Bavarian soft pretzels (safely) bathed in caustic soda

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1.5 cups (355mL) water for the dough
1.5 teaspoons dry yeast
1-2 teaspoons sugar, honey, barley syrup, etc.
1-2 teaspoons coarse salt inside the dough
bread flour (about 650g, 4.5 cups, but I don’t measure)
crunchy finishing salt for the top (I used Maldon smoked sea salt)
5 cups (1.2 liters) water for the lye bath
1/4 cup (70g) food-grade sodium hydroxide (buy it off the internet and be careful with it)

To make the dough, combine the water, yeast, sugar and salt with as much flour as you can stir in. Let it sit 15 minutes to autolyse, after which it will be much easier to knead in the remaining flour — enough to give you a dough that is just barely sticky. Cover and let rise in the refrigerator overnight (better flavor that way) or a couple hours on the counter.

Pull the risen dough out to a cutting board and cut it into four quarters. Smash each quarter down flat and roll it into a log. Cover and let rest for about 15 minutes to let the gluten relax and they’ll be easier to shape. Now is when I would get the oven heating to 450ºF/230ºC.

On a clean, un-floured counter, roll each log out into a long, thin snake, leaving the center “belly” thick. Pull the ends toward you to make a U shape, fold the “arms” over each other twice, them back toward the belly and seal the tips on either side of the belly. (Just watch the video.) Once shaped, try to get them bathed and baked before they get a chance to puff up more.

To make the lye bath, pour the five cups (1.2mL) of water into a wide, heat-safe, chemically nonreactive vessel — I used a pyrex baking dish. (Not all dishes marketed as pyrex are heat-safe — get the ones that are sold for baking, not just storage.)

The sodium hydroxide is dangerously caustic, so put on latex gloves sold for use with caustic cleaning products — I get them from the cleaning section of the grocery store. Carefully measure out the hydroxide and slowly sprinkle it into the water while gently stirring — it tends to cake up if you pour it in too fast, plus you don’t want to splash. As the hydroxide dissolves, there will be an exothermic reaction that creates heat — probably not much at this relatively low concentration, but you’ll notice the water getting hot, and you might need to let it cool down a minute before you can touch it through your gloves.

Using your gloved hands, submerge the pretzels in the bath for about 10 seconds each. Drain thoroughly and transfer to baking sheets — two pretzels per sheet, probably. I find the easiest way to remove them from the bath without stretching them is to gather them up in both hands — they won’t stick to themselves anymore after the lye gelatinizes the surface of the dough.

If you get a little lye on your skin, wash it off as soon as possible, but don’t freak out — this is a relatively weak solution that will probably only cause minor skin irritation if you wash it off promptly. And if the instructions on your bottle of sodium hydroxide differ from anything I’ve told you, go with what the bottle says — I’m simply following the instructions on my bottle.

Once dipped and drained, sprinkle crunchy salt over the pretzels and use a knife to score the belly of each pretzel — this will look pretty and allow the belly to expand more in the oven and get fluffy. Bake until deep mahogany all over — mine took about 15 minutes. During the bathing and baking process, all of the hydroxide on the pretzels should react with the dough and atmosphere to become harmless.

To dispose of the lye bath, get your faucet running into your kitchen sink and slowly drizzle the lye down the drain — the fresh water from your tap will dilute the lye and make it safer. The lye is essentially weak drain cleaner.

This can all be a little scary, but remember that German grandmas have been doing this at home for generations. Be careful and you’ll probably be fine.

14 Replies to “Bavarian soft pretzels (safely) bathed in caustic soda”

  1. Why do food YouTubers sync sometimes, Bruno Albouze just made pretzels too and it's not the first time this happens?

  2. I'm amazed that ancient people decided to cook with caustic substances and lived to tell the tale.

  3. I just boil my lye solution and make slightly smaller pretzels I can lift out with a spider. If you're making pretzel dogs, the size works out perfectly. Also, the correct way to dispose of the solution is to pour it down whichever drain has been draining slowest lately. I have gloves and safety goggles for dealing with it, but I also live in Philly and can put down a few beers between when I start shaping the dough and finish baking the pretzels, so it's anyone's guess whether I use them on any given day.

    Also- by far the easiest way to make pretzel dough is by going to your local thrift store and picking out a bread machine that looks like it's old enough to drink. Just throw the ingredients in there and let it go on its dough setting.

  4. Its probably worth pointing out that with most mildly caustic solutions, the danger is more about your eyes, nose, and mouth than to your skin. So, you know, use slow, thoughtful, and un-rushed movements and you will be fine.

  5. I prefer thick ropes. My wife says they are easier to clean up too.

  6. Long time soapmaker here. Nice demo on the lye. One additional note. No aluminum pots or utensils. Lye reacts with aluminum. Stainless is fine. Also try not to breathe the fumes when it's hot. It can damage to lungs. Though your solution was probably too weak to steam much.

  7. i was expecting you to talk to some scientists or something like you usually do but instead you literally just went "uhhh idk ppl have done it for a while so it's probably fine lol"

  8. Thanks for the video, you are inspiring me to try this myself! One comment: The traditional German way to eat pretzels is with butter. To be safe, I would probably wear safety glasses when dealing with the lye. I also really like pretzel rolls, hopefully the recipe will work for those as well.

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