Underneath the twists and turns of their salt-studded mahogany surface, most pretzels are pretty basic—just flour, water, and yeast, kneaded and folded into that iconic crisscross shape. But all it takes is a few additional ingredients to transform ho-hum soft pretzels into something magical. A few pats of butter, barley malt syrup for earthy sweetness, and replacing some of the water with beer all lend depth for a more rustic, nuanced taste. An extended fermentation in the refrigerator overnight—rather than a quick rise—adds even more complexity, as does topping the pretzels with crunchy flaky sea salt.
But it’s the distinctive “pretzel” flavor that makes this bread extraordinary. That comes from dipping the shaped dough in an alkaline solution—traditionally a small amount of food-grade lye dissolved in water—before baking. And though that’s fine for professionals, lye is hard to source (and even harder to handle) for home cooks due to its highly corrosive properties.
Years ago, while researching my first book, Pretzel Making at Home, I learned a great trick from food scientist Harold, who had discovered that heating baking soda in a low oven alters, making it more similar to lye. His baked baking soda is the secret ingredient for these exceptional homemade pretzels. But while it’s far easier and safer to work with than lye, you can take extra precaution and wear gloves while dipping the pretzels to avoid any discomfort.
After you’ve mastered the classic knot, have fun experimenting with different shapes. Just be sure to serve these pretzels with your favorite mustard for dipping and plenty of cold beer.
1. Roll Dough Into Ropes
Roll dough into 30-inch-long ropes, leaving middles about 1 inch in diameter and gently tapering ends.
2. Form Rope Into U Shape
Arrange each 30-inch dough rope in a U shape, positioning ends of the U pointing away from you.
Holding one end in each hand, lift and cross them over each other about 5 inches down from the ends of the U.
4. Cross Again
Cross dough ends a second time, passing ends to opposite hands, creating a twist in the dough.
5. Fold and Press
Holding ends and maintaining twist, fold ends back toward the bottom of the U. Press ends into bottom of U at 4 o’clock and 8 o’clock. Gently transfer shaped pretzels to a parchment paper–lined baking sheet, spacing 1 inch apart. Cover and let rise.
6. Prep Pretzels for Simmering
After pretzels are puffy and have increased in size by about half (30 to 45 minutes), parchment paper so that each pretzel rests on an individual square of parchment for easy handling.
7. Simmer Pretzels
Working with 1 pretzel at a time, hold parchment paper, and gently invert pretzel into simmering alkaline water, peeling away parchment. Cook 10 seconds, carefully flip pretzel with a skimmer, and cook 10 seconds more.
8. Lift and Drain
Using a skimmer or fish spatula, gently lift pretzels from alkaline water, allowing excess to drip off. Transfer pretzels to a parchment paper–lined baking sheet, spacing at least 1 inch apart.
9. Reshape and Season
Wearing rubber gloves, reshape pretzels on baking sheet as needed. Brush tops and sides of pretzels with egg wash; sprinkle with flaky sea salt. Bake at 500°F until deep mahogany in color, 9 to 12 minutes.