I have so many good memories of soft pretzels: a cold afternoon my first time in New York, Red Sox games at Fenway Park a few years later, a fantastic restaurant in San Francisco that serves them as an appetizer with cheese dip.
A recent visit to that restaurant reminded me of my deep and abiding love for this salty, chewy, soft-centered bread – and how, once upon a time, I’d even made them myself.
Soft pretzels aren’t that hard. They are made with a simple dough nearly identical to sandwich bread, and the only tricky part – a leap of faith – comes when you drop the pretzels in a vat of simmering water before baking. I’m here to show you how. Everyone should get to relive their best memories with a piping-hot soft pretzel every once in a while.
I took a look through a whole gaggle of pretzel recipes before diving back into my own pretzel-making: Deb Perelman’s recipe from Smitten Kitchen, Martha Stewart’s excellent recipe, which was Deb’s own inspiration, Alton Brown’s excellent and scientifically-researched version, the basic pretzel recipe from “Pretzel Making at Home” by Andrea Slonecker; and many, many (many) others.
I discovered something interesting in my research: All the recipes were basically the same. They had the same ratio of liquids to flour (1 cup liquid to 3-ish cups flour), with slight variations. Some used beer and some added a touch more sugar. This is also the basic ratio of liquids to flour as in most sandwich breads.
So what makes a pretzel into a pretzel? The answer lies in a brief dip in an alkaline water bath before baking. This gelatinizes the outside of the pretzel, preventing it from fully “springing” during baking (as bread does) and giving pretzels their signature chewy crust. It also gives them their unique and indelible “pretzel” flavor. Fancy!
Traditionally, this alkaline bath was made using food-grade lye. However, lye can be tricky to get your hands on and trickier to use – it’s a hazardous chemical and requires special precautions. Baking soda makes a fine substitute. Your pretzels won’t get quite the same depth of color or deep pretzely flavor, but it’s the method that I recommend.
If you are interested in making soft pretzels using a traditional lye bath, pick up a copy of “Pretzel Making at Home” by Andrea Slonecker. She provides lots of details about how to prepare a lye bath for dipping the pretzels.
As a final note, I encourage you to branch out once you’ve tried the knotted pretzel shape. This same recipe and technique can be used to make pretzel rolls, pretzel bites, pretzel sticks and any other shapes your imagination can create.
Emma Christensen is recipe editor at TheKitchn.com, a website for food and home cooking.
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