Sunday, January 27, 2008

A Love Affair with Soft Pretzels

Soft Pretzel Rolls Soft, buttery pretzels make me salivate. I must shut my eyes when passing by soft pretzel stands to avoid purchasing one, so I’ve had my fair share of the good, the bad, and the well, just terrible (i.e. pretzel stand in Phoenix airport – stay away). According to, pretzels have a long and storied history: “Somewhere straddling the border of northern Italy or southern France, pretzels were invented by an ambitious monk baking unleavened bread for the Christian Lent. Possibly out of boredom, he made some little shapes with leftover bread dough. Because Christians in those days prayed with their hands crossed over their chests, he tried shaping the dough to mimic that action. They were baked to a soft bread consistency and given as a treat to children that memorized their prayers. The monk named his new treat 'pretiola' - a Latin word meaning 'little reward'.

Pretzels have their characteristic dark color, and their unique ‘pretzel’ taste from a lye bath. Professional (or ambitious) bakers use a bath combining
sodium hydroxides (NaOH), sodium carbonate (Na2CO3), or sodium bicarbonate (NaHCO3). Sounds like a chemical experiment, huh? Pretzel recipes calling for a lye bath also strongly suggest using goggles and rubber gloves as the resulting alkaline is so caustic it can burn skin and ruin clothing. Once the pretzels begin baking, a Maillard reaction then gives the pretzel its characteristic brown color and distinctive flavor.

I’m ambitious, but I didn’t feel like purchasing any of my baking ingredients at the local hardware store -- lye is the main ingredient in drain cleaners like Drano and Red Devil. So, I've tweaked a recipe using a much milder alternative – a baking soda bath. I usually fail at attempts at making the cute prayer shaped pretzels, so I’ve come to make pretzel rolls instead, which make the most AMAZING turkey swiss sandwiches. If you’re not a fan of salt, experiment with adding raisins and cinnamon sugar during the kneading. I hope you enjoy as much as I enjoy cooking and eating these. A whole batch never lasts for more than a day and a half between the Mr. and myself.

Soft & Buttery Pretzels
*adapted from
4 teaspoons active dry yeast
1 teaspoon white sugar
1 1/4 cups warm water (110 degrees F/45 degrees C)
4 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup white sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1/2 cup baking soda
4 cups water
1/4 cup kosher or pretzel salt, for topping

In a small bowl, dissolve yeast and 1 teaspoon sugar in warm water. Let stand until mixture is foamy, about 10 minutes. In a large bowl, mix together flour, 1/2 cup sugar, and salt. Make a well in the center; add the oil and yeast mixture. Mix and form into a dough. If the mixture is dry, add one or two tablespoons of water. Knead the dough until smooth, about 7 to 8 minutes.
Lightly grease a large bowl with oil or cooking spray, place the dough in the bowl and turn to coat. Cover with plastic wrap and let rise in a warm place (I use the oven) until doubled in size, about 1 hour.
Preheat oven to 415 degrees F. In a medium sized pot, combine the baking soda and water and bring to a simmer over low heat.
When the dough has risen, turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface and divide into 12 equal pieces. Lightly knead dough to remove air bubbles and shape into a roll. Using a serrated knife, cut a small incision to allow bread to split. I experimented below with both a cross and one vertical cut (the cross came out better).

Soft Pretzel doughOnce all of the dough is all shaped, dip each pretzel into the baking soda solution using a spatula to flip and remove.
Pretzel Lye BathPlace pretzel on a kitchen towel to allow water to drain. Place all dipped pretzel rolls on a greased cookie sheet. Bake in preheated oven for 10 minutes, or until browned. After removing from the oven, brush the rolls with melted butter and sprinkle with kosher or pretzel salt, to taste. Yum!


Anonymous said...

These sound great and I love pretzel rolls! Have you ever had a pretzel ice cream cone-YUM-the sweet/salty combo is great! Anyway-I don't see oil in the ingredient list yet the directions say something about adding the oil? Can you please clarify? Thanks and don't be surprised if oil is listed in the list...sometimes I miss things in front of my face:-).

Sheila in MD

Sharon said...

Hi Sheila, Yikes you are absolutely right. Looks like cut and paste has failed me again! :) I corrected the recipe above. Oh, and where are these pretzel ice cream cones? I think I'd be in heaven!

Mo said...

I love pretzel rolls as well. In fact, a steak restaurant here makes the most amazing pretzel bread sticks. I am so excited to try your recipe!