In Philadelphia, soft pretzels are a significant and constant presence in life. Having grown up in that city, their delicious abundance forms the centerpiece of countless memories. Like of my neighbor who made deliveries at pretzel factories, where he would fill up his trunk with sheets of pretzels still warm from the oven. When the kids on my street saw his car pull into the driveway, we’d chant “Sam, Sam, the pretzel man” and run over for our delicious handout. Or pretzel Wednesdays in school where more sheets of pretzels still warm from the factory oven would appear in my classroom. A quarter bought a delicious snack, and when the pretzel was gone, I’d eat the salt off of my desk. Or when my mom was in school and was tasked with buying pretzels for her family, only to reach inside her desk during the day, picking away at each pretzel’s soft, white center. She’d arrive home to deliver hollow, golden pretzel shells. I’ve resorted to pathetic measures to get my pretzel fix during my 9+ years in DC, even getting them mailed and stashing them in my freezer. But everyone knows that soft pretzels are best on the day they’re made. I am now deep in the most pathetic measure of all- making them myself- but they are freaking fantastic, and if you don’t live in Philly, then I urge you to make them too.
For a batch of 8, add 15 ounces (3 cups) of bread flour to the bowl of a stand mixer. Then add 1/2 tablespoon of brown sugar, 1 tablespoon of softened butter, and 1/2 tablespoon of active dry yeast. Stir those ingredients together, and then stir in 1.75 teaspoons (1/2 tablespoon plus 1/4 teaspoon) of kosher salt. If the salt makes direct contact with the yeast, it could kill it. Using the mixer’s paddle attachment, stir in 1 cup of warm water until the dough comes together and picks up all of the flour. Touch the dough: it should have a very slight tackiness to it. If the dough feels too dry, mix in 1 teaspoon of warm water, and test it again. Note: If you’re nervous about whether your yeast is good or not, you could add it into the warm water instead of mixing it into the flour. If the yeast disintegrates and begins to puff up, it’s good, and you can pour it and the water into the dough together.
Swap the mixer’s paddle for the dough hook, and knead the dough on a high speed for 9 minutes. Seriously, set a timer– it’s very important to knead thoroughly to develop a proper amount of gluten in the pretzels or else they’ll just be pretzel-shaped breads. The bread flour helps with gluten development too because it contains more than all-purpose flour does.
Remove the dough from the bowl, and divide it into 8 equal pieces. Each piece should weigh about 3 ounces. Set the dough balls on a parchment-lined baking sheet, and cover them loosely with plastic wrap. Let the dough rest for 30 minutes. This resting time is important because it will allow the gluten you developed in the dough to relax enough to shape the dough into pretzels. If you tried shaping the dough now, it would just snap back into its original shape.
Let’s talk about pretzel shape. Philly soft pretzels are shaped like eights, not like the normal pretzels you’ll find just about everywhere else. I don’t know why they’re different, but I do know that the eight shape is more efficient; you can definitely fit more pretzels on a single pan. Once the 30 minute resting time is up, roll a piece of the dough into a long rope. Twist the two ends of the rope together- about 2 twists should do it. Then, fold the twisted ends over and stick them to the center of the rope. Gently stretch the pretzel’s two lobes into an eight shape, and place the pretzel back on the parchment paper, with the folded over piece on the bottom touching the pan so it doesn’t come undone.
Repeat the folding process with the rest of the pretzels. Cover the formed pretzels with plastic wrap again, and allow them to rise for 1 hour. When that time is up, preheat your oven to 425° F.
Now it’s time to turn your pretzels into…pretzels. You’ll need food-grade lye. Yes, lye can be dangerous and corrosive (have you read Fight Club or the Silkworm?), but it’s also easy to manage safely. You’ll definitely want to wear rubber gloves when working with it. I’ve also been rocking my ski goggles for eye protection, but that’s probably overkill because I haven’t had any splashes. Still, better safe than sorry. Plus, it’s a damn fine look. Now, make a lye solution for dipping the pretzels. Set a wide plastic container or bowl into your sink, and fill it with 2 cups of water. Measure out 1/8 cup of the lye, and slowly stir it into the water until it is dissolved. As the lye begins to dissolve, it will let out a single quick burst of fumes that aren’t pleasant to breathe in, so try not to breathe over the bowl during the mixing process. Once mixed, float one pretzel in the lye solution for 10 seconds, then flip it over, and let it float for another 10 seconds. Transfer the pretzel back to the parchment-lined baking sheet (lye corrodes aluminum), and repeat with the others. When you’re done with the lye solution, it’s safe to pour down the drain. Rinse off your gloves and carefully remove them.
