The pretzel is a national sanctuary of Swabia. There is no other type of bread that better resembles Southern German baking culture. Baking Swabian pretzels is a labor of love. They’re a bit more challenging to make than Bavarian pretzels. However, you will be rewarded with a much better product.
It’s a shame that Swabian pretzels are so hard to find outside of Swabia. The Bavarian-style is easier to automatize with a machine which is why it was popularized all around the world. What you get served under the name of pretzel in foreign countries is often not even slightly close in appearance, taste, and texture to a pretzel that would be deemed worthy to eat in Germany.
Even in Germany, if you want to eat a good pretzel, it’s best to bake it at home. There are not many artisanal bakeries left in Germany that twist their pretzels by hand. Often they use frozen pre-made pretzels from a factory that they just bake in the oven. What a shame!
The first time my mother baked pretzels for our family everyone was in awe. Even though they were not perfect in shape and she used baking soda instead of lye to soak them they tasted at least a thousand times better than the pretzels from the local bakery close to our home. I often make the same observations for just about any bakery product. You don’t need to be a baking expert to bake better bread than all the local bakery chains.
The Building Blocks of German Cusine Series
This article is part of my basics series, which will introduce you to key ingredients and preparation methods. You can find all these articles in the ‘Basics’ category of this blog. Listed below are the articles that have yet been published in this series:
- Swabian Pretzels (‘Schwäbische Laugenbrezeln’)
- Kratzete, Eierhaber
- Duchess Potatoes (‘Herzoginnenkartoffeln’)
- Ribbon Noodles (‘Bandnudeln’)
- Muesli (‘Müsli’)
- Breakfast Bread Rolls (‘Weizenbrötchen’)
- Potato Puree (‘Kartoffelbrei’)
- German Potato Dumplings Bavaria-style (‘Bayerische Kartoffelknödel’)
- German Potato Dumplings Thuringia-style (‘Thüringer Kartoffelklöse’)
- German Bread Dumplings (‘Semmelknödel’)
- German Potato Pancakes (‘Reibekuchen’)
- Potato Noodles (‘Schupfnudeln’)
- German Boiled Potatoes (‘Kartoffeln’)
- Homemade Beef broth (‘Fleischbrühe’)
- German Pancakes (‘Pfannkuchen’)
- Homemade Semolina Soup Noodles (‘Hartweizen-Suppennudeln’)
- Chicken Broth (‘Hühnerbrühe’)
- Spaetzle (‘Spätzle’)
What’s the difference between a Swabian and Bavarian pretzel?
You might’ve noticed by now that it is very important to me to distinguish the Swabian from the Bavarian pretzel. There are several differences that will result in a very different end product:
- Swabian pretzels have a higher fat content (3-10 %) than Bavarian pretzels (3 %).
- Swabian pretzels are made from a drier dough than Bavarian pretzels.
- Swabian pretzels are not even in thickness and texture. They have a fluffy big belly and thin crispy arms.
- Swabian pretzels are scored before baking to prevent them from bursting open anywhere (Bavarian pretzels look like a monstrosity).
- Swabian pretzels have fewer salt on them than Bavarian ones.
Just for documentation purposes, on the picture below you can see a Bavarian pretzel. Do you notice the differences?
How to bake the perfect Swabian pretzel
As with most of my recipes, the preparation for this recipe starts the day before you intend to bake the pretzels. The pre-ferment is kneaded together in less than five minutes. However, it’s no problem if you forget about the pre-ferment. These pretzels can also be baked without one. Simply add the flour and water from the pre-ferment to the final dough.
In Swabia, it is traditional to use lard in baked goods. If you’re a vegan you can substitute lard with shortening. In the past, it was unheard of in Swabia that people wouldn’t eat a bread roll or pretzel because of some lard in it. However, times have changed. Nowadays most bakeries use shortening because of vegans – which is why a lot of bakery pretzels don’t taste as good anymore.
It’s important that you chill your water and milk before adding it to the dough. Pretzel dough should never reach a temperature above 77 °F (25 °C). Warm pretzel dough is hard to work with and proofs too fast. The dough needs to rise slowly and in a controlled manner to have a fine crumb and that the pretzel doesn’t burst open anywhere.
Don’t worry, the dough isn’t overly dense. It’s fluffy and has a short bite because of the milk and lard. It will look like the dough has too little water but pretzels are a low-hydration bread. The hydration of this recipe is 48 %. The pretzels need to hold their shape in the oven. They should never puff up in an uncontrolled manner.
How to shape Swabian pretzels
Pretzels are easier to shape than it might look like. I give you a written description in the recipe instructions. Below are some pictures for visual reference.
If your dough is too dry on the surface and you don’t get any friction on your work surface, use a spray bottle to lightly wet your work surface. That will get rid of this problem. I admit that the dough is hard to work with. It will show some resistance when you shape it. But that is fine. Once you’ve shaped a few pretzels you will quickly become a master.
How to soak and score your pretzels
Before you can soak your proofed pretzels, you need to dry out the surface for at least 45 minutes in the fridge. Don’t skip this step. It’s called ‘Absteifen’ in German. If you don’t let the surface form a protective skin your pretzel will soak up the lye like a sponge.
It is essential to use lye to get a proper browning on your pretzels. You can buy it online. It’s very inexpensive. It’s usually sold as NaOH-pearls which can be dissolved in water to produce the lye solution. The concentration of your solution should be 4 %. So, to one liter of water, you add 40 grams of lye pearls. Easy.
You must always wear plastic gloves when working with lye. It is corrosive but you don’t need to be overprotective. If you spill some on your skin then wash it off with running water. The pretzel should be soaked for no more than 3-4 seconds in the lye solution. It’s best to use a spider to transfer the soaked pretzels to your baking sheet. That way, any excess lye solution can drip off.
The baking sheet should be pre-heated in the oven so that you get a proper browning and crust on the bottom of the pretzel. It’s even better to use a pizza stone if you have one. Before baking, you need to score the pretzels with one long diagonal cut. The pretzels will look the most beautiful when you hold the knife at a horizontal angle. After that, you sprinkle the pretzels with the coarse salt and bake them immediately.
Pretzels don’t need to be baked for a long time. After about 12-15 minutes they are ready to be taken out of the oven. You will see if they are done by their color development. Once the crust has browned to your liking, take the pretzels out of the oven.
The best way to serve Swabian pretzels
Once you’ve taken the pretzels out of the oven you need to immediately spray them with water. That way they will get a shiny crust. Otherwise, they will look dull. But don’t even dare to bake them in a steam oven. The oven needs to be dry. Don’t follow the method of my breakfast bread roll recipe and place a bowl of water on the bottom of the oven. There’s a high risk that the steam prevents your crust from darkening properly.
The best way to enjoy fresh pretzels is to top them with butter. When I baked this batch, I happened to have some bone marrow in my fridge from cooking beef spaetzle soup (‘Gaisburger Marsch’). I just rendered the leftover marrow from the bones and poured it over some chives before cooling it down to a spreadable consistency. It tasted delightful.
If you have any stale leftover pretzels, you can use them up by preparing a batch of bread dumplings. However, they don’t need to go stale. Pretzels freeze beautifully so you can always take them out of the freezer when you crave one.