Make homemade pretzels, achieve instant popularity

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Graphic: Rebecca Fassola

I can’t think of another snack that earns me more kudos than homemade mini pretzels. I’ve made them for Super Bowl parties, and based on their reception (annihilated in less than one quarter), I baked a batch for a friend’s housewarming shindig this past weekend. Maybe it was the host’s ample beer and wine offerings, but guests’ eyes practically bugged out: “You made these?” I will gladly bask in any and all proffered compliments, but I can’t lie: Pretzels are not hard to make. In fact, they’re so simple that the most challenging part is twisting the dough into a pretzel shape.

To “pretzel” bread, you just boil the doughy shapes in water (with baking soda or, if you’re getting serious, food-grade lye) for 30 seconds before baking them in the oven. The alkaline water ensures the pretzel will brown; boil it in regular water and you’ll end up with beige pretzels. I have poked around Amazon’s food-grade lye offerings, but I’ve also read that baked baking soda will approximate lye even more safely, a trick I plan to test out on my next pretzel batch. The water chemistry is just about the most scientific detail of pretzel-baking, and really, the regular baking soda version is simple and yields mighty tasty pretzels.

There’s no crazy overnight bread rising, no advanced degree required. Even though some recipes will tell you to use a stand mixer outfitted with a dough hook, I don’t even use one—I make great pretzels with just a wooden spoon and a bowl. If you can follow the directions on a packet of instant yeast, you can make your own pretzels and revel in the attendant praise.

Pretzels in progress
Pretzels in progress
Photo: Kate Bernot

Having baked pretzels multiple times based on multiple recipes, here are my takeaways:

  • Most recipes are remarkably similar to each other. I’ve used both the Smitten Kitchen and Alton Brown versions to great success, though when I make the latter, I still divide them into smaller, miniature pretzels.
  • As long as your yeast activates, you’ll be fine. Use warm water to hydrate the packet of yeast, and if you don’t see bubbles after 10 minutes, try another packet.
  • Pretzel salt isn’t necessary. Okay, yes, you can buy it online if you have that kind of forethought, but I sprinkled on coarse kosher salt and it worked just fine.
  • Practice your shaping. Overworking your dough will make it too gummy, so trial your pretzel shape with string until you have it down. Here’s how I do mine: Roll dough into a 10- or 12-inch log, then create a U-shape. Cross the two ends, and flip it down on itself. Make sure those ends really stick, too, because if they’re only loosely resting on each other, they’ll untangle in the boiling process and your pretzels will end up looking like little piles of dog poo.
  • Mustard matters. Half the wow factor of your party pretzel display is whichever jar(s) of mustard you pick, so choose wisely. I’m obsessed with Sierra Nevada’s Porter And Spicy Brown Mustard lately.

Armed with this knowledge and confidence, go forth and pretzel. The whole process—from making the dough to boiling to baking and cooling—takes about two hours, and that includes one hour of waiting for the dough to rise. You can do this! Just think of all the compliments and Instagram likes that await you at the end of your pretzel-shaped path.