¼ cup baking soda
1 (¼ ounce) package active dry yeast (about 2 ¼ teaspoons)
½ cup warm water (between 100°F to 115°F)
1 tablespoon firmly packed dark brown sugar
3¼ cups unbleached bread flour
½ cup cold pilsner-style beer
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cubed, at room temperature, plus more for greasing the bowl
2 teaspoons fine sea salt
1 egg yolk beaten with 1 tablespoons of water
Toppings: coarse salt, pretzel salt, poppy seeds, caraway seeds, sunflower seeds, fennel seeds, pumpkin seeds, or a mixture
1. Preheat the oven to 250°F. Spread the baking soda out on an aluminum-lined pie pan or a small rimmed baking sheet. Bake for 1 hour. Let cool completely. If not using right away, store it in an airtight container at room temperature.
2. Sprinkle the yeast over the warm water in the bowl of a stand mixer or a large bowl. Add the brown sugar, stirring until dissolved. Allow the yeast to bloom until foamy, 5 to 7 minutes. Stir in the flour, beer, butter and salt and continue stirring to form a shaggy mass. Using the mixer's dough hook, knead on medium-low speed for about 1 minute, until a smooth ball forms. The dough should be quite firm and may be slightly tacky, but not sticky. (If sticky, add more flour, 1 tablespoon at a time, and knead until the dough is smooth. If the dough is too dry to come together, add more water, 1 teaspoon at a time.) Continue kneading the dough on medium-low speed until it is elastic, 5 to 7 minutes. You can also knead it by hand on an unfloured work surface.
3. Choose a bowl that will be large enough to contain the dough after it has doubled in size, and grease it lightly with butter. Transfer the dough to the greased bowl and cover the bowl tightly with plastic wrap. Let the dough rise in the refrigerator for at least 8 hours, and up to 24 hours, for optimal flavor. (For quick pretzels, allow the dough to rise at room temperature, in a warm spot, until it has doubled in size, about 3½ hours.)
4. Line two 12-by-17-in rimmed baking sheets with parchment paper; set aside. Turn the dough out onto an unfloured work surface and firmly press it down to deflate. To form the classic pretzel shape, cut the dough into eight equal portions. Work with one piece of dough, keeping the rest covered with a damp, clean kitchen towel. Pat a piece of dough down with your fingertips to form a rough rectangle, about 3½ by 5½ inches. Beginning on a long side, roll the dough up tightly, forming it into a little loaf. Pinch the seam together. Shape the dough into a rope by rolling it against the work surface with your palms and applying mild pressure, working from the center of the dough out to the ends. If you need more friction, spread a few drops of water on the counter with your hand. Once you can feel that the dough rope doesn't want to stretch any further (usually when it is between 12 to 16 inches long), set it aside and repeat the process with the remaining pieces of dough.
5. Return to the first dough rope and continue rolling it out to a length of 24 to 28 inches, leaving the center about 1 inch in diameter and tapering the ends thinly by applying a little more pressure as you work your way out. Position the dough rope into a U shape, with the ends pointing away from you. Holding an end in each hand, cross the ends about 3 inches from the tips and then cross them again. Fold the ends down and press them into the U at 4 and 8 o'clock, allowing about ¼ inch of the ends to overhang. Place the pretzel on one of the prepared baking sheets and cover it with a damp towel. Repeat this process with the remaining dough, spacing out the pretzels on the baking sheets at least 1 inch apart and covering them with a damp towel.
6. Allow the covered pretzels to rise at warm room temperature until they have increased in size by about half, 20 to 30 minutes. (The pretzels can be refrigerated at this point, covered tightly with plastic wrap, for up to 8 hours before dipping and baking them.)
7. At least 20 minutes before baking, position one rack in the upper third and another rack in the lower third of the oven and preheat it to 500°F.
8. Sift the baking soda. Fill a large (at least a fingers width wider than the pretzels) tall, non-reactive pot with 8 cups of water. Stir the baking soda into the water and bring to a simmer over medium-high heat. Once the baking soda dissolves, reduce the heat to medium to gently simmer.
9. Use a large skimmer or spider to gently dip the pretzels in the baked baking soda solution, one or two at a time. Leave them in the solution for about 20 seconds, carefully turning once after 10 seconds. Remove the pretzels from the liquid, drain, and return them to the baking sheets, spacing them at least 1 inch apart. If the ends come detached, reposition them. Repeat with the remaining pretzels.
10. Use a serrated knife to cut a slit about ¼ inch deep in the thickest part of each pretzel (the bottom of the U). Brush them with the egg wash. Sprinkle them with the toppings of your choosing.
11. Bake the pretzels until they are deep mahogany in color, 8 to 12 minutes, rotating the pans from front to back and top to bottom halfway through. Cool the preztels on a rack for 10 minutes before serving. The pretzels are best enjoyed the day they are made, warm from the oven or within an hour of baking.
12. Either eat immediately or let them cool completely and then wrap each one individually in plastic wrap. Store at room temperature for up to 2 days, or put the plastic-wrapped pretzels in a resealable plastic freezer bag to freeze up to 1 month. Reheat the pretzels in a 350°F oven for about 5 minutes, or for 10 to 12 minutes if frozen.