Perfect pretzels, with a side of poison

I am in the thick of pretzels. I talk about pretzels, I read about pretzels, I cook pretzels, I eat pretzels, and I feed people pretzels.

It all started with an overwhelming desire to make authentic hard pretzels (I’m not sure why the sudden infatuation, but hey, it’s a great food to be infatuated with, so I’m not messing with it), but neither my cookbooks nor the web revealed the plethora of information I hoped for. I tried Alton Brown’s pretzels recipe (it’s by far the most common one), but his pretzels, while pretty and perfectly edible, tasted mostly like eggy, dried out lumps of dough.

Then I dug a little deeper and started reading about soft pretzels, and I learned that the key to making them authentic is a little something called NaOH. Otherwise known as sodium hydroxide, and otherwise known as caustic soda, or lye, or highly poisonous chemicals that are used to clean out plugged-up drains. Real soft pretzels get dipped in the stuff.

I was intrigued. Was sodium hydroxide used to make hard pretzels, too? I checked out a popular Mennonite pretzel factory up in Pennsylvania, and sure enough, they also use it on their hard pretzels. Clearly, if I wanted to make real pretzels, hard or soft, I’d need to buy some poison.

After calling a couple hardware stores, I located the right stuff and my husband stopped by after work to pick it up. He said that when he told the guys at the store what he was going to use it for, they looked at him like he was deranged.

They must’ve really given him some serious stink eye because he spent an inordinate amount of time researching different brands of lye when he got home. He wanted to make sure no other toxic chemicals were hiding in our bottle of toxic chemicals besides just the toxic chemicals that we wanted. (There weren’t. If you want to buy some poison, a couple good brands are Rooto—as long as it was manufactured after October 2005—and Red Devil.)

While he researched, I dunked pretzels in lye and screeched at the kids to STAY BACK.

Yesterday was round three and four of my pretzelpaloosa. I still have yet to crack the hard pretzel code (clues, anyone?), but I’m thrilled beyond measure to tell you that I have conquered The Authentic German Soft Pretzel.

Man, are they good.

And fresh from the oven, with slices of sharp cheddar cheese, they become beyond good. They are heaven, doughy, chewy, salty—hallelujah!—heaven. I’ve eaten so many of them that I practically am a soft pretzel.

When I was growing up, I made soft pretzels by dipping them in a baking soda solution, but let me tell you, there is absolutely no comparison between baking soda-dipped pretzels and lye-dipped pretzels. None whatsoever. Do not be fooled into thinking that baking soda-dipped pretzels are anywhere close to the real thing. Because they are not.

Are we clear about this yet? REAL PRETZELS NEED POISON. Period.

And amen. (Auntie Anne’s uses lye, too. Though I’m not supposed to know that.) (Not true! Go here for the facts.)

Now, let’s talk technique.

Real soft pretzels are not for the faint of heart. There’s the poison, the yeast dough, and the boiling water bath. There’s also a bunch of nitpicky little steps, like proofing the dough and refrigerating the shaped pretzels so they’ll form a skin. There’s parchment paper and pretzel salt, tongs, trays, and cooling racks. Plus, you need goggles and plastic gloves.

A person could get bogged down in the details and decide to skip the whole process but DON’T YOU DARE. The end result—both the chewy, salty, malty pretzel and the high you’ll get from making them with your very own hands—is absolutely worth it. Plus, cooking with toxic chemicals takes kitchen wizardry to record heights. There’s something really special about slightly traumatizing your kids with horror stories of flesh-burning chemicals. It gets you some respect.

In all seriousness though, do be very careful with the lye. I’m not normally jumpy about dangerous things, but this lye gave me the jitter-itter-itters. When I’m dipping pretzels, I’m religious about wearing swimming goggles and gloves and keeping the kids on the opposite side of the kitchen. If your children aren’t old enough to be terrorized by pictures of lye burns (don’t click on that link if you have a queasy stomach), then either get a babysitter, or cook when there’s another adult around who can help with the kidlets. Please?

