Pretzel Recipe

You may have heard a rumor that you can only make truly authentic pretzels by using dangerous chemicals. That’s pretty much true. Lye has been an important part of the pretzel-making process for hundreds of years. However it’s not essential. You can make very serviceable pretzels without it. This recipe includes instructions for both. It’s also based on “sourdough” starter, which I think gives the pretzels a much better flavor. It goes like this:

8 ounces active starter
8 ounces water
1 lb. 4 ounces bread flour
1 tablespoon malt syrup
2 teaspoons salt
2 ounces food-grade lye added to 2 quarts warm water OR 5 ounces baking soda mixed with 10 cups water brought to a boil, plus egg wash made from 2 yolks plus 2 teaspoons water.
Additional coarse salt for sprinkling

Combine starter, water, flour, malt syrup and salt in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook. Mix on medium for 6-8 minutes until the dough is smooth and elastic. Turn it out onto a lightly floured board and cut into roughly 3-5 ounce pieces depending on the size pretzel you like. Roll them into balls, cover with a cloth spritzed lightly with water and let them rest for 1 hour.

Shape them (photo tutorial to follow) and place on parchment-lined baking sheets. Re-cover the sheet with a cloth and let rest for one more hour. Cover the sheet pans lightly with plastic wrap or a trash bag and put them in the refrigerator to develop overnight or up to two days.

When ready to bake preheat your oven to 400 degrees. For those of you who wish to use lye solution, stir together the lye and hot water in a non-reactive (glass or ceramic) bowl. Line two more sheet pans with parchment paper, spray them with non-stick spray. Set them on the far end of your kitchen counter. Next, prepare a drying rack by spraying it liberally with non-stick spray, setting it on another sheet pan and placing it next to your prepared baking pans. Next to the prepared rack place your bowl of lye solution.

It’s important to note here that lye is a caustic that should NEVER come into contact with your skin, eyes or any other part of your body. Handle it like you’d handle drain cleaner (and in fact lye is used as a drain cleaner). Even when it’s diluted it can still irritate, so use rubber gloves and wear eye protection (like googles) when you’re working with it — and keep your kids out of the kitchen.

So then, gear on, remove the pretzels from the fridge. At this point they’ll be firm enough to dip without losing their shape. Using a large spoon or spider, dip each one — one at a time — into the lye solution for about 20 seconds. Remove the pretzel from the solution and place it on the rack to dry. The pretzels will take a minute or so to drip and get tacky. Sprinkle each one with pretzel salt. The leftover dipping solution can be poured down the drain.

Alternately you can skip the lye and poach then in boiling water and baking soda. Paoch pretzels a few at a time for about a minute. Dry on a rack and then paint the pretzels with egg wash and sprinkle with salt. They won’t have the same classic pretzel taste, but they’ll be simpler and safer to prepare.

Transfer the pretzels to the baking pans, placed about two inches apart. Bake for 10 minutes, rotate the pans, and bake for another 10-15 minutes until they’re a deep brown. Makes a dozen 3-ounce pretzels.

UPDATE: Several readers have suggested looking for food-grade lye at soap-making supply stores.

UPDATE: Reader Ryan says

It is recommended to always add the lye to the water, never water to lye. Lye releases a lot of heat as it dissolves and if you add water to the crystals the first few drops could boil causing splattering and other nastyness.

UPDATE: Reader Tom is very worried that I’m not properly impressing upon everyone how dangerous pure sodium hydroxide is. Being a chemist, he requests that I supply this very scary language from a sodium hydroxide materials safety data sheet:

Appearance: white. Danger! Corrosive. Causes eye and skin burns. Hygroscopic. May cause severe respiratory tract irritation with possible burns. May cause severe digestive tract irritation with possible burns.

Target Organs: Eyes, skin, mucous membranes.

Engineering Controls: Facilities storing or utilizing this material should be equipped with an eyewash facility and a safety shower.
Eyes: Wear chemical goggles.
Skin: Wear appropriate protective gloves to prevent skin exposure.
Clothing: Wear appropriate protective clothing to prevent skin exposure.

