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 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 kids in Stuttgart, we would walk by these little “huts” or stands that solely sold pretzels. You could also get them cut horizontally and spread with butter (FACT: Germans never eat their pretzels with mustard!).
Since having moved to the US, I have missed 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? They are 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 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 German Pretzel?
German pretzels are made from a 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.
Also, German pretzels are lye pretzels. That means, that they have been dipped in lye. Food grade lye is what gives them their reddish-brown color and typical pretzel taste. This is called “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)
Thus, in Germany pretzels are often called lye pretzels (Laugenbrezeln).
At first, I was intimidated by using lye but with a few safety precautions, I soon found that the distinct pretzel flavor and color was worth the extra effort.
Ingredients for German Pretzels
Here are the ingredients you need to make German pretzels:
3.5 cups or 500 g of flour (wheat, spelt, or a bit of whole wheat)
1 1/6 cup or 300 g lukewarm milk
2 tsp dry yeast
2 tsp or 10 g of salt
3 TBSP or 40 g of soft butter
1 TBSP malted barley flour or sugar
food grade lye or baking soda
Notes about the ingredients:
I do recommend that you weigh the ingredients if you have a kitchen scale. You can make these pretzels with regular AP or bread flour. Often, I replace about 1/3 of the white flour with whole wheat flour. You can also use spelt flour.
The malted barley flour (find it here) is a typical ingredient for German pretzels. The enzymes help the dough become more elastic and add a nice subtle malted flavor. You can also simply use sugar instead.
To create the authentic pretzel flavor and color, you’ll want to use food-grade lye (find it here). 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 using lye, you will have to use it carefully: always wear gloves and googles, add the water to your pot first and THEN add the lye, and keep children away from it!
Otherwise, you can use baking soda which will not give you the same results, though.
How to make German Pretzels
Making the dough
Measure your flour and add to a large mixing bowl. Create a deep well in the flour, add dry yeast, malted barley flour or sugar, and the lukewarm milk. Let sit for about 10 minutes.
Then add the remaining ingredients and work into a smooth dough that releases easily from the bowl. You can also do that in your kitchen machine with the dough hook.
Cover the bowl and let your dough sit 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, you’ll want to weigh 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 I am often 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. The one I like has a thicker bottom and thinner arms. To make them, you’ll roll your dough into a long strand 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 but just keep on trying. Also, don’t worry if your first pretzels turn out a bit funny. Again, you might have to make a few batches to see how the turn out in the end.
Place your shaped pretzels onto a baking tray. 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 helps with the lye dipping!
The lye bath
Now is the time to mix your lye bath or baking soda bath in a pot. ALWAYS add 1 oz of lye to 1 quart of water, not the other way around. Or mix 1/4 cup of baking soda with 1 quart of water. Gently heat the lye/baking soda bath over medium heat until scalding hot but not boiling.
Set your oven to 435˚F.
Take the pretzels out of the freezer or refrigerator when the time is up. Put on 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 baking sheet. Repeat until all of them have been dipped.
With a sharp knife cut a little bit into the pretzels at the thickest part.
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 rack.
Saving the lye:
I like to save any left-over lye. 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.
Enjoy your pretzels!
The best way to enjoy your German pretzels is with butter. You can also serve them with your favorite (white) sausages. Should you have any leftovers, just put them in a plastic bag into the freezer.
You can crisp up your pretzels in a hot (about 420˚F) oven for a few minutes.
- 3.5 cups or 500 g flour
- 1 1/6 cups or 300 g lukewarm milk
- 2 tsp dry yeast
- 1 TBSP malted barley flour or sugar
- 2 tsp or 10 g salt
- 3 TBSP or 40 g of soft butter
- food-grade lye
- coarse pretzel salt
- Add flour to large mixing bowl, make a deep well in the middle, add yeast and malted barley flour/sugar, then pour warm milk over it. Let stand for about 10 mins.
- Add remaining ingredients and work into a smooth dough. Cover the bowl and let the dough rise in a warm spot for about 1 hour or until double in size.
- Measure out dough of about 3 oz/85 g each and roll into long shapes. Then form into pretzels: roll out into long strands of about 18 inches with a thick part in the middle. Form strand into a U. Fold the ends over once and once more. Bring ends back and press into pretzel body. Repeat until all the dough balls are shaped into pretzels.
- Add 1 liter/quart of water to a pot, THEN add 1 oz of food grade lye or 1/4 cup of baking soda. Heat over medium heat until hot but not boiling. Preheat the oven to 435˚F.
- Freeze the pretzels on a baking tray for about 15 mins or place in the refrigerator for about 1 hour until firm.
- Take pretzels out of freezer or refrigerator. With a slotted spoon and one by one dip the pretzels into the hot lye/baking soda bath for up to 30 sec. Place back onto baking sheet.
- Cut each pretzel horizontally at the thickest part. Sprinkle each pretzel with coarse pretzel salt.
- Bake at 435˚F for 13-17 mins or until nice and brown. Let them cool on a cooling rack.
- Enjoy with butter and/or with (white) sausage or your favorite sides!