I’ve already established that I love making pretzels. The dough is easy to make, and it’s so much fun to shape! It’s soft and malleable without being sticky or hard to work with—and I’m always so satisfied by my golden brown, salty, swirly creations. When you love a recipe, it’s sometimes fun to push it a bit—take that solid base and find a new twist (pun absolutely intended). Such was the case when I was asked about making one giant pretzel that could serve a crowd.
An old favorite recipe with a few slight tweaks is suddenly new to me again—and I’m already planning all the ways I’ll serve these soft, chewy wonders this summer (mainly plopping a piece of paper down on a table, tossing a few beers and some mustard in the mix, and letting the people go to town. So how do you do it? Here’s what you need to know:
- Review the basics.
- Planning and safety.
- Buy some bread flour. Really.
- Mix, mix, mix.
- Plan on a triple rise.
Know your lye.
6a. Can't I just use baking soda instead of lye?
- Do the twist!
- Brush and salt.
- Eat right now.
This recipe uses the same ingredients and method from my favorite pretzel recipe, right up to the shaping of the dough. If you want to know all the deets on pretzels, check out this article—it’s got everything you need to know. If you just want a quick refresher, read on. (Otherwise, skip ahead to shaping, where things get new and different.)
My recipe uses the classic technique for making pretzels, using food-grade lye (sodium hydroxide). A solution of lye and water creates a skin on the outside of the pretzel; it’s what’s responsible for all that chewy awesomeness (more on that later). You can order it with a click of a button at Amazon (it’s also often available at bakeries that sell soft pretzels and some gourmet food stores).
Remember that lye is a chemical. It’s totally safe to eat once it’s baked, but the solution can burn or irritate your skin, eyes, etc.—so you’ve got to be safe! I know that sounds scary, but it’s as simple as wearing a pair of gloves (disposable latex or dishwashing gloves both work) and some kind of eye protection (goggles are great, but a pair of glasses work in a pinch). You’ll also want to prepare your workspace: I usually put newspaper or parchment down where I’ll be working with lye, since it can stain wood and other porous surfaces. And you’ll want a large, heat-safe metal bowl to make the solution in.
Many recipes that call for bread flour can still be managed with all-purpose flour, but this is one time where bread flour really makes a difference. Pretzel dough undergoes a lengthy mixing time and the resulting dough is wonderfully elastic. A high-protein flour, like bread flour, gives the dough the structure it needs—a structure that makes it easy and fun to work with when it comes time to shaping!—so plan on picking up a bag.
Pretzel dough is mixed relatively intensely in a process known as the improved mixing method. Generally speaking, the mixing begins at low speed, combining ingredients, hydrating the flour, and beginning to encourage the chains of gluten to form. After a period of time (about 3 to 5 minutes), the speed of the mixer is raised to medium, where mixing continues until the dough has reached full gluten development. At this stage, the dough can be pulled to create a "window," a piece of dough so thin that it becomes transparent. This level of elasticity can only be reached through intensive mixing (intensive in both in length and speed). The result is a bread with a very tight crumb structure and a soft, slightly chewy crust—like a pretzel!
The best pretzels benefit from three stages of rising. I know, I know, this sounds tedious. But the amount of effort required by you is minimal; all that’s really needed here is time to let the yeast do its work.
- Bulk Fermentation (1 to 1 1/2 hours): The first stage, where the dough rises all together, just after mixing. This stage is largely for flavor development as the yeast begins to feed!
- Bench Rest (15 to 20 minutes): A quick rest after the dough is divided, before it is shaped. This helps the dough relax a little before shaping begins.
- Proofing (30 minutes to 1 hour): The final stage, where the shaped dough rises before baking.
To use the lye, you’ll need to make a solution. First fact: Lye, both in it’s solid form and once it’s been dissolved in water, are dangerous to have direct contact with, especially with the skin. It can result in a burn similar to a chemical burn, and can leave an unpleasant, itchy rash behind. It’s also bad for it to have direct contact with your eyes or for you to inhale the fumes that occur for a few seconds after it's dissolved. But all of this can be avoided by wearing gloves (and some sort of eye protection) the whole time you work with lye.
