If I had to guess, the fact that you’re carving time from your busy day to read this suggests you may be new to this whole “how to make pretzels at home” affair. Something to keep in mind is that pretzels can be fairly complicated, what with all the science and so on — especially if you’re stretching for pretzeled perfection.
Here’s me, though: Feh. Perfection, schmerfection. I just want some pretzels.
See, in my fevered estimation, fresh soft pretzels, beastily yeasty and warm from the oven, will always be good.
As such, I’ve made today’s Pathway to Pretzels just about as easy as I can. No unusual ingredients. No multipart mixing. No extended fermentation. Just four easy steps: mix, ferment, boil, bake.
What are pretzels made of?
Before we get started, let’s take a quick lap around those ingredients. Because pretzels are bread, they’re mostly just flour, yeast, water and salt. There’s also a sweetener to feed the yeast and help with browning.
Traditionally, since pretzels are associated with Germans and, consequently, beer, that sweetener would be a malted barley syrup. We’ll take the low road, though, and go with simple brown sugar. Finally, there’s a little fat. Fat shortens the gluten strands, helping to keep your soft pretzels true to their adjective.
First, mix your dough. Some recipes call for activating the yeast separately, but the easy way is simply putting your ingredients in the bowl of stand mixer — all at once — and running it with a dough hook for four to five minutes. Your dough should be soft and smooth.
When your dough’s mixed, give it a couple kneads and form it into a ball. Place it in a greased bowl, cover it, and let it rise — what the cool kids call “fermenting” — for an hour-ish, until it’s about double in size.
How to shape pretzels
First, divide your dough into roughly 3-ounce pieces and keep them under plastic until needed. Starting with one piece, roll the dough back and forth beneath your palms while moving your hands further apart, like you’re making a Play-Doh snake about 18- to 24-inches long. Once the dough is rolled, it’ll shrink back somewhat. Don’t panic.
Form the dough rope into a big circle with the ends crossing by an inch or two, then fold those ends back over onto the opposite side of the dough.
There’s your pretzel. Set it on a parchment-covered sheet pan and shape the remaining pieces.
How to boil pretzels
Once your pretzels are shaped, here’s the weird part: The boiling. The very idea of dropping dough into boiling water is counterintuitive, but fear not. We boil the pretzels just long enough to gelatinize the starch on the outside without cooking the dough on the inside, about half a minute. This prevents the dough from rising too much in the oven, keeping the interior dense and chewy.
Also, to help the pretzels later brown in the oven, the boiling water is made alkaline. Traditionally, this was achieved with lye, a substance you probably won’t have on hand unless you live in a Grimms’ fairy tale. Instead, we’ll use baking soda, about a 16-to-1 ratio. That means for four cups of water you’ll add a quarter cup of baking soda.
The finishing touches
Once the pretzels are boiled, they can be brushed with or dipped fully in an egg wash (beaten raw egg mixed with a splash of water). This is not necessary, but it gives the pretzels a nice sheen. Also, if you’re dusting the pretzels with salt, the egg wash helps it stick.
A word about salt: Big crystals, like those found in coarse sea salt or most kosher salt, give a lovely crunch while bringing out the flavor of the pretzel itself.
A sweet variation
If you prefer sweet pretzels to savory, my advice is to go with the egg wash but ixnay on the alt-say. Bake them as per usual, but when they come out of the oven, brush them with melted butter and sprinkle liberally with cinnamon sugar (I know you know this, but, that’s just four parts granulated sugar to one part ground cinnamon).
Finally, bake — and eat
Regardless of your sweet versus savory predilections, bake your pretzels on the parchment-covered sheet tray in a hot oven (425 degrees) until they’re very brown, about 10 to 15 minutes. Let them cool and then devour them like a peckish marmoset.
Prep time: 15 minutes plus 60 minutes fermentation. Baking time: 12 to 14 minutes. Makes 10 (3-ounce) pretzels
3¾ cups all-purpose flour, plus more as needed
2¼ teaspoons active dry yeast (1 package)
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1 ½ teaspoons kosher salt
2 tablespoons salted butter, melted
1½ cups warm water (115- to 120 degrees)
¼ cup baking soda (adjust if you have more or less than 4 cups water)
1 egg, whisked with 1 tablespoon water
Coarse salt as needed (optional)
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook. Combine 3¾ cups flour, 2¼ teaspoons yeast, 1 tablespoon brown sugar, 1½ teaspoons salt, 2 tablespoons melted butter and 1½ cups warm water
Mix on medium speed for 4 to 5 minutes, until dough is fairly smooth and pulls away from the sides of the bowl. If it sticks to the bottom, add more flour, a tablespoon at a time, until it pulls away.
Lightly dust a clean surface with flour. Transfer dough from bowl to floured surface and knead briefly to form a smooth ball; if it’s too sticky add a tiny bit more flour, but you don’t want it too dry. Place inside a clean bowl that’s been coated lightly with nonstick spray. Cover bowl with plastic and leave in a warm place until dough roughly doubles in size, about an hour.
When the dough has doubled, punch it down to remove carbon dioxide gas. Divide dough into 10 pieces — roughly 3 ounces each — and cover with plastic until shaping.
Using both hands, roll out one dough piece into a thin rope roughly 18- to 24-inches long. Drag rope into a circle with the two ends crossed about an inch or two from the ends. Fold crossed ends back onto the opposite side of the circle, pressing down lightly to make sure they stick. Place onto a parchment-covered baking sheet and repeat with remaining pieces. (If, upon shaping, your pretzels continue to proof, don’t panic. A fat pretzel is still a yummy pretzel. Or, if they’ve proofed so much that they look more like knotted Kaiser rolls, remember that pretzel buns are all the rage these days.)
Preheat oven to 425 degrees. In a heavy bottomed saucepan, pour in enough cold water so that it is about 3- to 4-inches deep, keeping track of the total number of cups. Bring to a boil over high heat. For every cup of water, add 1 tablespoon baking soda, sprinkling it in carefully, as soda will cause water to foam up. Boil pretzels — as many at a time as will fit comfortably in your pan without touching — for 30 seconds, then carefully transfer back to the parchment-lined baking sheet. If pretzels sink, you can keep them afloat with a spatula if need be so they don’t stick to the pan.
Coat boiled pretzels in egg wash by brushing or dunking both sides, then sprinkle with coarse salt.
Bake until golden brown, about 12 to 14 minutes. Cool on a wire rack, then gobble ravenously.
VARIATION: For sweet pretzels, omit coarse salt. After baking and cooling, brush pretzels with melted butter and sprinkle with cinnamon sugar.