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