Sprinkle pretzel salt or coarse sea salt (used here) generously over the pretzels. A note about pretzel spacing— Philly soft pretzels come in a sheet, and you pull the pretzels apart from each other. I tried that here, but the lye solution prevented the pretzels from sticking together. My guess is that the pretzel factories arrange the pretzels so they touch and then spray them with lye, but that’s not practical in my small container. So, I recommend spacing the pretzels apart on the baking sheet. Another note about the lye— if you’re totally freaked out by it, you could improvise using baking soda instead. But IT IS NOT AS GOOD. The pretzels won’t get those beautiful, crisp blisters and it just doesn’t taste the same. If you want to try it, however, bring a quart of water to a boil and add 1/4 cup of baking soda. Once dissolved, remove the pot of water from the heat. Allow each pretzel to float in the solution for about 1 minute on each side. You should still try to avoid getting the baking soda solution on your skin. Once treated, brush the pretzels with an egg wash before salting them.
Transfer the sheet of pretzels into the oven to bake for approximately 13 minutes until they are golden brown and crisped on the outside. The smell is like heaven. Once cool enough to handle, serve the pretzels with mustard. SO GOOD!!! If you still have pretzels left at the end of the day, turn them into hard pretzels. Put them back on the baking sheet, and bake them at 325° F until they are crisp and darkly golden. Once completely cool, break the pretzels into pieces and store them in a closed container for an addictive and satisfying snack.
This recipe is adapted from Smitten Kitchen.
- Bread flour- 15 ounces (3 cups)
- Brown sugar- 1/2 tablespoon
- Butter- 1 tablespoon
- Yeast (active dry)- 1/2 tablespoon
- Kosher salt- 1.75 teaspoons
- Lye- 1/8 cup
- Pretzel salt or coarse sea salt
Great photos and they look delicious!!!
“Let’s talk about pretzel shape. Philly soft pretzels are shaped like eights, not like the normal pretzels you’ll find just about everywhere else. I don’t know why they’re different, but I do know that the eight shape is more efficient; you can definitely fit more pretzels on a single pan.”
You answered your own question right there. It was actually the pretzel machinery builders in Reading, PA that came up with that figure 8 shape so they could utilize the maximum capacity of the ovens. They found that they could fit a row of 5 or 7 on the different size conveyor belts for the automatic ovens. You’re welcome Philly!
-PA Dutch Baker, Reading, PA
I love when logic prevails. Thanks for the information!!
I loved this recipe. I grew up in Philly and I missed these pretzels. They tasted just like them. Teied to dunk the pretzels into the lie they went a little mushie. The second batch I breed the lie on and it worked out just as well. All four pretzels right in a row. Thanks for this recipe I will use it often. Now all I need is a water ice recipe to go with it and I will be set.
I am so glad you gave these a try! A water ice recipe would be welcome here as well, even though I now live much closer to a Rita’s!
Rita’s IS NOT Rosadi’s from Clifton Heights, yuuuummmmm.
Rosati’s – sorry
Wow. Made pretzels in Sapporo, Japan today and they were good but alas… I didn’t know how to get the right “Philly” shape. Thanks for the info!
That is amazing! Thanks for writing in! Sorry the photos didn’t provide enough shaping guidance. I’ll think about how to make the instructions clearer.
Have you ever made them ahead, refrigerate them and them bring them back to room temperature, dip in lye solution and bake? I grew up outside of Philly but now live in MS and was thinking about making them for kids in Bible school (150) or do you think that would be to labor intensive???
I haven’t let the pretzels rise in the fridge, but I think it would work just fine, and maybe even develop a better flavor. I would NEVER want to twist 150 of these pretzels though. It might be easier to roll the dough into ropes and cut them into nuggets. The baking time would probably be shorter for this approach. Good luck!
