A naturally leavened pretzel recipe with plenty of room for variations. Many recipe testers reported these pretzels became a weekly standard in their homes!
In a large bowl, mix together the starter, water, brown sugar, and salt. Stir in butter.
Mix in the flour 1 cup at a time. Note: This makes a very stiff, low hydration dough that can be really hard on the motor in a stand mixer. If using a stand mixer, mix in the last 1/2 cup of flour by hand.
Cover bowl tightly with plastic wrap so it won't dry out. Leave on the counter or another slightly warm area and let rise until doubled in size. At 30 minutes, you can do a round of stretching and folding. (This dough dries out quickly, so you may want to spray the surface lightly with water.)
Shaping the pretzels
Once the dough has risen, turn it out onto a work surface. Divide the dough into two balls, then each ball into four pieces for a total of eight small balls.
Working with one ball at a time, shape the pretzels. Roll the ball into a long log no more than 1/2 inch thick. Fold the dough into a pretzel shape by twisting the ends together twice, then flipping the twisted end back in.
Arrange the pretzels on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper and let rise at room temperature, lightly covered with a towel or plastic wrap, about two hours. Then place in the refrigerator for at least one hour to chill, uncovered.
Baking soda bath
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.
Next, prepare the baking soda bath. Mix 1/2 cup of baking soda into 2 quarts of water in a wide, shallow pot and bring to a boil. Be careful, as the mixture can easily boil over!
Working one at a time, place each pretzel into the baking soda bath. Let boil for 20 seconds, then remove to a wire rack to drain.
Once all the pretzels have been boiled and drained, rearrange them on the parchment-lined baking sheet. Whisk 1 egg and generously wash egg over each pretzel, then sprinkle with salt.
Baking the pretzels
Place pretzels in the oven to bake for 15-18 minutes. After 10 minutes, you should start to see the pretzels taking on color; monitor carefully to see when they reach your desired doneness.
Once they've reached a perfect shade of golden brown, remove the pretzels to a wire rack to cool. Enjoy with mustard, cheese sauce, or just by themselves!
Variant 1: Beer pretzels
Infuse your pretzels with the flavor of your favorite beer. The alcohol cooks off during baking, so these are family-friendly! Just swap in 1 cup of beer for the water. We recommend choosing a darker, malty beer like a red ale, stout or porter to best enhance the pretzel flavor.
Variant 2: Sweet pretzels
Sugar and cinnamon calling your name? Yeah, us too. When preparing the pretzels to bake, skip the salt topping. Once they've come out of the oven, brush lightly with butter and roll in a mixture of fine granulated sugar and cinnamon.
Variant 3: Pretzel bites
If folding the dough makes your brain twist into knots, keep it simple! Pretzel bites make a fun finger food or snack with a lot less work. Roll your pretzel dough into large (1-inch diameter) logs, then simply cut them into 1 or 2-inch lengths and continue from the chilling step. Reduce baking time to 8-10 minutes.