I totally took a stab at making pretzels the "right way" and failed.

Not horrifically or anything, I am pretty sure that I know what I did wrong(boiling them too long) I also used lye for the first time.  It was terrifying.  If you’re not familiar with what lye is usually used for, here’s the list: clearing drains, melting bodies, turning fat into soap.  It is also used in the following culinary preparations: curing olives, making lutefisk, ramen noodles, and pretzels.  Lye (aka Sodium Hydroxide) is a very powerful base (the opposite of an acid).  If you’ve seen Fight Club, it’s the chemical used in the chemical burn scene.  It can be pretty dangerous.  But it’s the only way to get properly browned pretzels.  Lye can be purchased at hardware stores, but lye that’s safe to eat is best specifically “food grade” and generally needs to be purchased at either fancy soapmaking shops or the internet.  My bottle of lye cost $3, with a $12 shipping charge.  Figures.

food grade lye
I started with a pretzel dough recipe that I have had success with in the past.  It’s Smitten Kitchen’s if that matters.  It probably doesn’t.  What really makes a pretzel special is the whole boiling in lye thing, the dough just needs to be there to convey the beautiful browned crust.
pretzel making supplies

 Then I rolled out a bunch of pretzels, and what I intended to be “pretzel bites,” but which once they developed the gorgeous glossy deep brown coloring, appeared disconcertingly like poo.  Not a good choice.  If you use lye, don’t make “pretzel bites.”

rolling out pretzels
rolling out pretzels
I never said they were pretty
pretzel supplies

In order to safely use the lye, I got out some safety glasses and a pair of long rubber gloves.  The last thing that I want is a chemical burn.  The process of turning pretzel-shaped pieces of dough into pretzels is a dip in boiling lye-water.  I was under the impression that you need to actually boil the pretzels for a while.  I tested several different durations, and I think that the trick is actually just a dip, not simmering for any amount of time.  Lye, like baking soda (but more so) is quite bitter.  We found that the pretzels that spent longer boiling in the lye solution were more bitter than ones that only spent 10 seconds on each side in the solution.  All were too bitter though, so I’m pretty certain the extended time period in the lye bath is the culprit.  Additional test batches will be necessary to prove myself right.  It will be terrible and thankless work, but somebody’s got to do it! 😉

Preparing to make my lye solution
The process of pouring 3 tablespoons of lye granules into simmering water was a terrifying one. It bubbled up like crazy, and I’m not gonna lye, it got my heart rate up.  Goddamned terrifying.  But I survived and don’t appear to have any new burns, so I’d call it a success. 
lye-boiled pretzels - prebaking
After their trip through the chemical-burn-bath, each pretzel is put on a protected  baking sheet, lined either with a silpat or parchment paper (I’d recommend silpat, the parchment stuck to the bottom of the pretzels a little after baking), got a sprinkle of some grey salt and spent about 15 minutes in the oven.  

lye-boiled pretzels
What emerges is… well… A MOTHERFUCKING PRETZEL!!!!!!  No big deal.  The glorious deep dark brown color?  THAT can only be achieved through lye.  There are other methods of developing darkening in pretzels, baking soda works OK, baking soda that’s been baked for 2 hours somehow develops a higher pH, but still, LYE is the only way to get the mahogany skin, and the shine.  Magnificent. But bitter it turns out.  If I’m not on the verge of a nervous breakdown testing pumpkin pies by the end of this weekend, perhaps I will put some effort into another pretzel trial

lye-boiled pretzels

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