Would probably be much better as the pretzels after rising are the consistency and tackiness of hot taffy and stick to the parchment like glue
I skip the individual rise that the recipe suggests, but instead do a bulk rise right after the knead for about an hour. It will almost double in size. I punch it down and roll immediately. They will rise again in the oven.
If you were to open a business selling these Pretzels what would you charge per Pretzel? We lived in the Philly area in the late 1980’s and have yet to ever find a Pretzel like the ones made there. We truly miss them and are definitely going to try this recipe. Any input is appreciated. Also, what is up with selling them in brown paper bags? I remember that too. Thanks.
In 2019, in a suburb just 20 miles north of Philadelphia, they now sell for $1.00 and up. There is a pretzel company attached to a Subway in Walmart and they want $3.00 for 1 pretzel. Ridiculous. You once could buy a bag full from a vendor standing in the middle of the road before you got on I-95 to go to one of the sports arenas and I think they were $2.00 a bag of 5. The place next to Subway does sell a cupful of delicious pretzel nuggets, either the normal kind or cinnamon sugar ones. Still expensive but delicious. Wawa is selling the regular 8-shape ones but also has pretzel-shaped ones filled with cheese, cream cheese or some jalapeño mixture but they are not nearly as good. Even though I can buy them a block away, I think I just may try this delicious-sounding recipe. Thanks.
I was a Philadelphia Bulletin paperboy waaaaay back. I had a side hustle selling the pretzels. If I recall, at that time, they came in strips of 20, stacked in a laundry basket. Sold them for a nickel each and got a penny for each of those. Candy bars were a nickel too back then. Must have done 200 a day and they sold out in under an hour if I recollect.
I grew up eating soft pretzels in Philly but now live in Miami. This recipe worked out great, even working with the lye was no problem. One recommendation: instead of re-baking the leftovers into hard pretzels (which you can buy anywhere), put them in a Ziploc bag and freeze them before they go stale. If you carefully thaw them on low power in a microwave or low heat in a toaster oven, they are almost as good as new.
I am SO happy to hear that!
If you defrost them on the counter, they’re great!
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Is the egg wash only used on the pretzels if you use the baking soda water? Or do you use it with the Lye as well?
Only use the egg wash if you use baking soda water. It’s not needed with the lye.
Pretzels came out good .Looked great followed recipe exact. they were a little light in texture . did I do something different? I like a denser texture . Maybe another flour? I used King Arthur bread flour
When making pretzels with baking soda, as as much into the boiling water as will dissolve, and dip the pretzels in while the water is boiling.
This has two several effects.
First, more baking soda means browner pretzels.
Second, using boiling instead of cold water produces a denser, chewier pretzel.
Three, they’ll be slightly shinier, which means you might not need an egg wash.
They still won’t taste exactly like lye pretzels, but they will better than cold-water baking soda pretzels.
Thanks for the tips!
my 1st attempt at these went pretty well, but they stuck to the parchment paper after baking. the next time I put some non-stick spray down first…and they stuck again anyway! any tips to keep the pretzels from sticking during the baking process?
Same! I sprayed the heck outta the paper the second time and they still stuck almost just as much. The first batch was perfect if it wasn’t for the paper stuck to it. Grease with butter? Oil? Don’t want to mess too much with the exterior. Inexperienced baker here.
I haven’t had a sticking problem. Sure you’re using parchment paper and not wax paper?
Perhaps after you dip them in the water bath placing them on a cotton towels to drain off a bit before placing them on the parchment. Then again, if you use “good” parchment they likely would not stick. I found the cheap paper is a horror so I’ve used it up and get the better one.
I skip the individual rise that the recipe suggests, but instead do a bulk rise right after the knead for about an hour. It will almost double in size. I punch it down and roll immediately. Then dunk in lye. They won’t stick. They will rise again in the oven.
Can I add green food coloring to make them for the Super Bowl?
This recipe was great. I did find the dough a little bland on the first try.
Second attempt was perfect. I changed from light brown sugar to dark brown sugar
Recipe calls for 1/2 tbsp. I increased it to 1 tbsp. I also increased the salt to 1 tbsp
Being from Philly ( live in VA) these pressils ( speaking Philly here) were legit!
My Super Bowl party was a hit with these gems. 8 people from Philly and 2 from NY said they tasted like like home. Better then any street vendor. GO BIRDS!!! Super Bowl Champs!