Potential Health Effects
Eye: Causes eye burns. May cause chemical conjunctivitis and corneal damage.
Skin: Causes skin burns. May cause deep, penetrating ulcers of the skin. May cause skin rash (in milder cases), and cold and clammy skin with cyanosis or pale color.
Ingestion: May cause severe and permanent damage to the digestive tract. Causes gastrointestinal tract burns. May cause perforation of the digestive tract. Causes severe pain, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and shock. May cause corrosion and permanent tissue destruction of the esophagus and digestive tract. May cause systemic effects.
Inhalation: Irritation may lead to chemical pneumonitis and pulmonary edema. Causes severe irritation of upper respiratory tract with coughing, burns, breathing difficulty, and possible coma. Causes chemical burns to the respiratory tract.
Chronic: Prolonged or repeated skin contact may cause dermatitis. Effects may be delayed.

25 thoughts on “Pretzel Recipe”

  1. Heres a great pretzel recipe! i made a few tweaks to it and they turned out great! so i yhought i would share it.

    2 envelopes dry yeast
    1 qt. milk, 2% is fine
    1/2 c. warm water
    3/4 c. shortening (I mix lard & butter & flavored Crisco)
    1/2 c. sugar
    1 1/2 tsp. baking powder
    12 c. all-purpose flour, unsifted
    1 1/2 tbsp. salt
    Coarse salt to sprinkle

    LYE DIP:

    2 level tbsp. lye
    2 quarts. cold water

    Soften yeast in 1/2 cup water. Scald milk. Stir in shortening. Cool . Add yeast with 6 cups flour. Beat, vigorously. Cover, sit in warm place until risen , this takes just about 30 minutes.

    Add remaining flour, baking powder, salt and sugar. Mix until well blended. Turn out on smooth surface. Cover with moist towel 3 minutes. Knead until elastic. Put in big kettle. Cover with towel. Put in warm place and Let rise until it has doubled in size, usually takes 1 1/2 hours. Punch dough down and let stand for 10 minutes. Cut into quarters then Cut quarters into 12 pieces. Cover with towel. Roll each piece into long strip for twisting. Place on stainless steel baking sheet, then put one at a time, pretzels on slotted, stainless steel lifter, dip very briefly in lye, usually a 3-5 second bath, drain on lifter and place back on sheet. As soon as cookie sheet is full, sprinkle with coarse salt. Bake in 400 degree oven until brown, about 15 minutes. Place on dry towel to cool. Cover twisted pretzels with towel until half raised.

    IMPORTANT: Lye creates a volotile reaction with aluminum! aluminum sheets or dipping tool CANNOT BE USED. Also, I spray sheets with Pam, so there is no sticking.

    1. Great Bill! Thanks! I can hardly wait to try it…it’s getting on pretzel season, at least as far as I’m concerned.


      – Joe

  2. id be glad to hear of anyone elses recipes and i definitely wanna know if anyone has any questions comments or ideas about the recipe or anything! keep me posted!

  3. Hi Joe, I have my starter for the donut setting at the moment. I also wanted to make some pretzels. Please help me out. What is the starter for the pretzels & what is malt syrup? I am not experienced with starters but very willing to learn.

    1. Hey there! Just click on the link in the recipe and you’ll got to the recipe. It’s the same starter I use for all my various breads. Actually here’s the link right here:

      Malt syrup is something you can find in a lot of health food stores. It’s simple a molasses-like syrup made from malted (sprouted) barley. It helps give the pretzels both flavor and color.

      Let me know how they go!

      – Joe

  4. I am looking for a Period recipe from the roman era. It is for a competition I am entering. I belong to the SCA. So adding Malt syrup, would that be considered period?

    1. Hi Michele!

      Malt syrup was around back then, though as far as I know not in Rome (more like China). Neapolitan pizza would be period I think (something like a pizzeria was found in the ruins of Pompeii). Of course you’d need to make it without tomatoes (New World) or buffalo mozzarella (Middle Ages). Flat bread made of some sort of non-white wheat flour (spelt or something like that) with farmer’s cheese (feta would also be acceptable) plus oil and salt. Cheese cakes date from that period also, though here again you’d need to use some sort of honey-sweetened farmer’s cheese and a spelt crust.

