Homemade Soft Pretzels
and the secret to making perfect ones every time
Post Updated 10.8.2023
Growing up in NYC I know a thing or two about soft pretzels, especially the highs and lows. Our corner street-cart soft pretzels aren’t necessarily regarded so much for flavor, as they are a rite of passage. The pretzels of my youth were very different from what’s sold today. They weren’t stale, for starters. No, those pretzels of the 70s and 80s were soft, warm and infused with a smoky flavor from the coals they were heated over.
Then there’s the boxed soft pretzels we sometimes had in the freezer. Flash forward to some 15 years ago, and German-style pretzels became a regular fixture of my diet when a restaurant in Carroll Gardens started making and selling them.
My kids adore soft pretzels as much as I do, so when Luisa Weiss’ Classic German Baking cookbook came out a few years back, featuring a recipe for them, I finally took the leap to trying them at home. The pretzels were good but something felt a little amiss even after making them a few times. They were very good but not great enough to feel they were worth the time to make on a regular basis.
On a whim about a month ago I decided to give the recipe a go again, this time with some tweaks. A tiny bit more yeast, a significantly longer rest, and my own custom “blend” for the boiling water bath (baking soda + molasses + brown rice syrup instead of lye) yielded the soft pretzel of my dreams.
Luisa’s recipe called for 3/4 teaspoon yeast which I decided to bump up 30% for a full teaspoon. Once the pretzels are shaped they sit at room temperature for 30 minutes to help form the skin and then get a rest in the fridge. Luisa recommends the freezer and also offers the refrigerator as a back up if your freezer isn’t wide enough.
I went with the freezer method a good half dozen times, and then something clicked when I revisited her recipe a month ago. Freezing stops the proving process, and when you think about, that’s counterintuitive to the reason you use yeast, which is to create a fermentation, further developing flavor and adding air (i.e. lightness) by way of the gases released.
My guess is Luisa’s first preference is for freezing the shaped pretzels because it theoretically makes the boiled water bath process easier—no worry about floppy dough deflating or losing its shape when you transfer it to the water. I can see that happening if you only chill the shaped pretzels for an hour. They’d still be a little too delicate, so I decided to push that timing, tripling it to 3 hours resting in the fridge.
This extra resting time is crucial to getting that light texture you expect in a soft pretzel. Before, with the shorter rest in the freezer, my pretzels always felt a little too dense and chewy. To be fair, I think that method produced something closer to a German-style soft pretzel, which tends to have a lot more chew to it—at least from what I’ve tasted of German-style pretzels in New York and at holiday fairs in Paris.
But, my goal wasn’t to make a German-style soft pretzel. I wanted something that evoked a hybrid memory of NYC street-cart pretzels and the ones you can buy in the freezer section. This recipe below is basically my soft pretzel dreams come true.
The thoroughly chilled pretzels were firm enough to pick up off the tray and slide into the water bath, and the final baked product was the lightest of all the batches I’d ever made. To make sure this wasn’t a fluke, I woke up the next day and made a second batch applying the same changes I’d made to Luisa’s recipe the previous day. Again, perfect soft pretzels!
Update: I made these pretzels recently, and decided to let the initial dough before shaping do a full proof until doubled in size, and think this made the pretzels even better. I also used barley malt instead of molasses & brown rice syrup as in previous text batches, with a considerably larger amount of barley malt, and they were perfect. The recipe below has been updated with these tweaks.
A note about the boiling water bath. Luisa calls for food-grade lye which you can easily order online but from the very beginning of my pretzel-making journey a few years ago, I knew there had to be another alternative. I decided to try the same thing I use for making bagels, just some barley malt and baking soda. They were good but I knew they could be even better. The combination I finally settled on was brown rice syrup, molasses and baking soda—ingredients I always have in the cupboard.
Be sure to follow the directions precisely for prepping the boiling water bath. I direct you to dissolve the baking soda first and then very, very slowly pour it into the pot of boiling water for a good reason. If you dump it all in at once the chemical reaction will result in a mess of baking soda water all over your stove (I speak from experience!).
To answer the question you may be thinking—are homemade pretzels really worth the effort afterall? Yes, I whole-heartedly think so, and know my kids would agree since they never last more than a couple of hours once out of the oven. Hope you enjoy making them as much as I do!