Working with Baking Soda & Lye for Homemade Pretzels

Working with Homemade Pretzels

The following information about using either lye or baking soda as a dip for homemade pretzels is from Pretzel Making at Homeby Andrea Slonecker. Baking soda can work, but many chefs prefer the deep, rich, classic pretzel color that lye produces, but working with it does take attention to detail and it is not something to take lightly. As a third alternative, check out this article by Harold McGee on how to work with baking soda to make it more powerful than it already is for this application, which is also presented below. If you like the science behind baking, you must acquaint yourself with Harold!

Excerpted from Pretzel Making at Homeby Andrea Slonecker, Chronicle Books. Text copyright 2013. 

Dipping Pretzels in an Alkaline Solution

Dipping pretzels in a solution of a small amount of food-grade lye dissolved in water gives them that unique pretzel flavor. Unfortunately, food-grade lye is unavailable in most retail stores, making it difficult to source and use for home cooks. That’s why most recipes for homemade pretzels substitute baking soda (which is much less alkaline), but the pretzel flavor and the quality of the crust are substandard with this method. In 2010 the esteemed food scientist Harold McGee wrote a story for the New York Times in which he explained that the chemical properties of baking soda can be altered, causing it to behave in a similar way to lye, if it is baked in an oven at a low temperature for an hour or so. I have found this to be true. Still, there is no replicating that genuine pretzel-y quality that a lye dip imparts, so in this book both options are offered. I prefer the lye method and always have lye on hand, but I also thoroughly enjoy pretzels made with a baked baking soda substitute. See following for instructions.

Fresh pretzels home made

Fresh homemade pretzels


Lye Pretzel Method

Before you begin working with lye, there are a few precautions to take, since it is a hazardous chemical when it’s not handled properly. Always wear rubber household gloves that cover your forearms, as it will irritate your skin. Be extremely careful not to let lye water splash on you, and avoid touching the dipped pretzels with bare hands until after they are baked. Also, consider wearing protective eyewear. Make the solution in a well-ventilated room, have the stove’s hood vent on high power, and avoid hovering directly over the pot if there is any residual steam. Protective eyewear will also shield your eyes from steam that may irritate them when you open the oven door while the pretzels are baking. Or you can simply open the door and let the steam escape before leaning in, which is what I do. While all this sounds a little dangerous for a home kitchen, I’ve found that with these simple precautions, dipping pretzels in a lye solution is a safe and worthwhile endeavor that makes a huge difference in the authenticity of your pretzels. To get a crust with a deeply browned, lacquered appearance, the lye must be hot when the pretzels are dipped. You can prepare a cool lye bath by dissolving the lye in lukewarm water straight from the tap, without heating it, but the pretzels will emerge from the oven with a lighter caramel hue. To make the lye solution for soft pretzels: Select a large stainless-steel pot at least a fingers length greater in diameter than the width of the pretzels and tall enough so that the water comes up no more than 2 in/5 cm from the rim.  Fill the pot with 6 cups/1.4 L of water. Wearing rubber gloves, add the lye, 1 tbsp at a time. With the hood vent on, warm the lye solution over high heat just until you see wisps of steam, and then remove the pot from the heat and cool the water until the steam subsides, about 5 minutes.


Baked Baking Soda Pretzel Method

An alternative to working with lye is to dip pretzels in a simmering baked baking soda solution, which will give you a result that is close to the dark, burnished crust that lye imparts. If you prefer to avoid working with lye, or just don’t have time to source it, use this method. To make the baked baking soda solution: First, you must bake the baking soda. This step should be done while the pretzels are undergoing their first rise, if not earlier. Preheat the oven to 250°F/120°C/ gas .. For one batch of pretzels, spread out . cup/ 70 g of baking soda on an aluminum pie pan or a small rimmed baking sheet covered with aluminum foil. Bake the baking soda for 1 hour. The baking soda will lose weight as it bakes but maintains about the same volume, so you should end up with about ¼ cup/60 g of baked baking soda. Allow it to cool completely, and then keep it in an airtight container at room temperature until you are ready to make pretzels. (If you see more than one batch of pretzels in your future, consider baking a whole box of baking soda in one shot, since it keeps indefinitely. Sift baked baking soda before using, as it cakes after prolonged storage.) Select a large stainless-steel pot and fill it with 8 cups/2 L of water. Be sure to choose a pot that is at least a finger’s length wider than the diameter of the pretzels and tall enough so that the water comes up no more than 2 in/5 cm from the rim. (Avoid other metal surfaces, such as aluminum and copper, and nonstick surfaces, which may react with the baked baking soda.) Pour in the . cup/60 g of baked baking soda, and bring the liquid to a simmer over medium-high heat. Once the baking soda dissolves, reduce the heat to medium to maintain a gentle simmer. Before baking, brush the tops of the pretzels lightly with an egg wash of 1 egg yolk, beaten with 1 tbsp of water . This will give them a glossy finish.

Other yummy pretzel recipes on Bakepedia: Chocolate Stout Pudding Pie with Jameson Whipped Cream and Pretzel Crust  & Chocolate Peanut Butter Pretzel Cupcakes

Image: istockphoto

One Response to Working with Baking Soda & Lye for Homemade Pretzels

  1. Noah August 18, 2023 at 11:50 am #

    This is highly inaccurate. Lye creates an exothermic reaction that naturally heats up the water. DO NOT BOIL YOUR LYE. Also, there was no indication on how much lye to use. 4% is a good recommendation for how much lye to use per water.

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