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.