During the ballgame, at the fair, in the mall, or off of a street cart in Manhattan, soft pretzels are always there as a satisfying go-to snack wherever hunger may strike. Smeared with mustard or dipped into melted cheese, the crisp and salty deep brown exterior and soft chewy center make the twisted snack an irresistible portable comfort food. Pretzels are one of the many great ways to enjoy bread (as if there were a bad way?). Homemade, they are a lot of fun and surprisingly simple with a taste that is deliciously close to the real deal.
In authentic pretzel-making, the dough is typically submerged in a lye or sodium hydroxide water solution before baking to give it its distinctive brown color and crispy outer texture. Lye is a highly corrosive alkaline substance commonly used to make soap, drain cleaner, and biodiesel.
Save the cringing for your binging; your favorite stadium snack does not get dipped into a vat of Drano before you eat it. Food grade lye, the variety utilized in making pretzels, bagels, and hominy, is less harsh and must meet certain requirements mapped out by the United States FDA. In any grade, lye is still very dangerous and can burn skin and surfaces if spilled. It is not something to be messed with unless you are prepared to take the proper precautions (gloves, goggles).
To spare you the science project duds and the worry, this homemade soft pretzel recipe calls for a substitute that everyone has on hand at home: baking soda. A lighter kind of alkaline without the intense power to say, eat through your insides if accidently ingested, baking soda delivers a similar effect as lye in pretzel-making without the hazard. I used lye in culinary school with an experienced chef, in an experienced kitchen where many a pretzel had been crafted before. At home, baking soda is much friendlier, especially if kids are involved.
Enticed by the recipe and photo in my cookbook, The Best of Cooking Light Everyday Favorites, I’ve wanted to try making soft pretzels for a while. They came out surprisingly great, and all it takes is a few simple steps:
First, make the dough; knead and let rise for about 40 minutes until the dough doubles in size:
Divide the dough into 10-12 equal portions. Roll and twist into a pretzel knot:
1. Roll out dough into a thin rope with tapered ends.
2. Cross one end of the rope over the other to form a circle, leaving about 4 inches at the end f each rope. Twist rope at the base of the circle.
3. Fold ends over circle into a traditional pretzel shape. Pinch end to seal.
Simmer pretzels in baking soda water on each side for about 15 seconds. Use a slotted spatula to flip and remove the pretzel from the water. Drain on a wire rack.
Brush pretzels with egg wash and sprinkle with your choice of topping. I used kosher salt and cinnamon sugar. The salt pretzels were my favorite. I wanted to make cinnamon sugar pretzels like they have in the mall but found that without mass amounts of butter they don’t taste nearly as good.
Bake for about 12 minutes and voilà! Delicious soft pretzels, straight from the oven!
The Best of Cooking Light Everyday Favorites
Yield: 10-12 servings
- 1 package dry yeast (about 2 ¼ teaspoons)
- 1 ½ teaspoons sugar
- 1 cup warm water ( 100-110 degrees F)
- 3 ¼ cups all-purpose flour (about 14 ½ ounces), divide 3 cups from ¼ cup
- 1 teaspoon salt
- Cooking spray
- 6 cups water
- 2 tablespoons baking soda
- 1 teaspoon corn meal
- 1 teaspoon water
- 1 large egg
- 2 teaspoons kosher salt
• Dissolve yeast and sugar in warm water in a large bowl, and let stand 5 minutes.
• Lightly spoon flour into dry measuring cups; level with a knife. Add 3 cups flour and 1 teaspoon salt to yeast mixture; stir until a soft dough forms. Turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface; knead until smooth and elastic (about 8 minutes). Add enough of the remaining flour, 1 tablespoon at a time, to prevent dough from sticking to hands (dough will feel slightly sticky).
• Place dough in a large bowl coated with cooking spray, turning to coat top. Cover and let rise in a warm place (85 degrees F), free from drafts, 40 minutes or until doubled in size. (Gently press two fingers into dough, if indentation remains, dough has risen enough.) Punch dough down; cover and let rest 5 minutes.
• Preheat oven to 450 degrees F.
• Divide dough into 10-12 equal portions. Working with one portion at a time, roll each into an 18-inch-long rope with tapered ends. Cross one end of rope over other to form a circle, leaving about 4 inches at end of each rope. Twist rope at base of circle. Fold ends over circle into traditional pretzel shape, pinching gently to seal. Place pretzels on a baking sheet lightly coated with cooking spray. Cover and let rise 10 minutes (pretzels will only rise slightly). Combine 6 cups water and baking soda in non-aluminum Dutch oven. Bring to a boil; reduce heat, and simmer. Gently lower 1 pretzel into simmering water mixture, cook 15 seconds. Turn pretzel over with a slotted spatula, cook an additional 15 seconds. Transfer pretzels to a wire rack coated with cooking spray. Repeat procedure with remaining pretzels.
• Place pretzels on a baking sheet sprinkled with cornmeal. Combine 1 teaspoon water and egg in a small bowl, stirring with a fork until smooth. Brush a thin layer of egg mixture over pretzels; sprinkle evenly with kosher salt. Bake at 425 degrees F for 12 minutes or until pretzels are deep golden brown. Transfer to a wire rack to cool.