      Let me know what you settle on!

      – Joe

  5. With Malt Syrup now in hand, I’ve been playing around with pretzel recipes. Adding Vital Wheat Gluten, combining flours, etc., etc.. The tasting comments I’ve received have centered around the “fluffy factor.” In my mind (or mouth, to be more exact) a proper soft pretzel has a bit of a crispy crust followed by a chewy center. So, my question Joe is this: Is it possible to have both a chewy crumb and a fluffy one? Aren’t they mutually exclusive? But if it is doable, what techniques should I be looking into?

    1. Hey Jim!

      You can have both chew and fluff, though not density (which I guess effects chew). A faster rise is generally responsible for fluff, so I’d experiment with adding more yeast and/or letting them rise a little longer. Use high gluten flour of course for more chew since you’ll lose some of that compactness. Let me know how it goes!

      – Joe

  6. Do you know what kind of flour is used in Germany for pretzels? I never tried to make them while we lived there (as they were available for less than $1 EVERYWHERE), but now that we’re back in the States, my boys are missing them (me too, to be honest!). I have loads of friends who still live there (we just moved back to the US in late Aug 2013) and can ship me flour to help make it more authentic, but I need to know what kind. If I do use the German flour, would I have to change and of the portions? Thanks so much, Joe. You rock!

    1. Hey again — and I could get used to those compliments!

      You would not need to change the proportions, but at this point I’m wondering if they have a little whole wheat or rye flour in them or something. Can you describe what they were like versus the American versions?

      – Joe

  7. Hey Joe,

    I fixed the chew/fluff problem by using part of the process you do (rolling them into balls after kneading followed by a 60 min. rise) but then I roll them into logs and just refrigerate for the cold retard. I hope to sell, wholesale… and wondered if there’s a way you know how to package them (heat-sealed fresh) with a butter/sugar topping already on the pretzel. It’s a lot to ask the corner store to dip them in butter and cinnamon/sugar. Again, THANKS!

  8. Upon further thought Joe, I guess my question is this: Is there a cinnamon/sugar and butter (flavored?) icing, or a frosting, or some sort of a topping that could be intially applied to the pretzel and also withstand the reheat, after being unwrapped, without becoming a drippy mess?

    1. Hey Jim!

      What sort of reheat are you thinking? In an oven is my assumption, right? Not one of those hanging contraptions.

      – Joe

  9. A toaster oven, or, something they have here… for heating Arepas on… over a gas flame.

  10. Would mixing up the dough, stashing it in the fridge overnight, shaping the pretzels, then back to the fridge overnight again before boiling and baking work? I’m assuming yes– the fridge should keep it from over proofing. If not, they’re not supposed to be too fluffy anyway.

    1. Hi HIllary!

      Yes you can do that, though me, I’d rush the shaped pretzels into the freezer first to try to shut down the yeast activity. Half and hour of that and you could put them into the fridge. Best of luck!

      – Joe

  11. Update: mixing the dough, leaving it in the fridge for 2 days, then dividing it into 12 balls and letting it rest for an hour or so at that stage works great! A couple of sheet pans take up a lot of fridge space.

    1. Hey Hillary!

      Sorry I’m late to the party on this. Sounds like you’ve found your system…way to go!

      – Joe

  12. Pretzels are my weakness. The chewy texture of the crust and the nice salty bite keeps me going back for more. Lye is definitely the only way to go when making a pretzel, it adds the traditional dark amber color to the exterior of the pretzel and adds to its chew factor. I have tried a cinnamon sugar mixture on top of lye pretzels and I would recommend not to ever do it. The pretzels had a reaction with the lye and the tops of the pretzels were all black and hard. A traditional pretzel dipped in lye and topped with some sea salt is good enough to never change, so just forget the cinnamon with this one. Pair it with some cheddar beer sauce and you’re good to go.

    1. Fascinating. Thanks for sharing your results! I’ll remember never to do that. The cheddar beer sauce is a definite winner!


      – Joe

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