It takes very little to send me into an obsessive recipe-research mode. Last week, I started thinking about soft pretzels (and then rye pretzels and then rye pretzels with caraway seeds) and, after discovering that none of my bread-focused cookbooks cover them in sufficient detail, was trying to learn all the things the internet wanted to tell me. I promptly came to an impasse – to lye or not to lye?
Traditional soft pretzels are treated before baking with a lye or baking soda bath, which gives them their distinctive flavor and texture through a Maillard reaction. Lye is said to produce the darkest, crackliest, pretzeliest pretzels. But many recipes substitute baking soda as a milder, alternative alkali because lye has to be handled with care – gloves and goggles come recommended — to avoid chemical burns.
In the end, my impatience made the decision for me. Getting food-grade lye was going to take a week or more. Baking soda was already waiting in the kitchen.
So I got to work kneading and shaping. The dough came together quickly and was easy to roll out and shape. I didn’t need additional flour to prevent sticking. The boiling baking soda bath was quicker and easier than I’d expected. The pretzels poached for 30 seconds per side, drained briefly on a kitchen towel, and then needed only a sprinkle of flaky sea salt before baking. I topped half of my pretzels with caraway seeds, which are traditional in rye breads and I highly recommend.
Maybe my pretzel standards aren’t as high as they should be, but I was thrilled at the result. These rye pretzels have the perfect chew and pretzel flavor. I’m already dreaming of more pretzels — stuffed pretzel bites, sourdough pretzel sticks — and possibly some bagel experiments, given my new enthusiasm for poaching dough.
Yield: 12 medium pretzels, buns, or sticks
- 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon instant yeast
- 1 tablespoon dark brown sugar
- 1 cup rye flour
- 3 cups bread flour, divided
- 1 tablespoon kosher salt
- 2 tablespoons butter, melted
- ½ cup baking soda
- Flaky sea salt or pretzel salt (I used Maldon)
- Caraway seeds (optional)
Mix the yeast, brown sugar, rye flour, and 1 cup of bread flour together in a bowl. Add 1 ½ cups of water and the melted butter and stir until combined. Add the kosher salt and the 2 remaining cups of bread flour. Knead the dough for 8 to 10 minutes, until smooth and elastic. If the dough is dry, add a tablespoon of water at a time. The exact amount you need will depend on many factors, including the gluten content of your flour. Mine needed three extra tablespoons.
Lightly grease a large bowl with oil or melted butter. Place the dough, seam side down, into the bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Allow the dough to rise in a warm spot until doubled in size, about an hour.
Gently deflate the dough and place it on a lightly floured surface. Cut into 12 pieces. For a traditional pretzel shape, roll a piece of dough into a rope and twist the ends twice before folding them down and pressing them into the center of the rope. You can also form rolls, sticks, and smaller bites. Allow the pretzels to rest for 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 450 degrees, line two baking sheets with parchment paper, and bring 10 cups of water to a boil in a large pot. Once the pretzels are ready, stir the baking soda into the boiling water. In batches of two or three, poach the pretzels for 30 seconds on each side. Transfer them to a kitchen-towel-lined tray to drain briefly. Transfer the pretzels to the baking sheets. If you’re making rolls or sticks, score them with a bread lame or sharp knife. While the pretzels are still wet, sprinkle them generously with flaky salt and caraway seeds, if using.