Vegan & German: How to bake Traditional Bretzels

Bretzels are German, and Germany is a Bretzel? Hm, well not quite, but Bretzels in Germany are really, really written with a ‘B’, believe me, so please let’s keep it that way and try not to copy the American copycats and call it Pretzel. I’ve had heaps of discussions in my country cafe I ran for two years and I’m still a bit inflexible about that (rather German like, hehe).

There are thousand versions of HOW TO MAKE THE PERFECT BRETZEL: The lyes used all differentiate and change the taste of the pastry from little to ratehr sweet sour (depending how alkaline the lye is). Cooking vs dunking into the lye and how long for is anotehr huge difference, then salt on before or after baking, freezing or storing in the fridge before dunking/cooking…etc.

There seems no congruent Bretzel recipe, so you have to try and try again until you find what works best for you. sorry, that I couldn’t give you THE ONE recipe. It doesn’t seem to exist.

Real Traditional German Bretzel Recipe  makes 6

500 g / 4 cups flour all-purpose flour

12-14g dried active yeast, or 40 g fresh yeast, dissolved in lukewarm

300ml water (not too hot) and 1 tsp brown sugar (but any sugar is fine),

30 g butter (omit when vegan, no problem)

1 tsp salt. & 2 tbsp coarse salt/flakes for later

2 litres water

1/2 c Sodium Carbonate (recommended), or 3-4 tbsp baking soda (Sodium Bi-carbonate)

NOTE #1: Baking soda is the least alkaline substance to use to brown the Bretzels for lending them their awesome sweet/sour/salty taste, so I recommend to only use it if you can’t find Sodium Carbonate (Soda Ash). That’s half the real stuff and alkaline enough to actually give them that original taste of Bretzels. The really real stuff even I couldn’t find as 100% food grade lye (Sodium Hydroxide, Caustic Soda), and I am German, for bakers sake.

Note #2: Don’t let it worry you where sodium carbonate is sold and for what, which is namely as a pool water PH increaser. You can find it in supermarkets and homeware depots. Just check that it’s 100% Sodium Carbonate, then you can use it to make an almost original lye. Please use gloves to any avoid skin contact and do not breathe in the white powdery powder, it is highly erosive. Hehe, sounds slowly like a Mission Impossible that German Bretzel making, eh? Man, we’re awesome!

In Australia Bunnings sells it in cheap 2.5 kg packs from the brand HyClor – a lifetime supply. Again, don’t be put off by where you’ll get it from. I have used it for years, sold those Bretzels in a cafe, and neither am I dead nor have I killed anyone… Or have I? 😀

Method

1. In a small bowl dissolve the dry or fresh yeast and sugar in 300 ml lukewarm water and let sit for 10-15 minutes until it rises and gets foamy. No foam? No active yeast – start again and use a different one. (yeast can be easily frozen to always have at hand)

2. Put the flour in a bowl, stir n the fine salt, and then the yeast water mix and knead for 5 min. Then knead in the butter and go again for another 5 minutes to activate the gluten in the dough. (use more flour or water to adjust the dough’s consistency, kneading it into a ‘baby bottom’ smoothness – yep, my official baking term).

3. On a slightly floured surface shape the dough into a roll. Cut into 6 equal pieces. Shape every piece into a long thin roll (about 40 cm).

4. The middle part of the rolls should be thicker (the belly) and the two ends thinner. Now shape the roll into Pretzels by crossing your arms then grab the ends and uncross your arms (ahhhh…) and then cross the ends again for the twist. Last flip the ends over towards the Bretzel to stick under or on the dough next to the belly (use water to make it sticky and press).

5. Cover those beauties with a clean dishcloth at a warm place and let rise for at least 15-30 minutes. And then there’s the possibility to put them in the freezer for 30 min which helps keeping their shape for later in the cooking phase. You can omit that step, but it helps.

