Let me show you step-by-step how you can make delicious German pretzels. They have the distinct color and flavor you might have come to love!
Have you had authentic German pretzels before?
Maybe you have visited an Oktoberfest in your area.
Or you have visited or lived in Germany and tried them there.
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When I was growing up in Germany, I always loved them but certainly took them for granted as you can find them in pretty much every German bakery. As kids growing up in Stuttgart, we would walk by these little “huts” or stands that solely sold pretzels. They would even cut them horizontally and spread them with butter for you.
Since having moved to the US, I have missed German soft pretzels. Probably because they’re not so readily available.
I have found some good sources but the pretzels tend to be expensive. Sometimes, I see them in stores. They’re either packaged or frozen. But guess what? Their American counterpart is often way too sweet! I mean, for a German pretzel.
As with many foods, if I can’t get them here, I’ll just learn how to make them.
Here’s a picture of my first attempt at homemade pretzels from a decade ago:
They weren’t bad but they weren’t what I was looking for.
Since then, I have been working on perfecting my recipe and my methods.
What is a traditional German Pretzel?
German pretzels are made from a simple yeast dough that is not sweet. Yes, sometimes a bit of sugar or malted barley flour is added to feed the yeast. However, when you take a bite, there shouldn’t be any obvious sweetness.
They have a soft center and a crisp crust. The traditional shape is important to the look, and yes, the taste of an authentic German pretzel.
Also, German pretzels are lye pretzels, in German called “Laugenbrezel”. That means, that they have been dipped in lye. Food grade lye is what gives them their reddish-brown color and authentic pretzel taste. This is called the “Maillard reaction”: a chemical reaction between amino acids and reducing sugars that gives browned food its distinctive flavor (source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maillard_reaction)
At first, I was intimidated by using lye but with a few safety precautions, I soon found that the distinct pretzel flavor and color were worth the extra effort.
Ingredients for German Pretzels
Here are the ingredients you need to make German pretzels:
- Flour: you can use whatever flour you have on hand.
- Milk: you can use water for this yeast dough but I find that milk adds extra depth to the flavor.
- Yeast: most Germans like using fresh yeast but you can absolutely use dry instant yeast.
- Salt: My favorite types are sea salt or Himalayan salt.
- Butter: Butter makes everything better. While not strictly necessary, I love the flavor of these German pretzels better when I add butter.
- Malted barley flour: I find that this is an essential ingredient. The enzymes in malted barley flour help the dough become more elastic and add a nice subtle malted flavor. It also helps with browning.
- Food grade lye or baking soda: dipping the pretzels in either food grade lye or a baking soda solution is what makes these homemade pretzels authentic.
- Coarse pretzel salt: This is important for sprinkling the top of the pretzel for then authentic look and tast.
Useful tools and equipment:
Here are my favorite items for making these homemade German pretzels:
- Stand mixer: you will create quite a big ball of dough. While you can absolutely mix and knead it by hand, I prefer using my Kitchenaid stand mixer. I can also let the dough rise right in the bowl of the stand mixer.
- Kitchen scale: since this is an authentic German recipe, I recommend you use a kitchen scale for accurate measurements.
- Half baker’s sheet: even if you can fit a full-size baking sheet in your oven, I recommend you use a half baker’s sheet. That way you can easily put it in your refrigerator or freezer.
- Slotted spoon: using a slotted spoon helps tremendously in dipping and lifting the pretzels in and out of the lye bath.
- Sharp knife or lame: you will use this to score the bottom of the pretzels.
How to make German Pretzels
Making the pretzel dough
- Measure your flour and add to the mixing bowl of your stand mixer. Create a deep well in the flour, add dry yeast, malted barley flour or sugar, and the lukewarm milk. Let this yeast mixture sit for about 10 minutes.
- Add the remaining ingredients. With the dough hook attached, turn your stand mixer to low and gradually to medium speed to mix everything into a smooth dough that releases easily from the bowl. You can also do that by hand on your work surface.
- Cover the bowl and let your dough sit at room temperature or better in a warm spot for about one hour or until it has doubled in size.
