I've been a salt monster as far back as I can remember—in the battle between salty and sweet, there's no contest—and topping my list of salty snacks has always been The Pretzel. Any shape, any size, any time—but soft pretzels? You just can't get much better. Some of my favorite kid memories center around trips to New York City with my grandfather, who spoiled me rotten. He took me to Broadway shows, to Radio City, to museums, to the circus and the rodeo at Madison Square Garden (where I was dressed in my best white organdy dress for some insane reason—I guess people dressed up for EVERYthing in the 50s and 60s.) And of course, no trip to the city would have been complete without a soft pretzel from a street cart. Back then, soft pretzels weren't quite the ubiquitous thing they are now, with kiosks in every mall and heat-and-eat pretzels in the freezer aisle of every store. No, back in the stone age, they were a special treat. If memory serves, you could get three pretzels for a quarter (hey, it was a long time ago!), warm from the heater and SOFT. Sadly, today's cart pretzels are nothing like the ones I remember. Nowadays, you could break a tooth biting into one because they alway seem to be stale and/or overbaked, and in winter, they generally reek of chestnuts (which may be a plus for some but not for me). Blech.
The good thing is, though, you don't need to have a cart or a kiosk or time-travel back to a kinder, gentler age to enjoy a great pretzel. Because these soft pretzels twists are so fast and easy to make at home—and frankly, so much better than the ones you can get from a cart or kiosk—that you'd be missing out big time if you let the opportunity pass you by. How fast and easy you ask? Well, I had these babies ready to eat in a little over an hour. And most of them were GONE is a little over an hour too, but let's pretend that never happened, okay?
A couple of weeks ago, I woke up one Saturday at 5 am (early riser) on fire for a soft pretzel, probably because I happened to fall asleep while watching a pretzel episode of The Great British Bake Off. And also probably because I'd recently stumbled on a video for a great shaping technique (check it out below), one that screamed "PRETZEL!" Soft pretzel recipes are pretty standard—I mean, when it comes to the basic dough, no one's really reinventing the wheel here—and my go-to is from the Artisan Pretzel class I took at the Institute of Culinary Education, which seriously has some of the very best recreational cooking classes in New York (or anywhere, I think). While it may not be INSTANT gratification, as mentioned, it's a fairly fast recipe for a yeast dough. One rise (which was only 30 minutes for me, since it's still extra warm in my un-air conditioned kitchen), a quick dip in a baking soda solution (you could go the lye route here but why complicate things?), a short bake and voilà! Some of the best pretzels I've ever eaten—and that probably goes for you too. Soft and light as a cloud, an unadorned classic—just like the ones that live in my memories. Now if only I could still fit into that white organdy dress…
P.S. These pretzels are so good, they really stand on their own. But they're great with mustard, they make a killer sandwich bread and you could probably fill them with all sorts of stuff before baking if you're so inclined. Stay tuned…
Soft Pretzel Twists
- 1-1/2 cups warm water (100–110°F)
- 1 tbsp. granulated sugar
- 2-1/4 tsp. active dry yeast
- 18 oz./510g all-purpose flour
- 2 tsp. kosher salt
- 4 tbsp./56g unsalted butter, melted
- 2/3 cup baking soda
- 1 egg yolk beaten with 1 tbsp. water
- Add the water into the bowl of a stand mixer and mix in the sugar. Sprinkle the yeast on top, give it a stir and let it sit for about 5–10 minutes, until foamy.
- Add in the flour, salt and butter and with the paddle attachment, mix on low speed until combined. Switch to the dough hook and mix on medium speed for about 5 minutes or until the dough is smooth and pulls away from the bowl.
- Place the dough in a large bowl or rising bucket that's been lightly sprayed with oil, cover and set aside in a warm spot to rise until doubled in size—anywhere from 30 minutes to 1 hour.
- Towards the end of the rise time, preheat your oven to 450°F. Line two baking sheets with parchment and lightly spray the parchment with oil.
- Fill an large pot (8 quarts is a good size) with water and stir in the baking soda. Bring to a boil while you shape the pretzels.
- Turn the dough out onto a work surface and divide into 12 portions. Form into balls, cover and let rest for about 5 minutes to relax the dough.
- Roll each ball into a rope around 18" long. There are many ways to form knots and twists but if you'd like to shape them as I did, refer to the excellent video below. Place each twist on the baking sheet.
- Working with 3 twists at a time, carefully lower them into the water and boil for 30 seconds. Using a slotted spoon (I use a mesh skimmer), transfer the twists back on the baking sheets and repeat with the remaining twists.
- Brush the twists with the egg wash, sprinkle with pretzel salt if desired.
- Bake for 12–14 minutes, or until the pretzels are deep golden brown. Let cool for a few minutes before eating. Pretzels are best eaten fresh.
Recipe Source: Class materials from Institute of Culinary Education Artisan Pretzels
Video credit: Home Baking Blog (It's in German but the awesome videos speak for themselves)