German-Style Soft Pretzels
Soft pretzels are some of my favorite things in the world. It’s really hard for me to say no to one when it’s brushed with butter, covered in salt and served with mustard or cheese sauce.
But strangely enough, I’d never made them from scratch. My friend Clancy and I kept talking about doing an Oktoberfest celebration. But it kept getting delayed until, finally, it was Halloween and we just had to do it. We bought some beer (pumpkin beer, to be festive) and cooked up some brats and finished it up by making some pretzels.
Having never made them before, I read through several recipes on the internet until I found one I like and then modified it a little bit. It wasn’t until after I made the pretzels (which turned out pretty decently) that I started researching the how and why of the method. If I had, I would have done things a little differently.
Pretzels are one of those specialty breads that are boiled briefly before they are baked. But what gives them their distinctive texture and color is that they are boiled in an alkaline solution prior to being baked. Traditionally, bakers use lye (you know, the caustic chemical used in soap and Drano), and some bakers still use a food-grade lye solution. An at-home alternative is using baking soda, which is alkaline as well, but not quite as caustic as lye.
Why is it necessary? Well, maybe it’s not if you don’t want the traditional, dark brown and leathery pretzel. Pretzels that you buy at the mall at places like Wetzels Pretzels and Auntie Anne’s don’t bother with it. They just brush a bunch of butter on their pretzels. It gives them a golden brown color, but not the dark color of the traditional Bavarian ones.
Using the alkaline solution has a chemical reaction with the sugars and amino acids present in the dough. This is due to a set of reactions called Maillard reactions. When heat is applied to foods (meats, dumplings, breads) at temperatures between 284 F - 324 F, the sugars and amino acids react and create browning and caramelization, which becomes even more apparent at higher temperatures. Using lye or baking soda amplifies that effect by breaking up proteins into amino acids.
Lye has a greater affect on the color and texture of the pretzel than baking soda since it has a higher pH level. You can order lye from specialty baking websites (make sure it’s food grade!) or purchase from some Philipino or Chinese stores. But you can also use baking soda. I used baking soda, and it seemed to work well, though the pretzels weren’t quite as dark as some I’d seen. However I found an article by food science genius, Harold McGee, that explains a way to increase the pH level of normal baking soda to make it, maybe not as intense as lye, but more effective than plain baking soda. You just have to bake it.
I’ve actually used this technique before, but for making rye noodles for ramen. The baked soda was substituted for kansui, a traditional alkali, and it gave the noodles the characteristic chew. To make baked soda, McGee says to “spread a layer of soda on a foil-covered baking sheet and bake it at 250 to 300 degrees for an hour.” Water and carbon dioxide escape, leaving a stronger alkali behind as a replacement for lye. He also recommends that, instead of boiling the pretzels in a water/baking soda solution, to merely soak them in a solution of 2/3 cups of baked soda to 2 cups water for 3 to 4 minutes (but don’t touch it with bare hands after they soak). Then proceed to bake as normal. I didn’t use this technique when making my pretzels, but I’m going to have to try it next time and see the difference.
Update: My recipe has disappeared into thin air, and I can't remember what I did. But here are two recipes that I based mine off of.