- To make your pretzels the same size and have them bake evenly, I recommend you weigh your dough balls. I usually make them weigh in at about 3 oz or 85 g. It doesn’t have to be super exact. However, I find that often I am way off. Therefore, I prefer using a kitchen scale.
- Form all the dough balls into long shapes.
Shaping the pretzels
Now, we’ll shape the pretzels.
Different regions in Germany prefer slightly different shapes. Bavarian pretzels are rolled to one thickness all around. The one I like has a thicker bottom and thinner arms. Those you find in Swabia (the area around Stuttgart). To make them, you’ll roll your dough into a long rope with a thicker part in the middle (about 18 inches long).
Next, you form a U-shape.
Fold the long “arms” over once.
Fold the long arms over a second time.
Now, you bring the ends back and press them onto the pretzel body.
It might take a bit to get the hang of it if you’re making these for the first time but just keep on trying. Don’t worry if they turn out a bit funny. Again, you might have to make a few batches to see how they turn out in the end.
Place your formed pretzels onto a baking tray lined with parchment paper. I like to put them in the freezer for about 15 minutes or in the refrigerator for about 1 hour to make them a bit stiffer. This really helps with the lye dipping!
Prepare the lye solution
Now is the time to mix your lye solution or baking soda bath in a large pot.
ALWAYS add 1 oz of lye to 1 quart of water, not the other way around!
Alternatively, you can mix 1/4 cup of baking soda with 1 quart of water.
Gently warm the lye/baking soda bath over medium heat until all the lye or baking soda is dissolved.
How to safely work with lye:
You may be very weary of working with the sodium hydroxide solution – for good reason. It is extremely caustic and can cause chemical burns on your skin or in your eyes.
Therefore, it is very important that you wear goggles and latex gloves while working with lye. I also recommend that you keep small children out of the kitchen while you use lye.
Dipping the pretzels in the lye solution
At this point, I recommend you set your oven to 435˚F.
Take the pretzels out of the freezer or refrigerator when the time is up.
Put on latex gloves and goggles (if using lye) and with a slotted spoon dip one pretzel at a time in the lye or baking soda bath. You can leave them in there for up to 30 seconds. Take them out and place them back on the parchment-lined baking sheet. Repeat until all of them have been dipped.
With a sharp knife or lame cut into the unbaked pretzels at the thickest part about ⅓ of the way.
After that, sprinkle each pretzel with pretzel salt.
Bake at 435˚F for 13-17 minutes or until nice and brown.
Let the pretzels cool on a wire rack.
Saving the lye:
I like to save any leftover lye if it is pretty clean. I carefully pour it into a quart-size mason jar, put a lid on, and LABEL it very obviously so that everyone knows it’s lye.
Substitutions and variations:
- Flour: I have used both AP flour and bread flour, spelt flour, and even a bit of whole wheat flour. Often, I replace about 1/3 of the white flour with whole wheat flour. I guess you could use gluten-free flours but I have not personally made these German pretzels with it.
- Malted barley flour: While this is an ingredient that gives these authentic pretzels their distinct taste and look, you can also use barley malt syrup or regular sugar instead.
- Lye: To create the authentic pretzel flavor and color, you’ll want to use food-grade lye. Yes, it is also used for making soap but it is not only perfectly fine for pretzel-making, it is THE ingredient that creates this authentic color and taste. If you are not comfortable with using lye, you can also use baking soda. Use 2 TBSP of baking soda in 4 cups of water.
- Pretzel salt: This is the coarse salt that you typically find on pretzels. You can also use Maldon salt or any salt you have at home.
- Pretzel shape: There is something about the shape of a pretzel. However, with the same dough and same method, you can also make pretzel rolls or pretzel sticks (both of which you can find in Germany, too).
How to eat homemade German Pretzels:
The best way to enjoy your German pretzels is with butter. You can also serve them with your favorite (white) sausages.
Many German beer gardens also serve pretzels with beer cheese (recipe coming soon – stay tuned!).
Should you have any leftovers, just put them in a plastic bag in the freezer. You can then crisp up your pretzels in a hot (about 420˚F) oven for a few minutes.
Fun fact: Germans actually never eat their pretzels with mustard! The only time you find mustard on the same plate as the pretzel is if there is a sausage.