The Baking Soda Secret For Better Soft Pretzels That Skip The Lye

Homemade soft pretzels are a great treat, but to make them right you need lye, and that can be a real roadblock. Lye is a chemical that has a variety of uses, including making soap. It's a surprising ingredient to find in a recipe because it's a strongly caustic and corrosive substance that you can't handle with bare hands; however, it's a pretty essential component of traditional soft pretzels. Soaking uncooked pretzels in lye causes them to brown faster and develop different flavor compounds, which is how pretzels get their unique taste. Lye isn't something most people have on hand though, and it's not even something your grocery store will usually carry. Unless you're churning out an industrial amount of soft pretzels, going out of your way to buy lye can be a waste.

However, there is a simple trick with baking soda that can give you pretzel results not far off from lye. To get baking soda to mimic lye in a recipe, you just need to bake it in the oven. Cooking baking soda on a foil-lined sheet for around an hour changes its chemical properties and gives you a more alkaline substance closer to lye. Be careful with baked baking soda, because it can still irritate your skin on contact, although not as much as lye would. Your cooked baking soda can be used the same way lye is, and you'll get perfectly browned, chewy pretzels with an ingredient you likely already have in your pantry.

Cooking baking soda turns it into a compound similar to lye

Coating any food with an alkaline substance like baking soda helps improve browning and caramelization. Lye produces such unique results because it's such a strong alkali — the high pH reacts with the starches and sugars on the surface of your pretzel, improving the browning, giving it that gel-like glossy coat, and also adding its own distinct mineral flavor. Cooking baking soda in the oven copies this because the heat transforms it into sodium carbonate, which has a higher pH, closer to lye. It's not exactly the same substance, but it has similar chemical effects. The process of cooking baking soda is also key in producing some strongly alkaline foods like ramen noodles.

Baking soda that's been baked can be used at a 1:1 ratio for the amount of lye in your recipe. When your pretzel recipe calls for a lye bath, just dissolve a third of a cup of cooked baking soda for each cup of water you are using, then dunk the pretzels in the solution for three to four minutes. Follow the rest of the recipe the same as normal, and you'll be surprised by how amazing your pretzels turn out. They'll be bronze, salty, and smooth, with that chewy texture and slightly crusty surface made for dipping in some mustard or beer cheese — and all from something you already have in your kitchen.