That said, it’s the lye crystals that are extremely dangerous, not the lye solution. Once you’ve mixed up the solution, the scariest part is over and you can relax (more). Even if you get some of the solution on your skin, you’ll have (I think) enough time to wash it off before it burns you. And since vinegar neutralizes the lye, keep a bottle a bottle of vinegar on hand for emergencies.

A few more pointers:
*Lye reacts—as in, sizzle, pop, BOOM!—with aluminum. To test if your utensils and pans are aluminum, stick them to a magnet. If they don’t stick, don’t use them.

testing, testing, one two three

*Lye does not react with glass, plastic, and stainless steel.
*Utensils that have been dipped in the NaOH solution should be placed on a plate, not the table, as the solution will leave burn marks on the table. No joke.
*While mixing the lye solution, do not breathe through your mouth. Do not breathe through your nose, either. In fact, it’s probably best if you forgo breathing all together. Just don’t pass out. (For those of you who are addicted to breathing, a damp hanky covering your nose and mouth works fine.)

A word about the boiling.

There are lots of soft pretzels recipes, lye-dipping ones included, that don’t call for boiling the pretzels. I’ve done some experimenting and the boiled pretzels win every time, hands down. Even my baby can tell the difference.

puffy, non-boiled pretzels on the left; wizened, boiled pretzels on the right

Unboiled pretzels are puffier, cakier, drier. The boiled pretzels are marvelously dense and chewy. It’s like the difference between a dinner roll and a bagel.

Authentic German Soft Pretzels

Adapted from this recipe

*It is easier to dip the pretzels if you’re working with a large amount of lye solution. Lye solution will last forever (so I’ve read), so keep the extra in the fridge.
*Do not put pretzels on wax paper to rise. They will stick fast and make you throw a panicked hissy fit.
*Do not mistake your rubber gloves for oven mitts and attempt to pick up the hot baking stone (so says an almost-burned dodo brain).
*This dough is super-stiff. It made my Kitchen Aid do a little dance. Stay close while it’s mixing, and add a little extra water if necessary. (I added a couple tablespoons extra.)
*I have done a little experimenting with freezing boiled, non-dipped pretzels. I think it works, but more experimenting is necessary before I can say for sure.

½ ounce (about 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon) salt
½ ounce (about 1 tablespoon) sugar
½ ounce (about 1 tablespoon) butter
1 ounce (about 2 rounded tablespoons) yeast
2 cups warm milk
2 pounds (about 8 cups) flour
lye solution (see below)
pretzel salt

Other recommended necessities:
rubber gloves
a baking stone
parchment paper (brushed with a little oil)

Stir the yeast and butter into the warm milk. Once the yeast is dissolved, add the rest of the ingredients. Kneed the dough, either by hand or with a Kitchen Aid mixer. The dough will be very very stiff. Add a little extra water if necessary, but don’t shy away from a workout—the dough needs to be quite tough to withstand all the boiling, dipping, and baking. Cover the dough and let it rest for 20-30 minutes.

Now, ready the production line:
*Put your baking stone in a 450 degree oven.
*Fill a large kettle a third of the way full with water and bring it to a boil.
*Make your lye solution.
*Cut a piece of parchment paper the size of your baking stone and brush it lightly with oil.

Cut the dough into portions and shape as desired. I cut mine into 1 to 2 ounce portions, rolled them into 12-18 inch-long snakes and formed the snakes into the classic pretzel shape, pressing the ends firmly into the pretzels’ bellies. (Even so, the ends sometimes popped free, but it’s no big hardship.)

Set the shaped pretzels on a cloth-covered and lightly-floured tray. Cover with plastic and let rise for about half an hour.

Take the plastic off the pretzels and transfer them to the fridge or some place cool.

After about 10 minutes, the pretzels should feel tough, like they have a skin, which they do. This is good.

Put on your goggles and gloves, and, working with a few pretzels at a time (depending on the size of your kettle), drop the pretzels in the boiling water for 30 seconds, turning once after 15 seconds. Using a slotted spoon, remove the pretzels from the boiling water and drop them carefully into the lye solution. Flip (or dunk) the pretzels to make sure all sides have been completely baptized, and then transfer the pretzels to the hot baking stone (that has been lined with the aforementioned oiled parchment paper).

