One of my favourite baked goods is the soft pretzel or Laugenbrezel as it is called in German (plural: Laugenbrezeln; Lauge = lye). I love their unique fluffy and still dense texture, the dark brown crust colour and the white crumb, and of course their very outstanding taste, which is achieved both through a lye bath and the salt that is sprinkled on top right after bathing.
It has been a while since I posted my first attempts in soft pretzel making here on this blog. Although I liked the results back then, those baked goods were far from being real Brezeln (this is the Swabian spelling [singular: Brezel], the Bavarian version is called Breze [plural: Brezen]). I used to make these baked goods with the help of baking soda which does lead to a similar result as the lye does: it colours the crust and adds a unique taste. But traditional Brezeln are made with lye, which is nothing you have lying around at home except maybe if you need a tube cleaner.
Making traditional Brezeln is not that hard, it is just important to keep several things in mind. Brezeln are made from white flour, water, malt, yeast, salt. (Sometimes fat in the form of butter or lard is added). The special thing about Brezel dough is, that it has to be a very stiff dough with a low water content. The result is a dense and chewy texture similar to that of a bagel. Another similarity to bagels is that most Brezeln are cooked before they are baked.
I used to cook my pretzels in a solution made with baking soda. That way they got a brown crust and looked similar to Brezeln, but the taste was not the same. Baking soda is sodium bicarbonate which is not the same as sodium hydroxide used for a lye bath. And pretzels made with baking soda just aren’t the real thing to me.
A lye bath means that you need to be careful and wear gloves, because sodium hydroxide is a corrosive substance which can damage your skin or your eyes if you are not careful. You need to buy food-grade sodium hydroxide which for example comes in the form of little white granules. Those granules have to be added to water to make the lye solution. (Don’t do it the other way round.) While preparing the solution I used gloves, long sleeves, and an apron. I didn’t use safety glasses but you can do that if you want. Be sure to keep children and animals out of the kitchen and work carefully and slowly.
This might seem scary, but it really isn’t and the finished product is worth the trouble. The lye colours the crust during baking. I usually don’t dip the pretzels but brush them with lye. You can see the difference between a lye brushed and a non-lye brushed area in this picture:
I found two great step by step explanations on how to make Brezeln. One can be found here and the other one here. Now for the recipe: This is a basic pretzel recipe which can be varied by adding whole wheat flour (and more water), for example.
Laugenbrezeln (makes 10)
490 g all purpose flour or bread flour
10 g diastatic malt powder (optional, adds colour to the crust)
2 t salt
1 t sugar (optional)
250 ml water
1 envelope instant yeast (7 g)
20 g margarine, room temperature
Combine all ingredients and knead into a smooth dough. Add more water, if necessary but keep in mind that you want a very stiff dough, which will look like it is difficult to work with. Knead for 10 minutes and let rest in a warm place for 1 hour. The dough will be easier to work with after that. Divide the dough into 10 equal pieces. Roll each piece into a strand, 50 cm long. If the dough is hard to handle, roll it into a 25 cm strand first and let it rest for a couple of minutes to relax the gluten, then go on. (Make sure to check the tutorials mentioned above as well.) It is important that your log is much thicker in the centre than at the ends. Now shape your pretzels:
Brush the ends with water so that they stick to the thick part of the pretzel. Set them aside and preheat your oven to 200°C (400°F). Line two baking sheets with parchment paper. Fill a large pot (I used stainless steel) with cold water. Put on gloves. Dissolve 30 – 40 grams of food-grade sodium hydroxide in the water. It is important to put the sodium hydroxide into the water and not the other way round! (You will cause a violent reaction if you pour water over the lye granules.) This is the lye solution you are going to brush your pretzels with. It makes a lot, but you can either save the leftovers for a second batch (store in a glass jar and leave in a safe place!) or you can use the solution to clean your plugholes.
Take a silicone baking brush and generously brush the pretzels with lye. Sprinkle with coarse sea salt, let rise for 10 minutes and bake for 15-20 minutes or until shiny and brown. Let cool completely before enjoying.
Ok, ok. If you’re still not convinced here is an alternative method to make pretzels with baking soda: bring 1 litre of water to a boil, add 50 g of baking soda and let cook uncovered for ten minutes. Boil every pretzel for 1-2 minutes, sprinkle with salt and bake for 15-20 minutes.
If you want to use whole wheat flour, add 50 ml more water and 1 T of gluten powder (vital wheat gluten) to the dough. You can also use sesame seeds instead of salt if you are sensitive to it, like I did on these whole wheat soda bagels: