At the annual Oktoberfest festival in Munich, there are a few constants: one liter steins of golden German lager, tents packed with tourists in their dirndls and lederhosen, and massive salty, soft pretzels (or Brezeln in German). It’s up to you to get your own costume, but I’ll show you how to make your own pretzels at home.
What Makes a German Pretzel Unique?
Unlike the buttery, pillowy pretzels you might know from mall food courts Bavarian pretzels have a chewy, slightly tough crust. The flavor profile focuses on the bready flour flavors of the dough instead of the taste of the toppings applied to the pretzel. In fact, the most authentic German pretzels will be made with barley syrup to begin the fermentation instead of brown sugar-an ingredient that enhances that rich bready flavor, but is hard to find in grocery stores today.
The main thing that sets the pretzels served at Oktoberfest (and throughout Germany) apart from their soft American counterparts is the use of lye to form a dark chewy crust. Lye is a caustic chemical which makes many home bakers apprehensive to use it, however it is no more dangerous to work with than household bleach. As long as you are careful and smart when using lye it’s just another baking technique! (More on using lye below, or skip to it by clicking here.)
Why Are Soft Pretzels Part of Oktoberfest?
The legend goes that monks first created pretzels as a reward for their students’ good work and as a charity for the poor. The ingredients were very basic: flour, water, and salt, yet the result was quite filling, especially for those in need of sustenance. These doughy rewards are twisted to resemble two praying hands.
Furthermore, Both beer and pretzels require almost exactly the same ingredients. Brewers can use what they already have on a hand to make a snack to go with their beers. This is another reason that traditional German pretzels often use barley syrup (an ingredient often used in the brewery) instead of sugar.
Finally, the salty pretzels change the flavor profile of beer when eaten together. Salt suppresses the tongue’s ability to detect bitterness. Therefore a bite of salty pretzel makes beer taste a little sweeter. Here’s a little more on the science behind salty snacks and beer pairings.
Plus, nothing makes you thirsty for another stein of Märzen quite like a snack of salty pretzels. And nothing makes you crave some doughy filling carbs like several steins of lager. It’s a match made in heaven! Or should I stay made by monks!
At the Oktoberfest festival it is ‘Kellnerin’ or beer maids that will bring you a drink but to get a fresh soft pretzel you need to look for a ‘Brotfrauen’ or pretzel woman.
Oktoberfest Pretzel Ingredients
Most of the ingredients in this recipe like water, all purpose flour, and melted butter are straightforward, but there are a few aspects of this recipe that need some explaining. Here’s a little more information on three unique ingredients in this recipe.
- German lager. Ideally, you’ll use one of the two Oktoberfestbier styles in this recipe (learn more about Festbier and Marzen here) but any lager will work in this recipe. The goal is to add malty, beer flavor without too much bitterness so stay away from ultra-hopped pils and IPAs.
- Food grade lye, I expand on it below but it is essential that the lye states “food grade” on the label.
- Pretzel salt. Although you can buy salt specifically made for pretzels, I use this coarse sea salt. It still gives those obvious visual salt crystals and it’s less expensive. Plus, there are more uses for coarse sea salt in the kitchen.
Working with Lye to Make Pretzels
As I mentioned before, lye is a caustic chemical, so yes there are some safety precautions you must take when working with it. However, lye is no more dangerous than many household cleaners you work with in your home. Just as you wouldn’t let pure bleach get on your hands or in your eyes, same with lye. Let’s run down the method to prep the pretzel’s lye bath safely.
First, you must use food grade lye. Lye is just pure Sodium Hydroxide, however 100% pure Sodium Hydroxide is not necessarily food grade. Food grade products will be in special packaging to ensure no chemicals leach into the powder and it will be treated with a higher quality standard. This is the food grade lye that I use, one pound lasts many batches of pretzels.
Next, just as with any potent cleaner it is important to avoid splashing with lye. Always add chemicals (in this case lye) to water and never pour water over chemicals. Pouring water into the powdered lye may cause some of the powder to splash out. By carefully spooning lye into the cool water there is no splashing. Furthermore, I always use lye completely in the sink so if splashing does occur it is easy to clean and away from any surfaces that a person or pet could accidently touch. I suggest you also use lye in your sink, or cover the countertop under the lye if using the sink is not an option. Furthermore, you can wear household gloves for extra protection from this caustic chemical. (I used these household gloves in the video.)
Finally, because of lye’s caustic nature it can break down the surface of some containers like glass and certain types of stainless steel. Just to be safe I suggest using a high density polyethylene or polypropelene container for a lye bath because these types of plastic do not react with lye. Finding these containers is easy to do, just flip them over and look at the recycling mark. If there is a 5 or 2 inside the recycling symbol they are the perfect option to use with lye.
How to Serve Bavarian Soft Pretzels
When it comes to Oktoberfest, these pretzels have to be served with a beer of course! Ideally one of the official Oktoberfest beers from the seven breweries located in Munich. But any malty German lager will do, In this case I picked the Tröegs Oktoberfest Lager, made in Pennsylvania.
These pretzels are traditionally dipped in mustard. I like to serve them on a board with a couple types of mustard, but at the very least a little pot of spicy brown mustard is a must!
Though they can be stored up to five days (see recipe notes!) these soft Bavarian pretzels are definitely best fresh from the oven. The crust is the chewiest and the inside the fluffiest when they are still warm.
Homemade Bavarian Soft Pretzels
- 6 Cup Plastic Bowl
- Household Gloves
For the Pretzels
- ½ cup Marzen beer or other German Lager
- 1 tbsp brown sugar
- ½ cup warm water
- 1 tsp active dry yeast
- 4 tbsp melted butter
- 4 cups all purpose flour
For the Lye Dip
- 3 cups cool water
- 2 tbsp food grade lye
Prepare the Dough
- Pour the 1/2 cup of beer and set aside to let it lose some carbonation.
- In a small bowl mix together the tablespoon of brown sugar and 1/2 cup warm water. Sprinkle the yeast over top.
- Add the 4 cups of flour to the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the dough hook attachment.
- Once the yeast mixture is bubbly (about 5 minutes) add the 4 tablespoons of melted butter and the beer. Mix until the mixture is consistent throughout.
- Add the yeast mixture to the flour. Kneed on low spreed for 8 minutes or until the dough has come together.
- Spray a clean bowl with cooking spray or lightly coat with butter. Place dough into the bowl and cover with a kitchen towel. Allow to rise for one to two hours, until the dough has at least doubled in size.
Shape the Pretzels
- Bunch down the dough and divide into ten even pieces. (My pieces are always between 76 and 80 grams if you'd like to divide by weight).
- Place the dough pieces under a kitchen towel so they don't dry out.
- I made this video to show you how to shape a pretzel but I'll do my best to explain it in words here, too. Remove the first dough piece from under the towel and place it on a piece of wax paper or a silicone baking mat.
- Use your hands to roll the dough into a 13- to 15-inch long rope that is thicker in the middle and the most narrow at the ends. Shape this rope into a U.
- Take the two sides of the U and cross them.
- Cross them over again. This forms a twist.
- Take the two ends of the rope and place them on the "middle" of the U. Press the ends of the rope into the middle of the pretzel, then stretch out the pretzel.
- Place the shaped pretzel on a cookie sheet lines with wax paper or a silicone mat. Repeat this process with the nine other dough pieces.
- Place the shaped pretzels into the freezer for at least 15 minutes while you prepare the next step.
Prepare the Lye Bath
- Pre-heat the oven to 450℉.
- Fill a plastic container with 3 cups of cool water.
- Put on household gloves, if using.
- Add 2 tablespoons of lye carefully to avoid splashing. Walk away from the bowl for 2 minutes to let any potential fumes dissipate. Return to the bath and stir with a fork until the lye has fully dissolved.
- Remove the pretzels from the freezer. Use two forks or a stainless steel strainer to pick up one pretzel. Gently place it in the lye bath and allow it to soak for 12 to 15 seconds.
- Use two forks or stainless steel skimmer to carefully remove the pretzel and place it back on the lined baking sheet.
- Repeat this process with the nine other pretzels.
- Sprinkle wet pretzels with salt. Do not touch the pretzels with your bare hands.
Bake and Serve the Pretzels
- Bake the pretzels for 10 minutes. Rotate the pan after 5 minutes.
- Pour yourself a German beer, remove the pretzels from the oven, and serve warm with mustard. Prost!