Testing recipes in the Washington Post Food Lab has a number of perks. A nice Bluetooth speaker I can use to blast whatever music I want. A kitchen vastly bigger than my own. Another: Having lots of eager tasters.
This guarantees that nothing I cook will go to waste, especially when we alert our leftovers Slack channel. It also means I have my own informal focus group. I like to see how quickly a dish disappears and how much each person goes back for. I knew I had hits on my hands based on how my colleagues gobbled up my Pillowy Pull-Apart Dinner Rolls and made the Spicy Chicken Parm disappear seconds after it came off the photo set.
You, dear readers, will be the ultimate arbiters of success, but I think you’re really going to enjoy these Soft Pretzels. Honestly, standards are low when it comes to warm bread — even the test batches I wasn’t 100% satisfied with had a way of vanishing. Still, this version is the one I’m backing. People could not stop breaking off pieces, no matter whether they’d vowed to stop.
What was I looking for in a soft pretzel? I wanted a chewy but not too tough — or too tender — dough. Alas, several of the recipes I tried were just pretzel-shaped rolls. I didn’t want a dough that was particularly difficult to put together or work with. It needed to be flavorful enough to be eaten on its own or dipped in mustard. It had to have a darker crust, ideally with a bit of crackle and plenty of salt on top, of course.
As is often the case, I ended up with a hybrid recipe. The bulk of it was plucked from the Food section archives, thanks to a recipe we ran from King Arthur Flour back in 1996. What I particularly liked about it was the use of a sponge, or starter, which provides an additional boost of yeasty, complex flavor. It’s simply stirred together by hand in a bowl and hangs out on the counter for a few hours, or in the refrigerator for up to 2 days. I found that substituting bread flour for the all-purpose flour helped provide more chew, thanks to the additional gluten-forming protein.
To the KAF backbone, I worked in a few strategies cribbed from Cook’s Country, which made a huge difference in flavor and workability. The biggest improvement was boiling the shaped pretzels in a much more concentrated water-and-baking-soda solution, which gives them their signature color and slightly metallic flavor. (Many professionals rely on caustic lye, but that just wasn’t something I wanted to recommend in a home kitchen.) Another was completely dispensing with the parchment paper that so many recipes called for to both rise and bake the pretzels. I just can’t understand it, because they stuck. Every. Single. Time. Cook’s Country recommends letting the shaped pretzels rise on floured baking sheets and then baking them on greased, salted (brilliant!) sheets. This worked like a charm, as did silicone baking mats, if you have them.
If have made my bagels from three years ago, you’ll already feel comfortable with this recipe. Either way, don’t be intimidated. The process requires more time than special skills or equipment. Rolling and shaping the pretzels might take a little practice, but since there are a dozen, you just might master it by the time you finish the batch. And if a few of them are misshapen, even a little flat? If my friends here are any indication, it won’t matter one bit.
Active: 1 hour 15 minutes | Total: 4 hours 35 minutes
FOR THE SPONGE
1 cup warm water
½ teaspoon barley malt syrup
1 teaspoon active dry yeast
2 cups (284 grams) bread flour
FOR THE DOUGH
1 cup (240 milliliters) warm water, plus 4 cups (960 milliliters) cool tap water
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
1½ teaspoons barley malt syrup
1 teaspoon active dry yeast
2 to 3 cups (284 to 426 grams) bread flour, plus more for dusting
2 tablespoons vegetable oil, plus more for greasing the bowl
¼ cup (60 grams) baking soda
3 teaspoons coarse pretzel, kosher or sea salt, or more to taste
1 large egg white beaten with 1 tablespoon water
Make the sponge: In a large bowl, combine the water, barley malt syrup and yeast and stir to dissolve. Gradually add the flour, ½ cup (71 grams) at a time, and mix well. Cover with plastic wrap and set aside for 2 to 3 hours, or refrigerate for up to 2 days.
