Soft and Chewy Sourdough Pretzels

I have a soft spot for pretzels. I don’t know how it started; it’s not like we ate pretzels that often growing up. But every time I see pretzels on a menu there’s a good chance I’ll order them; and if I attend a baseball game I’m more likely to get a pretzel than a hot dog. What can I say? I have a weakness for warm, chewy carbs.

Making sourdough pretzels has been on my to-do list for awhile; and after quite a few batches I’ve finally come up with a version that I’m pretty pleased with. For awhile I was tinkering with an authentic pretzel recipe, which produces a more chewy and dense product. Call me inauthentic, but I like my pretzels a bit softer — so the recipe here reflects that. If you prefer a denser pretzel, you can use the ingredients below but skip the bulk rise — divide right after mixing, let the dough rest for 45 minutes, shape the pretzels, and refrigerate overnight. Then proceed with baking as directed below.

One final thing — I would love to try making lye-dipped pretzels because I hear it’s the bee’s knees, but I can’t find a reasonably priced source for food grade lye in Toronto (ordering online will cost me about $70). One day I’ll find a way to do it, but for now baked baking soda is my dip of choice. Just spread out a box of baking soda on a baking sheet at bake at 250F for an hour, then store in an airtight container to use whenever your pretzel cravings hit.

Making sourdough pretzels with lye

sourdough pretzel lye

Updated, October 9, 2020: I have now made these pretzels several times using a lye dip and it is delicious! Lye is a strong alkali which, in the case of pretzels, speeds up the Maillard reaction (browning) during baking, giving pretzels a gorgeous bronzed crust and distinctive texture. I purchased food grade lye from Amazon; you only need a small amount for each batch so one order will last you awhile. Please note that lye is caustic and can cause chemical burns if not handled with care. Make sure to wear protective gear (gloves and long sleeves) when using it and keep it away from children and animals.

When you make these pretzels with lye they only need to be dipped (not boiled) so I make the following schedule changes.

  1. On step 3 (on day 1), let the pretzel dough proof until increased by ~50-60%, about 3.5-4.5 hours. Divide the dough and shape as directed in steps 1-2 for day 2. Once shaped, let the pretzels sit at room temperature for about 1 hour, or until noticeably puffed. Cover with lightly oiled plastic and refrigerate until cold, at least 4 hours but up to 24.
  2. When ready to bake, preheat the oven to 500F with a rack in the middle. Set a large wire rack set over a large sheet tray.
  3. Note: Be very careful when working with lye as it is corrosive! Wear gloves and make sure the kitchen is clear of small children and animals.
  4. Pour 1000g cold water into a large stainless steel bowl. Add 35g food grade lye and use a spoon to carefully stir until the lye dissolves.
  5. With gloved hands, dip pretzels in the lye solution one at a time for 15-20 seconds each. After dipping, transfer to the prepared wire rack.
  6. Once all the pretzels have been dipped, carefully flush the lye solution down the toilet. Move the pretzels (still with gloved hands) back to the parchment-lined baking sheet, spacing at least an inch apart. (At this point I also like to clean all the equipment that may have come in contact with lye, still with gloved hands.)
  7. Using a razor blade or sharp knife, make about a 1-inch long slash at the thickest part of each pretzel (the bottom of the “U”). Sprinkle with flaky salt.
  8. Bake for about 10-15 minutes, rotating the pan halfway through baking, or until pretzels are well browned. Transfer pretzels to a cooling rack for about 10 minutes before serving. Pretzels taste best within an hour of baking, but leftovers can be wrapped tightly with plastic and frozen for up to a month. Reheat for about 10 minutes in a 350F oven.

Thanks to Maurizio at The Perfect Loaf for the instructions for using lye! For more background on the lye dip and how it creates that beautiful distinctive crust, see this article from NPR.

sourdough pretzels with lye

Soft and Chewy Sourdough Pretzels

Makes 8 | Adapted from various sources, including Tasting Table and The Fresh Loaf

For the dough:

  • 175g Pilsner-style beer (room temperature is fine)
  • 120g mature sourdough starter (100% hydration)
  • 14g barley malt syrup (or honey)
  • 30g lard (or softened butter)
  • 360g flour (I use half bread, half all purpose)
  • 8g sea salt

To finish:

  • 1/4 c baked baking soda
  • 1 egg yolk + 1 Tbsp milk/water (for egg wash)
  • Pretzel salt / flaky sea salt, for sprinkling

Method

Day 1:

  1. Combine the beer, starter, barley malt syrup, and lard in a medium bowl and whisk to combine.
  2. Whisk together the flour and salt in a large bowl. Add the liquid mixture and stir to combine with a silicone spatula or wooden spoon. Knead, by hand or with the dough hook in a stand mixer, until the dough is smooth and the gluten is well developed (about 10 minutes with a mixer, longer if by hand). The dough is fairly stiff and should be slightly tacky, but not sticky.
  3. Transfer the dough to a clean, oiled bowl, cover with plastic, and allow to rise at room temperature for about 2 hours, folding once an hour. Refrigerate overnight (or for at least 8 hours).

Day 2:

  1. Line a large sheet tray with parchment paper. On a clean work surface, divide and round the dough into 8 equal portions, about 85g each.
  2. To shape, flatten a round into a rough rectangle about 3″ x 5″. Starting from a long edge, roll the rectangle up into a tight log and pinch to seal the seam. Roll the log out to about 12 inches and set aside to relax while you repeat the process with the remaining rounds.
  3. Once all the rounds have been initially rolled out, return to the first log and continue rolling it out into a rope roughly 26 inches long, tapering the ends slightly. If you’re having trouble getting enough traction, lightly mist your work surface with water (you don’t want to use flour, which will actually make it harder to roll out the dough).
  4. Form the rope into a “U” shape. Holding the ends, twist together twice about 3-inches from the ends, then fold the ends down and press them into the “U” at about 4 and 8 o’clock. Transfer to the prepared baking sheet. Cover and let proof until noticeably puffed, about 45-60 minutes. Meanwhile, preheat oven to 500 degrees with a rack in the center.
  5. When the pretzels are nearly ready, fill a large pot with 8 cups of water (I like to use the leftovers from the can of beer used to make the dough, plus enough water to equal 8 cups). Stir in the baked baking soda, then bring the mixture to a simmer over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally to make sure the baking soda is dissolved.
  6. Once the liquid is simmering, turn the heat down to medium to maintain a gentle simmer. Use a slotted spoon to dip the pretzels in one or two at a time for about 20 seconds each. Remove the dipped pretzels from the liquid, drain, and return to the baking sheet, spacing at least an inch apart.
  7. Brush the pretzels with egg wash and sprinkle with salt. Using a razor blade or sharp knife, make about a 1-inch long slash at the thickest part of each pretzel (the bottom of the “U”).
  8. Bake for about 10-15 minutes, rotating the pan halfway through baking, or until pretzels are well browned. Transfer pretzels to a cooling rack for about 10 minutes before serving. Pretzels taste best within an hour of baking, but leftovers can be wrapped tightly with plastic and frozen for up to a month. Reheat for about 10 minutes in a 350F oven.

6 thoughts on “Soft and Chewy Sourdough Pretzels

    1. It’s pretty flexible — anywhere from 12-24 hours should be fine; I’ve left it in for 48 and it still baked up ok!

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