Sprinkle salt over the pretzels, reduce the oven temperature to 400 degrees, and bake the pretzels for 15-25 minutes, depending on the size of the pretzels. The pretzels will get quite dark, thanks to the lye—this is a good thing and does not mean they are burning. (Unless they are burning, and then it’s a bad thing.)

Transfer the pretzels to a cooling rack and repeat the process till all the pretzels have been baked.

Lye Solution
Note: this is the really tricky step. Be careful! (I used eye protection and gloves, but no hanky over the mouth and I charred my throat just by inhaling the fumes.)

6 ounces lye (re all the concerned commenters: food grade lye is safest)
1 gallon cool water

Put the water in a large kettle and gradually add the lye, stirring after each addition till the lye is dissolved. Transfer the solution to your dipping container—a shallow plastic container that has a secure lid works great.

I’m submitting this recipe to yeastspottings.

This same time, years previous: creamy potato soup with bacon and boiled eggs and meatballs


  • Unknown

    Wow…just wow. Using factory grade lye as food grade is just the epitome of stupidity. Do not use hardware store lye for this…you need food grade lye. also you need to let the lye solution cool to room temp or cooler. Another thing is to mix the lye in a open air ventilation unless of course you wish to dance with death.

  • Drew458

    Ok, your recipe uses milk, not water. But I think you know what I meant. Experiment, try milk and beer. Also, another 1/2c liquid would make your big mound of dough easier to work with, and it's all going to evaporate while kneading and freezing anyway. Hmm, milk and beer … I just might try that myself.

  • Drew458

    I realize that this is an old post, but I'd like to add that freezing the pretzels once formed, or once formed and boiled, works just fine. I freeze mine for an hour to a day after forming, and they stay together while they thaw in the boil. Half a minute in the lye dip, let them drain and rest a few minutes, then salt and bake.

    Thanks for the tip about using a baking stone. Let me return a tip for your tip, for a true pretzel junkie like myself: make your soft pretzels with half bread flour and half spelt flour. Don't use water, use quality German beer, something a little malty not a bitter hops style, heated to 110F to start the yeast in. And use malt syrup instead of sugar. And just to make it labor intensive, proof the dough overnight in the fridge, 8-24 hours. This is the real deal, and you'll never go back. Be warned.

  • Unknown

    I'm amazed at all the people afraid of lye.

    We use it to make bread and butter pickles. You need to make hominy, lots of breads. You can't make soap without it. And you can clean walls, your drains, straighten hair (be very careful), strip paint. It can do so much, if you'll let it.

  • Chishopper

    *sigh*. Okay, I know a lot of this is just humor, but people are scared enough of lye as it is. Lye can be dangerous, yes. But to be clear, lye is both not toxic and it is not, in the strictest sense of the definition, poison. Lye can be potentially dangerous because it is caustic, not because it is toxic–pure lye is NOT toxic. The point? Well, lye will not poison you. The danger is that it will eat through your skin. No, that is not any better an outcome, but once you know this distinction, and you know that your skin is not being dissolved while you hold your finished pretzel, you can know with certainty that there is zero danger or harm in your pretzels or in the consumption of the pretzels. If you are left with something that is not caustic and does not eat your flesh, then 100% of all possible danger is gone because lye is not toxic so there is nothing possible left for it to do to you that could be bad. A pretzel bathed in lye solution and then baked has all caustic properties removed through the reaction of the lye with the dough and in baking.

    Oh, well, one point of distinction for the possible fringe case of idiocy: everything I have said assumes any lye was dissolved in water. Because, yes, dry lye crystals can touch your skin and you may not see or feel any effect. If you bake dry lye crystals into your pretzels, in that most curious and unreasonable case then, yes, that would totally kill people if they ate them. The crystals would dissolve in the body and then proceed to eat you from the inside out. If common sense is followed, lye is pretty safe. It is far more safe than many things people keep under their kitchen sinks and handle frequently. In the event of uncertainty, a total freak-out, or an actual problem, use vinegar to neutralise the lye.

