Making homemade pretzels may sound more labor-intensive than making bread, but the truth is that it’s not. With no proofing time and no need for bread starters, making a pretzel can be a quick, fun project that yields tasty results or a way to celebrate a seasonal holiday like Oktoberfest.
“There is nothing more satisfying than baking something, pulling it out of the oven and taking that first bite slathered with butter,” says Andrea Slonecker, author of Pretzel Making At Home.
Slonecker explains that the art of pretzel making has a long history. They were first made in the region where Italy and France meet and were just basic bread scraps given as a reward to children who learned their prayers. However, the bread-based goodness that we know and love today evolved in Germany — and by accident.
“There are lots of different folklores surrounding how pretzels became what they are and how they got that color, texture and taste,” she says.
The issue, she explains, is the use of lye and how it came in contact with food. Lye itself is a caustic substance which is known to be in soap and other cleaning products. But the secret to making the best pretzels at home is, in fact, the use of lye.
“The key to getting the perfect pretzel bite is that its traditionally dipped in an alkaline solution, which is food-grade lye. It can be a little scary to work with for a home cook if they never worked with it before,” she says.
Slonecker says there is no need to be intimidated if you take the proper precautions prior to using the lye, including protecting yourself from splashes and spills and ensuring your prepping and baking products are the right type for the job.
“I wear rubber gloves and onion goggles when I am working with it. And, I am careful to use all stainless steel with lye, as other substances, like aluminum, can react to it,” she says.
If people aren’t too keen on using lye because of its usage requirements, Slonecker says there is another way to achieve a delicious, brown, crusty pretzel that is still on point.
“Most home cooks can use baking soda, but it doesn’t always have the true pretzel flavor. But, if you spread the baking soda out on a baking sheet and put it in a 250 degree oven for about an hour, you can change the properties of baking soda to make it more similar to lye,” she says.
Slonecker says this is a great alternative to a home cook and is a technique she uses at home quite often.
Other tips for making perfect pretzels at home may be less traditional, but add to the flavor and texture. Slonecker adds a bit of barley malt syrup as well as butter to her dough, which she says takes the bite up a notch.
Also, she says to steer clear of wet ingredients when getting experimental with making pretzels, like fresh fruits or vegetables. “Those will make the dough too soggy,” she says.
And while pretzels can be shaped, flavored, stuffed and enjoyed in a variety of ways, there is something special about a traditional pretzel fresh from the oven, according to Slonecker.
“I use a flaky sea salt — bigger, larger salt flakes. But, I love a pretzel warm, right out of the oven. I tear it open and spread some cold butter on the cut side. It’s a heavenly bite and it’s super comforting,” she says.