Measure the lye into a heat-safe, preferably metal, bowl. Dissolve the lye by pouring boiling water over it. Stand away from the bowl and avoid the steam that will rise from it; these fumes should not be inhaled, but they mostly disappear once the mixture begins to cool (about 30 seconds). Add some cold water to the solution to help bring the temperature down, and let it cool to room temperature. When not in use, cover the bowl with plastic wrap and label the bowl clearly so no one mistakes it as just water. When you’re finished with the solution, discard it. Keep vinegar on hand when you’re working with lye; an acid applied to a burn spot will help reverse the effects immediately. Wash your tools fully when you’re finished with the lye (still wearing gloves), then remove your gloves and wash your hands thoroughly.
Yes. I’ve tried both, and think lye is so much better, but if you’re scared (or just don’t have any lye), a strong solution made of baking soda and water will produce similar effects. In my experience, make the solution slightly stronger than the recipe suggests for best results (I like about 2 ounces baking soda to 1 quart water).
Here’s where things get different! Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. I use the bottom of a sheet pan instead of the usual side—no edges containing the dough means I can make the pretzel a little bit bigger!
Start by dividing your dough into 10 even pieces. Let them rest for awhile (see bench rest, above!), then you’re ready to go. You’ll use 3 pieces to make the outer ring, and the remaining 7 to make the shape in the center. Lightly flour your work surface—but I’m talking very light here. This dough is firm and not overly sticky, so you should have no trouble working with it (and if you use too much flour, you’ll actually struggle to shape the dough).
First, make the outer ring: Take three pieces of dough and gently press them together (no need to be precise, just getting started). Start by pushing it flat with your fingers into a roughly oblong shape. Starting at the top of the dough (the end farthest away from you), fold one third of the piece of dough over onto itself. Press firmly with your fingertips or with the heel of your hand to "seal." Continue to fold the dough over and press to seal until it has formed a tight log shape; it will get longer while you do this. Starting with very light pressure in the center of the dough, roll the dough between your hands and the work surface, elongating the log. Roll until the dough strand is evenly about 1/3 inch in circumference. Form the dough into a large ring on the prepared baking sheet, and press the ends together where they meet to seal.
Now it’s time to shape the inside. I like to opt for a totally random design—I like the way it looks and it’s easy to do (because anything goes)! First, shape each of the remaining 7 pieces of dough as described above, folding it over onto itself and sealing with your fingers or the heel of your hand, then rolling into a strand. I usually build from the outside in: Start with a round shape with the first piece of dough. Next, I twist another piece of dough around a portion of that circle so that they are connected, then I make it into a round, too.
Make sure each piece of dough is touching (or even twisted partially around) the outer ring. It doesn’t have to be twisted, though—if it’s touching, it will rise together, bake together, and stay together (promise)! Really, anything goes here. Just intertwine the last 7 dough strands to make twists, rounds, and such until you’ve got one big pretzel! Cover the pretzel with greased plastic wrap and let it rise for 30 minutes to 1 hour.
Pretzels are normally dipped in lye, but this giant will need to be brushed with lye. This takes some care, as you want to be generous with the lye to make sure the whole pretzel is fully covered. If you don’t fully cover all exposed dough, you’ll see black spots and streaks after baking (from dough that was lye-less). I usually apply two coats with a pastry brush, then sprinkle it generously with coarse salt (I like Maldon)!
Pretzels bake at a temperature that encourages a fast oven spring and helps perfect that chewy, dark exterior. Recipes will vary, but generally pretzels bake between 400 to 450° Fahrenheit. Bake until the pretzel is very golden brown, between 25 to 30 minutes. If you’re unsure, you can always take an internal temperature of the dough with a thermometer; it should be around 185° Fahrenheit.
Like most bread, fresh pretzels are best eaten the same day they are made (and, like, 30 minutes after it comes out of the oven is HEAVEN).
- 22.80 ounces bread flour (5 1/2 cups)
- 9 grams active dry yeast (1 tablespoon)
- 11 grams kosher salt (2 1/2 teaspoons)
- 349 grams warm water, 95 to 100° Fahrenheit (1 1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon)
- 57 grams unsalted butter, softened (4 tablespoons)
- 23 grams granulated sugar (2 tablespoons)
- 1.25 ounces lye
- 22 ounces boiling water (2 3/4 cup)
- 12 ounces cold water (1 1/2 cup)
- Coarse salt, for finishing (I like Maldon)
What other foods should be made crowd-sized? Share some ideas in the comments.