  • Better Now

    You are officially the most hilarious person ever and I applaud you. I think I'm done eating poisonous pretzels now.

  • Anonymous

    I think it might not be a good idea to keep the leftover Lye solution in the fridge. Given it's a toxic substance, it shouldn't be kept near foodstuffs, or where people may accidentally drink it!

  • Unknown

    Drain cleaner? You should use Food Grade Lye which can be bought on Amazon. I would never use Drain Cleaner, but that is me. If it works for you so be it!

  • Kilau

    How stiff should the dough be before you start to knead it, and what do you look for while kneading – smooth? pliable? Should it pass the windowpane/membrane test? I made these today and while the results were dark brown and delicious, initially the dough was impossibly stiff. I couldn't even get the ingredients to form a shaggy mass until I added almost an additional 1/4 cup of water. Then I needed almost another 1/4 cup to reach a point t where I could begin to knead. I weighed all my ingredients, so I was surprised to see how under-hydrated the dough seemed.

    Oh, and I pooh-pooh all the food-grade lye alarmists. Lye solutions have been used in food preparation for years. Even sites that use a baking water boil-bath mention that authentic soft pretzels use a quick dunk in a lye bath after boiling in water. Good to see I am not he only one looking for the genuine dark color and deep flavor.

    We loved these and will probably made them again. I hope you can share a little guidance on how stiff/sticky the initial ball should be and what to look for while kneading.

    • Jennifer Jo

      Hi Kilau! I haven't made these for awhile, but I see in my notes that the dough IS supposed to be quite stiff. Maybe next time try a little less flour to start with and then build up to the full amount? I just know that with pretzels, as with bagels, it's better to have a stiff dough rather than a sticky one. It's a bugger to work with, but that's how it is…

  • Unknown

    You are spot on re:Al pans and the lye. Ruined a Calphalon pan a few years ago – The lye ate right thru the coating and sent little black flecks floating thru the water.

    Just found this excellent post while looking up what recipe I'll use for this year's pigs-in-pretzel-blanket Super Bowl snack. Saddened that boiling looks like it helps… Damn dogs are tough to keep in their blankets.

    • Anonymous

      Food Grade lye is 100% pure lye with no impurities like regular normal lye. It is more pure and just as strong and caustic. The Roebic Lye sold at Lowes, though sold as a drain cleaner.. is 100% pure lye and would qualify as "food grade lye" I bought a bottle a couple of weeks ago and have made several batches of Laugenbrezel since.

    • Anonymous

      THANK U FOR STATING THAT! While entertained by the post and writing style I couldn't help but shake my head at the drain-o lye!
      FOOD GRADE LYE!!! 🙂

  • Anonymous

    I have a question, please — how does one (eventually) dispose of the lye wash? Did you just clean your drain with it? Thank for the great article/recipe!

    • Jennifer Jo

      I stored it in the fridge (in a glass jar) for months before finally dumping it down the drain. No idea if that was the right thing to do or not, but it's what I did.

    • Anonymous

      Love the recipe. Love your humor and spunk…but I am concerned with leaving lye in the fridge for someone else to unsuspecting come across. AHHH!

    • Anonymous

      You can dilute it and put it down the drain. I would pour it into a stock pot and then put it under my tap and fill the stock pot while stirring. If you're starting with a 3-4% solution and you dilute it 5 or 10x with water it's harmless.

      Alternatively, if you really want to be sure you can add some vinegar once it is dilute and stir it up. The vinegar will neutralize the base.

  • Anonymous

    ugh, some of the alarmist comments on here just make me roll my eyes so hard, they hurt. OMG OMG it's PAWSON! One minute you're a strappin' young man, then WHAM! dis pawsonous pretzel bites ya and next thing ya know yer folks is singin' "Rock of Ages…" Honestly, it's sad to see that common sense is just so hard to find in this country.

    Now about this information you presented, I don't know how to thank you. I'm no good at cooking. My wife is a bigtime cook, but she just won't try to make pretzels, so I decided to try to do it myself. My wife was pleasantly surprised that the pretzel rolls I made turned out so good, and they were actually not that hard to make. I am really interested in taking my pretzel roll making to the next level and working on perfecting a more authentic flavor. I can't wait to give this a try. I promise I'll be very careful with the "POISON" and I won't ingest any.

