From festive tents filled with Lederhosen– and Dirndl-wearing revelers to steins overflowing with beer, there are so many vibrant images that come to mind when thinking of Oktoberfest. But as we know, this famous celebration isn’t only about beer—the food is another one of its many draws. There’s Hendl (that’s half of a roast chicken) if you’re really hungry and the fluffy pancake-like Kaiserschmarrn to indulge your sweet tooth, but the most iconic must-try by far is the pretzel.
A local icon
Whether it’s the giant Oktoberfest version that’s quite literally bigger than your face, or Laugenstangen, its baguette-shaped cousin, the pretzel holds a cherished place in the cuisine of Alpine Europe. All over Germany, Bretzeln play an integral part in time-honored traditions. In the regions of Baden and Schwaben, special pretzels are eaten on January 1 for luck in the coming year. And in the Southwest, Fastenbrezeln are prepared for Lent.
Some pretzels are even the subject of local tales, and the Burger pretzel wins the award for “pretzel with the most compelling backstory.” According to legend, in 1795, a family of German bakers took in a French soldier while he recovered from wounds he suffered in battle. Once healed, the soldier shared his secret pretzel recipe as a “thank you” for their kindness.
Why exactly are these twisty, salted delicacies an icon of not only Oktoberfest, but Germany itself? After doing some research, I could tell you that they’re such a prominent part of the country’s baking tradition that they’ve been used as a baker’s emblem since the 12th century. Or that they hold religious significance—their shape is meant to resemble a pair of arms folded in prayer. But, in order to really get a complete picture, I figured why not make them? So I did.
Learning the ropes (or knots, if you will)
After becoming a pretzel baker for an afternoon, I learned two things about their popularity. The first is that there’s a reason why these treats have withstood the test of time, and that’s because they’re delicious. Whether hot out of the oven or enjoyed as a snack the next day, they still taste great no matter when you eat them. And the second? They’re easy to make. The process may take a little bit of time since the dough needs an hour to rise, but otherwise the recipe is an easy one to follow.
Before you try
In case you want to try it out for yourself, the list of ingredients and steps are below. But before you roll up your sleeves and hit the kitchen, here are a few tips to help you as you go:
Careful with the thermometer
When you’re heating the beer, make sure you don’t let the thermometer touch the bottom of the saucepan. For the most accurate reading, you need to take the temperature of the liquid and not the hot metal.
Help the dough rise
To get your dough to rise more quickly, place a hot water bottle or heating pad underneath the bowl.
Choose your tools
If you don’t have a wire skimmer or spider tool to remove your pretzels from the boiling water and baking soda mixture, a spatula works wonders.
Twist and twist again
Don’t let yourself be intimidated when it’s time to twist your pretzels into shape! This is some really forgiving dough, so it’s ok if you don’t get it right the first time—just untwist and try again. In case you need it, here’s a video to help you out:
12 ounces amber beer
1 packet (1/4 ounce) dry yeast
2 tablespoons melted butter
2 tablespoons sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
4 1/4 cups flour
10 cups water
2/3 cup baking soda
1 egg yolk
1 tablespoon water
Pour the beer into a small saucepan and warm to 110–115° F. Remove the pan from heat and stir in yeast until dissolved. Combine melted butter, sugar, salt, the yeast and beer mixture, and three cups of flour in a large mixing bowl and beat on medium speed until smooth. Then, stir in the remaining flour until the dough reaches a soft, sticky consistency.
Place the dough onto a floured surface and knead until it becomes smooth and elastic (around six to eight minutes). Place kneaded dough in a greased bowl, turning it over once to coat the top. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and set it in a warm place. Let rise for one hour, or until the dough has doubled in size.
Preheat the oven to 425° F. Remove plastic from the bowl and punch down the dough. Place punched-down dough onto a lightly floured surface and divide it into eight equally-sized balls. Roll each ball into a 24-inch rope and twist to form the classic pretzel shape.
In a separate pot, bring water and baking soda to a boil. Dropping them into the pot two at a time, boil pretzels for 30 seconds. Remove, and place on paper towels to absorb excess water.
For the topping, whisk egg yolk and water together in a small bowl. Place boiled pretzels two inches apart on greased cookie sheets and brush with the egg wash. Sprinkle with coarse salt to taste and bake for 10–12 minutes or until golden brown. Cool on a wire rack and enjoy!
Have you tried pretzels in Germany? Think you’ll try our recipe? Let us know how your pretzels turn out in the comments!