Make the dough: Transfer the sponge to the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. To the sponge, very gradually add the 1 cup (240 milliliters) warm water and mix on low speed until the sponge is blended with the water. Add the salt, sugar, barley malt syrup and yeast and mix on low to blend. Switch to the dough hook and begin to add 2 cups (284 grams) flour, ½ cup (71 grams) at a time, and mix/knead, adding up to 1 cup (142 grams) additional flour, using as little as necessary, until a smooth and elastic, but still sticky, dough is formed, 5 to 7 minutes. The dough won’t completely clear the bottom of the bowl, but it will have formed a large knot around the hook.
Transfer the dough to a lightly floured surface and finish with a few quick kneads by hand until a smooth ball forms. Place in a lightly oiled bowl, cover with plastic wrap and set aside in a warm place to rise until doubled in size, 1 to 1½ hours.
Lightly flour 2 rimmed baking sheets. Turn the risen dough onto a very lightly floured surface and divide into 12 equal portions of about 3 ounces (88 grams) each. Shape each one into a thick cylinder 4 or 5 inches long, and let them rest for 5 to 10 minutes. This allows the gluten to relax, making it easier to roll out without the dough snapping back.
Working with 1 piece of dough at a time, roll it into a 22-inch-long rope. Lightly flour the counter as needed if the dough is sticking; if there’s too much flour and the dough is merely sliding around rather than stretching, very lightly moisten your hands with water to create a little tackiness.
Shape the rope into a U with the slightly tapered ends facing away from you. Crisscross the rope in the middle of U, then fold the ends toward the bottom of the U. Firmly press the ends into the bottom curve of the U 1 inch apart, forming a pretzel shape. Transfer the pretzels to the prepared sheets, knot side up, 6 pretzels per sheet. Cover the pretzels loosely with plastic wrap or dish towels (take extra care that the towels don’t touch the dough) and let rise at room temperature until slightly puffy, 20 to 30 minutes.
Adjust oven racks to upper-middle and lower-middle positions and preheat the oven to 425 F.
In a Dutch oven or other large pot, dissolve the baking soda in 4 cups (960 milliliters) cool tap water and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Using a slotted spatula or skimmer, transfer 3 pretzels, knot side down, to the boiling water and boil for 15 to 20 seconds total. As soon as you get all 3 pretzels in, work quickly to flip them to the other side and then remove them. Transfer the pretzels to a wire rack, knot side up, and repeat with the remaining pretzels in 3 additional batches. Let the pretzels rest for 5 minutes.
Wipe the flour from the baking sheets and grease each one with 1 tablespoon oil. Wipe off any large pools with a paper towel and then sprinkle each baking sheet with ½ teaspoon of the coarse salt. (Alternatively, you may use silicone baking mats without greasing or salting.) Transfer the pretzels to the prepared sheets, knot side up, 6 pretzels per sheet. Brush the pretzels with the beaten egg white mixture and sprinkle 2 teaspoons coarse salt (or more to taste) evenly over the pretzels.
Bake the pretzels 20 to 25 minutes, until dark golden brown, almost mahogany, switching and rotating the sheets halfway through baking. Transfer the pretzels to a wire rack and let cool for 10 minutes before serving.
Notes: If you don’t have a stand mixer, the process can be done by hand, keeping in mind that kneading on the counter may take a few additional minutes.
This is a somewhat wet and sticky dough. Don’t go overboard, but also, don’t be afraid to use additional flour as needed when rolling and shaping.
Make ahead: The sponge (or starter) needs to rise for at least 2 hours on the counter. It can then be refrigerated for up to 2 days. The dough needs to rise on the counter for at least an hour, with the shaped pretzels requiring an additional 20 to 30 minutes of rising time.
Where to buy: Barley malt syrup is a dark, thick and sticky syrup that provides sweetness and color to the pretzels. Eden Foods brand is available at some natural food stores or grocery stores, such as certain Whole Foods, or online. Some brewing supply stores also sell malt syrup, though in a slightly different formulation that should work fine in this recipe. If you can’t find the syrup, substitute honey or molasses — or even leave it out — with similar, if not exactly the same, results.
Nutrition: Calories: 190; Total Fat: 1 g; Cholesterol: 0 mg; Sodium: 720 mg; Carbohydrates: 37 g; Dietary Fiber: 2 g; Sugars: 1 g; Protein: 7 g
Adapted from recipes from King Arthur Flour and Cook’s Country