Big Soft Pretzels

February 1, 2013

When I was in high school and college, I often made these soft pretzels for munching on during Sunday football. The recipe is based on one from Bon Appétit’s Favorite Restaurant Recipes cookbook (1982), which shared dishes from their (still hot!) R.S.V.P. column of “reader requests and editor favorites”. The recipe came from Sturgis Pretzel House, a specialty bakery shop in Lititz, Pennsylvania that was established in 1861 and still thrives today.

Big, soft pretzels are cooked much like bagels—the shaped dough is boiled briefly in baking soda-spiked water, then baked.  The baking soda boil lends the pretzels their wonderfully chewy outer shell and slight sheen, along with an edge of saltiness. Don’t boil them too long though, or the dough may become a bit soggy in parts. I like to shape the pretzels right on my wire skimmer, then lower them into the water. Don’t worry if they look a bit lumpy. The pretzels will rise and smooth during baking.

The dough should look and feel much like pizza dough. Keep any unused portion of the dough well covered with plastic wrap to prevent a skin from forming while you are shaping each pretzel. Also, gently pressing out the air from any risen dough before working with it will make each pretzel easier to roll and shape before boiling and baking. The original recipe called for 5 cups of flour, but I found that to be too much when I was mixing the dough. I can only assume that our wheat is milled differently now, and my unbleached flour to be much more absorbent than bleached varieties of 30 years ago.

My kids love this recipe—both for making and for eating. The pretzels are really best served hot out of the oven. Bake them ahead if you have to—but only by a few hours—then reheat just before serving.

Big Soft Pretzels

1 package active dry yeast

2 tablespoons plus 1 1/3 cups warm water (about 110ºF)

1/3 cup firmly packed brown sugar

4 1/4 - 4 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

Coarse salt

Baking soda

Yellow mustard for serving, optional

In a large mixing bowl, mix yeast with the 2 tablespoons warm water until yeast is dissolved. Add remaining 1 1/3 cups warm water and sugar and mix well. Gradually stir in 4 cups of the flour, 1 cup at a time, until a soft dough forms. Turn out the dough onto a well-floured work surface. Knead, adding as little flour as possible to prevent sticking, until the dough is smooth and elastic, 5 - 10 minutes. Sprinkle flour over the top to prevent sticking and cover lightly with plastic wrap. Let rest for 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, preheat oven to 475ºF. Grease 2 baking sheets and sprinkle with coarse salt. Fill a sauté pan with about 2 inches water. Stir in 1 tablespoon baking soda for each 1 cup of water to the pan. Bring to a gentle boil over medium-low heat.

Keeping the unused portion of dough covered with the plastic wrap, cut off a slightly larger than golf ball-sized piece of dough. Roll into a rope about 16 inches long. Twist into a pretzel shape and transfer to a slotted spoon or wire skimmer. Slip the pretzel into the water and boil gently for 30 seconds. Using the slotted spoon or skimmer, transfer the pretzel to the prepared baking sheet. Sprinkle with salt. Set aside while you shape, boil, and salt another 5 pretzels, placing them well apart on the baking sheet.

Bake until golden brown, about 8 minutes. Prepare the remaining dough as for the first batch, using both baking sheets as needed. Serve pretzels hot from the oven. Offer mustard to serve alongside, if desired.

Makes 14-16 pretzels

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Everyone loves these big, soft pretzels—wonderfully salty and slightly chewy on the outside, dense and fluffy within.