I appreciate your instructions on making pretzels. I am partial to King Arthur Flour, so I use a recipe of theirs…actually morphed theirs and yours…and the result is pure heaven. I too use food grade lye, with all the protection.
I have a question:I’ve seen recipes saying use room temp water mixed with lye…I know you boil the water/lye mixture…I tried that method and thought that the room temp water gave more flavor…can you give me thoughts on both methods?
Nancy from Louisville KY
I haven’t tried room temperature before, but I’ll report back if I do.
Would a shorter lye bath or a more diluted lye bath produce a less dark brown pretzel? Made them today for the first time and being an upstate NY transplant from Reading, I have to say they smaller and tasted great!
Love this recipe! Easy and delicious. Dry the pretzel bottoms when they come out of the bath and dust the bottoms with flour and then they don’t stick as much.
Also, I left mine unsalted and then brushed them with a little water or butter when they came out, then sprinkled salt. Wait 1 min, and the salt sticks when they dry. Also butter gave a lovely shine.
Also, I tried both boiling and room temp bath. Boiling = hard crackly crust, like French bread. Room temp= chewy crust like bagel.
The classic Philly pretzel I crave needs that room temperature kinda bath.
Thank you so much for that tip. I never knew what I was doing “wrong” before! (Not really wrong, just not Philly)
Also I haven fallen in love with this soft stretchable dough. Turns put it makes good pizza dough and strudel dough, too.
I spent most of my life in Philly but now spend most of my time in Florida. Whenever I visit there I bring back a suitcase full of fresh baked pretzels from the Philly Pretzel Factory. Honest to God, these are every bit as good! Actually they’re better cause I can eat them warm out of the oven. I baked mine for only 10 minutes which, for me, was perfect and, yes, I used lye. Thank you!
I found it challenging to “roll out” the pretzels into ropes from balls. Basically had to do it by hand, about 5-10 minutes each! (I have tennis elbow, so this was a challenge.) Any suggestions on better ways to accomplish the ball-to-rope transformation?
I wondered about running the dough through my pasta maker and turning it into very thick sheets, but I think that would be too thin. Or rolling it out into a rectangle and then just slicing the rectangle with a pizza cutter.
It rolls more easily if the surface is very lightly misted.
What would be the best way to freeze the dough? I am talking about before they are baked.
To do the strip of pretzels, get a caterers buffet steam pan – large enough to cover two burners on the stove (if using baking soda instead of lye). Also pick up cooling rack (or 2) that fits nicely inside it. Fashion hook handles to lower and lift the rack in and out of the solution; there’s always something around. Everything should be stainless steel, not aluminum. Position the pretzels as a strip on the rack. My solution is generally 1 heaping Tbsp of baking soda (nice inexpensive big bags from Costco) for each cup of water. You can flip or not. The boiling water and the rack setting them above the bottom of the pan gets both sides. I flip, like turning a cake out onto a plate, using a second rack. Doing this while give you the integrity of an authentic Philly strip.
I’m a Philly ex-pat living in Seattle and 3,000 miles from a good pretzel. This is the best recipe I’ve found to date…and I’ve scoured the Web for good ones. Use the lye, its worth it. I’ve used baking soda and it gets you about half way there…it just doesn’t get you that beautiful brown patina like lye does. Buy cooking grade lye from Amazon. Peace -Jim
Comment about sticking: Use a baking mat. I use an Amazon Basics and its rated up to 475 degrees.
Comment about freezing: Yes, I freeze my pretzels after they cool. I heat them up at 375 degrees for a few minutes and they are as good as fresh. Yum. -Jim
I haven’t tried this yet, but during the Coronavirus Pandemic, this is probably a great time to try it. I’m originally from Vineland, N.J. and was born in Hahnemann Hospital by my Uncle in 1938.
The first time I ever remember eating a Philly pretzel as a child was one time when we were heading back to Vineland after visiting our Aunt and Uncle in Philly. My Dad stopped the car probably somewhere outside of Camden N.J. in the middle of the night and bought a few pretzels from a vendor standing by the side of the road. It was the best ever!!! I live in Arizona. No such pretzels here. Can’t wait to try it. Thank you so much
I started with baking soda and eventually, when I got the process down, I moved to lye. All in all, these taste pretty authentic. -Jim
Excellent! Delicious pretzels and great, detailed recipe. We are now in Colorado and missing our pretzels now that the pandemic has kept us from going back. These pretzels transport us! BTW, I just dip them in the lye solution and they will stick together Philly style. Thank you!
