Homemade Soft Pretzels (With Lye Substitute)

Wednesday February 8, 2017

When I had the lightbulb go off last year to make soft pretzels for the Golden Globes, I didn’t realize they would be both trickier and easier to make than I’d imagined.

See, the shiny brown crust of a soft pretzel relies on the use of lye, a strong alkali that is typically used in your home to unclog drains and clean ovens.

Yep, to make real soft pretzels, you need to cook with literal drain cleaner.

Flash boiling the raw pretzels in lye is what separates pretzels from basic bread rolls. Leave it out…and you’ll just be eating bread. Boring.

So, with my desire to cook with lye both waxing and waning, I looked up a substitute. It turns out Harold McGee, a food scientist, had already solved the problem years before, and described the process in a 2010 New York Times article.

Lye is also sodium hydroxide. Baking soda is sodium bicarbonate. Baking baking soda at high temperatures will cause its molecules to “react with one another to give off water and carbon dioxide and form solid sodium carbonate, which is proton-free.” With the lack of proton, you gain a stronger alkali but one that still isn’t as caustic as lye. Bonus is that you can make this days (or even longer) ahead of time, as long as you store it in an airtight container, then whip it out as needed.

I cobbled together by recipe below altering an Alton Brown recipe to use a true lye substitute. It works fantastically well. The outer shell had the distinct twangy bite, but the inside was soft and chewy. For this Philadelphia-born girl, this was the closest I’ve gotten to a true soft pretzel on the west coast. Perfection.

(And yes, I ate them the next day with that puckered wilted skin, baked in the oven with American cheese on top aka a “cheese pretzel.” Childhood right there, people. You can take the girl out of Philly…)

And since pretzels only have to go through one rise cycle (as opposed to most breads that have two rises), these can be put together in a little over an hour.

You might want to consider them for Oscar night.




Homemade Soft Pretzels (with Lye Substitute)

1 cup baking soda

1 1/2 cups warm water

1 tablespoon sugar

2 teaspoons salt

2 1/4 teaspoons active dry yeast

4 1/2 cups flour (more for working with dough)

1/4 cup melted butter (I used a butter substitute)

Coarse sea salt for topping


Preheat your oven to 300 degrees. Cover a baking sheet with parchment paper and evenly distribute baking soda across it. Bake baking soda for one hour. (This can be made days or weeks in advance, just make sure to store in an airtight container.)

In a small bowl, combine warm water, sugar, and yeast. Let sit. In a large bowl, add flour and salt. Add yeast mixture to flour mixture, then add melted butter. Mix ingredients together, then knead for 5 minutes. (You can alternately just dump everything in a bread machine if you have a dough setting.)

Let rise for 55 minutes, until doubled in size.

Preheat your oven to 450 degrees. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper and spray with Pam or similar.

Take dough out of the bowl and section into 8 equal sized pieces. Roll out one piece into a 24 inch cord, then loop around to form a pretzel shape. Or, roll into a 12 inch cord and tie into a knot. (No one will care about your pretzel forming skills once these suckers are coming out, hot out of the oven.)

In a saucepan, boil 10 cups of water and add 2/3 cup of the baking soda alkali you made earlier. One at a time, boil a raw pretzel for 30 seconds then transfer to a baking sheet. Sprinkle with coarse sea salt (or pretzel salt if you have it.) Aim for 4 pretzels to a baking sheet.

***A note about this alkali substance. You’ll want to work over your stove entirely. The alkali mixture will leave permanent marks on wood surfaces. I have no idea what it would do to natural stone. But, working on my porcelain stove left no lasting marks.***

Bake for 12-14 minutes until golden brown.

Then, try not to devour them before they’ve fully cooled off.

Good luck!






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