Last Updated on 2 years by Tim
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 Egg Noodles (‘Schwäbische Eiernudeln’)
- Swabian Soup Noodles (‘Schwäbische Suppennudeln’)
- French Fries (‘Pommes frites’)
- Swabian Pretzels (‘Schwäbische Laugenbrezeln’)
- Kratzete, Eierhaber
- Duchess Potatoes (‘Herzoginnenkartoffeln’)
- Ribbon Noodles (‘Bandnudeln’)
- Muesli (‘Müsli’)
- German 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).
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 the dough is resisting your attempts to stretch it out then leave it to rest for a few minutes. This will relax the gluten and make the dough easier to elongate.
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.
Swabian Pretzels (‘Schwäbische Laugenbrezeln’)
For the pre-ferment:
- 1 g (0.04 ounces) fresh yeast
- 60 g (2.12 ounces) water, at room temperature
- 100 g (3.53 ounces) white soft wheat flour (German Type 550)
For the final dough:
- 400 g (14.11 ounces) white soft wheat flour (German Type 550)
- 11 g (0.39 ounces) salt
- 15 g (0.53 ounces) barley malt, enzymatically inactive
- 10 g (0.35 ounces) fresh yeast
- 100 g (3.5 ounces) whole milk, fridge cold
- 125 g (4.4 ounces) water, at 50 °F (10 °C)
- 35 g (1.25 ounces) lard (substitute butter or shortening)
For soaking and baking the pretzels:
- 1 liter (1 quart) 4 % lye solution
- coarse salt
Prepare the pre-ferment:
- Dissolve the yeast in the water and add it to the flour. Knead the dough briefly until smooth and cover it with plastic wrap. Leave to ferment at room temperature for 2 hours before transferring the dough into the fridge overnight.
Prepare the pretzel dough and shape the pretzels:
- The next morning, in a large mixing bowl, combine the rest of the flour, the pre-ferment, salt, and barley malt. Dissolve the yeast for the pretzel dough in the milk and add the milk and water to the flour. Knead the dough until smooth. Then incorporate the lard into the dough. This will be messy at first but the lard will integrate nicely and lubricate the dough.
- Cover the kneaded dough with plastic wrap and leave it to sit on the counter at room temperature for 20 minutes.
- Divide the dough into 12 even pieces, each weighing about 65 g (2.3 ounces). Rotate the individual dough pieces under the palm of your hand to form each one into a round ball. Make sure to cover them with plastic wrap so they won’t dry out. Leave the balls to rest for 5-10 minutes.
- To form a pretzel, flatten a dough ball with the palm of your hand and fold it inwards from both sides. Then roll it into a sausage. If the dough is resisting your attempts to roll it out thinner and wider, then leave it to rest for 5-10 minutes to let the gluten relax. The dough sausages need to have a thick center and very thin ends (they need to be longer and thinner than you might think at first). Twist the sausage into a pretzel shape and place it on a baking sheet that is lined with a kitchen towel. Cover with plastic wrap and leave the pretzels to proof at room temperature until doubled in size, about 1-2 hours. After that, uncover your pretzels and place them in the fridge for at least 45 minutes so they get very firm and dry out on the surface.
Soak the pretzels in lye and bake them:
- Preheat your oven with your baking sheet or pizza stone inside to 445 °F (230 °C).
- You need to work in batches when baking the pretzels. Only bake as many at once as will fit in one layer on your baking sheet or pizza stone. Keep the other pretzels in the fridge and soak them in the lye solution just before baking. Don’t soak all the pretzels at once. They need to be baked immediately after soaking.
- Put on gloves before soaking the pretzels in the room-temperature lye solution. Each pretzel should be dipped in the lye solution for no more than 3-4 seconds. Make sure to drain the soaked pretzel carefully and then place it on your pre-heated parchment-lined baking sheet or pizza stone (it’s best to use a spider for this task so that any excess lye solution can drip off). Make one long diagonal cut across the pretzel belly with a razor blade or serrated bread knife. Sprinkle the pretzels with coarse salt and bake them on the middle tray of your preheated oven for 12-15 minutes or until browned to your liking. Once you’ve taken the pretzels out of the oven, immediately spray them with water to give the surface a nice sheen and leave them to cool down on a wire rack.
Wow thank you so much for this! I have been searching the internet high and low for a recipe exactly like this. It’s one of a kind.
I sent an email with some questions on how to make this recipe in large batches—hoping to hear back from you if you have the time!
Hi Emily, I’m glad you like the recipe. I’ve replied to your questions in my email. I’m always happy to help – Tim
Hi! I live in New Zealand and m finding it very difficult to find food grade lye- and I know it’s just not worth making pretzels without it! Do you have any tips/links on where to find it?
Thank you 🙂
Hi Antonia, in Germany you can buy food-grade lye solutions at pharmacies but it’s usually quite expensive ($10 for 1 liter). If you ask them, the pharmacy staff will prepare the lye solution and you can usually pick it up the next day.
I always purchase food-grade lye pearls online. They store well, last forever, and you can mix them with water to make the lye solution. Maybe you can find them somewhere on Amazon or ebay (I found this offer on Amazon US: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B0875LR274/ref=mp_s_a_1_3?keywords=food+grade+lye&qid=1644140131&sr=8-3). I hope this helps and that you will be able to make pretzels in New Zealand – Tim
Hi Tim! Thanks for the recipe. I had a real hard time with the dough. It was super sticky, very difficult to roll out into thin arms, and never really firmed up so it was impossible to transfer my pretzels to the baking sheet without destroying the shape. Any thoughts on what I could have done wrong? Thanks!
that sounds like you used too much liquid. For pretzels, the dough should be dry and barely sticky. I think you need to add less milk/ water to the dough. It’s better to add less water at first and adjust as you go if the dough is too firm. For me, the amount of water needed depends very much on the brand of flour that I use. Some flours can simply hold more water than others. Pretzel dough shouldn’t be sticky at all but smooth and firm, just not too firm to roll it out.
Shaping the pretzels is not an easy task even if the dough is perfect. It takes some practice and the dough can tear easily if you make the pretzels with lard instead of vegetable oil. – Tim
I can not get fresh yeast.
What is the amount of active dry yeast i should use or instant yeast?
Around 1/3 the amount of fresh yeast with active dry yeast. I have no experience with instant yeast so I can’t say which one is better. I think both types should work fine. I usually use only fresh yeast because it is easier to eyeball the weight. But active dry yeast or instant yeast should work just as well.
I tried out your recipe today and was pretty pleased with the outcome. I don’t have access to fresh yeast (curse you, USA), so for anyone with the same problem:
I used 1/8 tsp active dry yeast for the pre-ferment, and 1+1/8 tsp for the dough.
I had a couple of problems. For one, in one of the pictures it shows the lard in the mixing bowl with all the other ingredients not yet incorporated. But in the instructions, you say to first knead the dough, then add the lard. In my case, I used butter, but found it pretty hard to incorporate in this step. Is there a reason for not mixing it in before?
Some of my pretzels and Laugenknoten unfortunately fused to the parchment paper. Next batch I put on the pizza stone without parchment, fused to the pizza stone. I then tried to put the next batch onto paper towels first to soak up the excess lye, but lost 2 pretzels that way. Did you have any issues like that? What kind of pizza stone do you use?