My father was stationed at the Philadelphia Naval Hospital Base, where I was born and lived for 10 years. After dad retired from the Navy we moved across the river to Cherry Hill, NJ – still well within reach of street-corner pretzel vendors. My younger brother (also a South Philly native) and I now live in Shorewood, Wisconsin. I made a batch of these yesterday and brought them over to his house for Father’s Day. The aroma… the flavor… we were home. Thank you.
My husband and I are originally from Philly and really miss soft pretzels. We have made these twice so far. They taste great but are not crispy on the outside. Any suggestions?
Are you using lye? That would affect the pretzel’s skin. I started using lye in my last 2 or 3 batches and have noticed an improved texture over using baking soda. Getting over my initial fears of using lye was the most difficult part of the process. I just use gloves and eye protection and haven’t looked back.
I’ve made the pretzels a few times — the last two with lye. They taste terrific. I’m having a problem with the dough losing its roundness once i place them in the lye bath. The dough is so light and fluffy and the bath almost deflates them and makes them loose the right texture. Any thoughts?
I’ve had the same problem when using the lye bath. (deflating dough) Next time, I’m going to cut down on the rise time. I’ve made baking soda pretzels in the past where I did not do a rise after twisting…but simply dunked the twisted pretzel without a rise. I’m going to try that next time with lye. BTW, with the lye bath, they still tasted authentic…just a bit deflated. -Jim
BTW…one more comment. I did let the dough rise for about an hour before twisting and punched it down. I think letting the dough proof a bit before dunking is necessary.
Instead of rising as a ball for 30 min, then shaping and rising for another hour, did you just try an initial 1 hour rise and then shape them and lye them? I’m trying a version now, following the recipe procedure but using white whole wheat flour instead of bread flour to see if the extra gluten helps. Won’t try less rise time until I see how the different flour affects the outcome. Let me know how your revised proofing time works. DMS
I’ve had the most success with allowing the dough to rise before shaping, “as a ball” rather than after shaping. When I let them rise “after shaping” they get too airy and the lye deflates them. So, I let the dough rise “as a ball” for an hour and then punch it down, shape and then dunk in lye.
I’m having difficulty with dipping the risen pretzels in the lye solution. They ended up being flattened after I dipped them. Can I dip the rope in then shape the pretzels? If not, can I use a spray bottle with the lye solution and spray them? I would only be able to spray the tops though. Would that still work? The flattened pretzels had the flavor, but they were very chewy.
Read the comments just above your. -Jim
I tried another batch, but this time after I shaped them, I put them in the refrigerator overnight and the next day I dipped and put them in the oven. They kept their shape this time and had a much better taste which brought back fond memories.
Would you be okay with my making these for a fundraiser for our school sports team? I’ve been using your recipe to make pretzel nuggets, and everyone is raving about them, and I’ve shared this website a lot! I just wanted to make sure it was okay with you!
I’ve made these 5 times and they are incredible. The lye is magic. Curious if I wanted a slightly thicker denser dough how I could modify.
Joe- Only bake for 10 mins (not 13 mins as originally posted).
Like any bread product, gluten will build up the more you work the dough. Conversely, the more you let the dough rise, the airier it will become. I typically do not let the individual pretzels rise (as suggested in the recipe) but instead, do a bulk rise and then punch it down. After I punch down the risen dough, I then twist the pretzels and dunk in the lye. I use a baking mat to insure the pretzel does not stick. Hope this helps. -Jim
When I came across this recipe, I didn’t realize folks were still commenting on it. Just wanted to say that your work above helped me perfect my recipe for Philly pretzels over a few pandemic months last year. I credited you on my blog post. Thanks so much!
Pretzels tasted great and as a long lost Phila kid they are spot on with tasts.
I have done this recipe 3 times and my problem is the pretzels burn on the bottom.
Two times I used the parchment and they burned and stuck to the parchment
Last time I skipped the parchment and it burned even more.
I use a baking mat. This might help with the burning. -Jim