6. Pre-heat the oven to 435 F / 220C7. With gloves and nose turned away (they even recommend safety goggles) mix the Sodium Carbonate with the cold cooking water – never the other way round. Baking soda next to it is child’s play, no real safety measures necessary I find. It bubbles when put into hot water, that’s all.Bring lye to a boil to dissolve the powder and to make the lye stronger. If you won’t wear gloves now, your hands will feel very soapy for a while if coming into skin contact with the lye water. It is a strong alkaline chemical substance. BE CAREFUL! No eye contact whatsoever!

8. Now you’re at the crossroads: either you dunk the Bretzels in that warm lye without boiling the pastry, or you boil them. The upside of boiling is that the pastry puff up, and the crust will be nicely soaked with the real Bretzel lye taste. Downside is that if you do it too long or the dough is not perfectly smooth and risen the heat can sometimes break open the pastry where it shouldn’t and make it super doughy… I have not found a great way to avoid it other than reducing the heat and the time of boiling them.

If you don’t boil them in the lye they will still bake and look lovely, and you do not have to rinse the lye off in cold water, but they taste only great as yeast buns, not really having that famous Bretzel taste.

9. If you boil and it is recommended for the taste: Have a large bowl with clear, cold water sitting next to the stove for later. Do that now! (Yes, that’s a German command)

10. Boiling Bretzels (like Bagels): For that you reduce the heat to medium-high and one by one immerse the Bretzels in the simmering lye for about 10-20 sec (you can gently press down with a slotted spoon to get it completely covered with the lye. There is much discussion about how long to cook them. I have done it with 10 secs with Sodium Carbonate and with over a minute when using normal baking soda (Sodium Bicarbonate). It all works, so lets settle on 10-60 sec.

11. Take them out of the lye with that slotted spoon and instantly drop into the cold water bowl to wash off some lye. You’ll get otherwise possibly a strange aftertaste when baked. But not always – what is it with these Bretzels?

12. Then let your Bretzel briefly drain (paper towel or cooling tray) before you’ll put them on a tray lined with parchment/baking paper. Now is a good time to insert a cut along the belly with a sharp knife and put the coarse salt on. It will stick well to the wet dough.

13. Bake the Bretzels on the middle rung for about 15-20 minutes. When browned to your liking (the twists should be crunchy, the belly broken open and softer when pushed) take out the tray.

14. Take off the hot tray (they’ll stick a bit) and let them cool.

15. Or eat still warm with cold, unsalted butter. Yum. Lecker…

And there we go! You’re officially German 😀 if you like it or not…

And yes, you have my permission to wince about how long this took, demanding admiration from all the people you share your Bretzels with – if you share. At least you can let everyone know what a tough, long, cumbersome and therefore surprisingly un-german Bretzel journey you took to give them a taste of real, traditional German baked goods. Yep, you’re officially allowed to brag about how you accomplished that Mission Impossible… incredible you!

Last a side note: they do not last longer than a day or need to be re-baked on low temperature to crunch up. That’s unfortunate but true. And you can use the lye again. Simply put in a glass container and leave out on bench or put in fridge. I used it over a few weeks for several batches. It simply gets soaked up by the Bretzels so to have enough in the pot you’ll have to top it up at some stage.

Last note (I mean it): if the Bretzel shaping turns out too complicated, as not everyone is a craftsman, we Germans have something that is called Laugen-Buns. Simply form buns out of the six dough portions instead, cut a cross into them, cook them, etc and sprinkle with salt, bake them (all the same like with the Bretzels), and as the Aussies say, ‘and Bob’s your uncle’ (meaning, it’s all good, you’re done).

Super last note (yeah, I lied before): You can google ‘Laugenweckchen’ – we Germans make knots, braids, nice little mice or other shapes out of the buns, too. So many Bretzel/Laugen options, it’s torture… 😀

Let me know if you have any difficulty – I will try to help!

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Hey, thanks for contacting me. I will get back to you as soon as I can. Have a lovely day, Jolene

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