adjust oven rack to middle position and preheat oven to 350ºF (175ºC). Spread 1/2 cup (4 ounces; 115g) baking soda on a rimmed baking sheet in a thin layer and bake for 1 hour. Allow to cool completely and transfer to a container until needed. 

When ready to dip the pretzels, set a wire rack inside a rimmed baking sheet lined with parchment. In a large enameled Dutch oven, place 8 cups (1920ml) in water and add the baking soda. Bring to a boil, then lower heat to a gentle simmer and cover until needed. Place 4 cups of cold water in a bowl and set it near the stovetop on top of a sheet of parchment to catch any drips.

Wearing gloves, transfer one pretzel to the baking soda bath, bottom side up, and let sit for 30 to 40 seconds. (If necessary, use a non-reactive spoon to gently keep the pretzel fully submerged.) Using gloved hands, transfer the pretzel face down to the cold water bath and let sit for 30 to 40 seconds. Transfer the pretzel, facing up, to the wire rack. Repeat with remaining pretzels.

When all the pretzels have been dipped, transfer them back to the original rimmed baking sheet face up and spaced evenly apart. Sprinkle pretzels evenly with pretzel salt and transfer to oven. Bake until dark brown, 12 to 14 minutes. Using a spray bottle, mist pretzels lightly with water and return to oven for 30 seconds, until the pretzels have a glossy sheen.

Food-grade lye and pretzel salt can be purchased online or from baking supply stores.

Safety Tips for Working With Lye

Always wear gloves and protective eyewear when working with lye. 

Always add lye to water and not the other way around. When water and lye combine, the mixture heats up; sprinkling lye gradually to a large amount of water prevents a violent and potentially hazardous situation.

You can use any non-reactive container you want to hold your lye bath—plastic, stainless steel, or glass—but I like using a shallow rectangular glass storage container with a snug snap-top lid. Not only does it help to keep the lye contained when not in use, it allows me to reuse the bath for multiple batches of pretzels. (I find it starts to lose its potency after 3 or 4 sets.)

Lye will stain wood, aluminum and other non-stainless metals, and lots of other common kitchen surfaces as well. Using parchment-lined rimmed baking sheets is a good way to keep it contained in case of spills, and the parchment is easily discarded once you are done. 

I use a clean, moist sponge to mop up occasional spills, and wring it out under running water. If you want, you can use a sponge dipped in white vinegar to neutralize the lye on contact instead.

To dispose of the used lye bath, just run cold water in your kitchen sink and carefully pour it down the drain. A 4% solution is weaker than one used to unclog drains, so it will do no harm to your pipes and will be neutralized quickly in your sewer or septic system.  

Make-Ahead and Storage

Bavarian pretzels are best eaten within 4 hours of baking.

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