  • Bjorn

    Nice pretzels! I was using Lewis Red Devil for years. Way back in the 1980's for making soap (using the Red Devil recipe on the back), in the 90's for olives, in the 00's Hominy. Over the last 10 years Pretzels and Bagels—then I finally ran out. Off to the internet. Web-enabled bakers seemed scared of drain-opener so I splurged for "Food Grade" NaOH. I made bagels today, to go with lox, cream-cheese, capers and onions. For pretzels I use a very warm 4% wash.

    For safety, not a bad idea to read the MSDS.
    In mixing, it's safer to add the NaOH to cool water, then warm it.
    As a solid it's fairly nasty, diluted it's not so bad. The boiling pot of water is a greater risk, particularly if you are wearing cotton pants and socks—OUCH!
    Bagel wash: 0.5 — 2%
    Hair Straightener: 2% (What the ….!!)
    Pretzel Wash: 2 — 5%
    Oven Cleaner: 5%
    Floor Stripper:10%
    Drain Opener: 30%

    Rooto is likely CAS 1310-73-2. Listed impurities are NaCl, Na2CO3 and, oddly, Na2SO4. Other is <0.1% so whatever mix that could be, it's probably less than 1mg per pretzel, before baking. Any Hg, (very unlikely more that trace) will mostly evaporate—not that it's a good thing. When all goes well, it's probably quite safe, but I can envisage a scenario where it sourced from China and is cross-contaminated by misguided non-foodies.

    On using a magnet, I have some Al clad steel pie pans that will stick to a magnet, and yet will be stripped by NaOH. Conversely, some pans and utensils are non-magnetic austenitic stainless steel, like 316 "Surgical".

    Overall a great article, funny, entertaining and delicious!

  • Anonymous

    I have a PhD in food science. I don't say this to talk down to you, but to urge you to reconsider how your article is written. It is a good article but it has some fundamental flaws and as a result you are leading multiple people down a dangerous path.

    I know you have written this article in good faith and feel badly writing this because no one likes to have errors pointed out. I am not going to comment on the techniques given however I must address the fact that you must NOT under ANY circumstances, use drain cleaner in any situation where it will end up even incidentally in food for humans.

    You MUST use food grade NaOH. It must be CERTIFIED food grade by a responsible agency.

    There are no shortcuts. NO commercial drain cleaner is food grade. ALL drain cleaners, as industrial grade reagents (a 10 cent word for chemicals) carry substantial traces of lead, arsenic, cadmium and other toxic heavy metals. These elements will cause irreparable nerve and brain damage, particularly in infants and adolescents. You may be unable to see the effects of this damage as it impedes proper physiological development. Basically your children will not be as smart as they could be and will suffer health issues going forward that are extremely difficult to trace. You need only tiny bits of these elements to cause terrible damage. There is a reason arsenic and heavy metals were the poison of choice for assassins. Drain cleaners, when made, experience uneven uneven chemical distributions. These distributions can mean you receive even more of these chemicals in a particular batch. Thus even one pretzel can be enormously loaded with them.

    PLEASE be responsible and alter your article for the sake of others. When publishing exclusively through books in the old days, the editor would conduct research to verify techniques etc. for liability. With the arise of the internet it is so easy to, in good faith, use information that is not accurate and in fact dangerous and publish it to the masses.

  • Anonymous

    So far, I've only used lye to make soap-but I was reading somewhere else that a chemical process in the act of baking the pretzels neutralizes the caustic quality of the lye. Anyway, whenever I used lye, I covered my mouth with one of those masks they sell at hardware stores to keep you from inhaling particles. One of those white things with the rubbery strap to hold it in place. That and the rubber gloves and goggles creates quite a look. Sort of like I'm up to no good.
    I've read that you should be using food grade lye, rather than the stuff from the hardware store. There seems to be some belief that there's a difference between the two products. But then, nobody died from your pretzels, so who knows.-Stacey E.