How to Use Lye for Pretzels

By Fred Decker

Soft, chewy pretzels are made from a relatively standard-issue bread dough, but their texture and especially their deep color are far removed from the pale golden brown of ordinary bread. That's because commercial pretzels are dipped in a solution of food-grade lye, a strong alkali. You can replicate this effect at home if you're a serious pretzel enthusiast, but lye is a potent substance and you'll need to use it carefully.

Pretzel Platter 3
credit: crs2/iStock/Getty Images
Commercial pretzels owe their deep color to a bath in a lye solution.

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Step 1

Mix up a batch of pretzel dough, using your favorite recipe. Let it rise, then divide the dough and shape it into individual pretzels. Leave the pretzels to rest for at least 10 minutes on your counter. Alternatively you can refrigerate them for up to an hour, at this point, or freeze them for weeks and use them later.

Step 2

Set a broad, shallow stainless steel saucepan in place on your stovetop. Fill it two-thirds of the way with cold water. Pull on a pair of disposable kitchen gloves and stir in an ounce of food-grade lye -- available from specialty retailers -- or roughly 2 tablespoons, for every quart of water. Add the lye to the water, not the other way around, so you don't splash it onto your hands or work surface. Heat the water to a gentle simmer.

Step 3

Preheat your oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit. Line a steel or ceramic-coated baking sheet with parchment paper, or an aluminum baking sheet with a flexible silicone mat. Set a stainless-steel slotted spoon -- or a pair of tongs -- near your workspace.

Step 4

Slide the pretzels gently one at a time into the simmering lye bath, and leave them for 15 to 30 seconds. Lift them from the alkaline solution, letting the excess drip away, then arrange them on your baking sheet. Continue, until all of the pretzels are transferred to their sheet pans. If you're preparing a large quantity of pretzels, dip as many as you can fit on your pan and return the rest to your refrigerator for the next batch.

Step 5

Sprinkle the damp pretzels lightly with coarse sea salt or kosher salt, then slide them into your preheated oven. Bake for approximately 15 minutes, until they're puffy and well-browned, then remove them from your oven and transfer them to a cooling rack. Devour the pretzels while they're still soft and warm, or let them cool completely and bag them for later.