Pretzels and bagels share a lot of similarities, not least of which is delicious, satisfying taste. They have very similar ingredients and both of them have firm outer crusts protecting soft, bread-like insides.
So what is the difference between pretzels and bagels? Soft pretzels are usually somewhat doughier, whereas bagels are denser, and the two baked goods clearly have different shapes. The biggest difference, however, happens during the cooking process.
Pretzels have long been a popular bread choice in Germany and they have close ties to the Christian religion, once being considered the “official food of lent.” With German immigration to North America, the humble pretzel found a new home. The Pennsylvania Dutch really popularized this baked good and to date, somewhere along the lines of 80% of pretzels made in America are still produced in Pennsylvania.
Hard pretzels are small, bite-sized crunchy snacks that became popular long after the soft variety had become a household name, but for the purposes of this article, we’re going to continue to focus on soft pretzels.
All pretzel dough has the same flour to water ratio, which is 1 cup of liquid for every 3 cups of flour. Once you have that taken care of, there can be slight variations in sugar and some recipes call for beer instead of or in addition to the barley malt syrup. A standard recipe will have these basic ingredients:
- 1 cup warm water
- 3 cups all-purpose flour
- 2 teaspoons active dry yeast
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
- 1/4 cup baking soda
- 1 tablespoon barley malt syrup
- 1 large egg, whisked
- Coarse sea salt, Kosher salt or pretzel salt
What Makes a Pretzel Taste Like a Pretzel?
Pretzels get their unique flavor and texture thanks to two unique features:
- The malt syrup, which is the same kind used for brewing beer and
- The baking soda bath that is used to prep the pretzel before it’s baked.
The baking soda, or alkaline solution, is simply a boiling hot mixture of water and baking soda that the pretzel is dipped into for 30 seconds or so before it’s baked.
This process essentially gelatinizes the outside of the dough, giving it a golden-brown color and preventing the inside dough from rising like bread does. Instead, the pretzel develops a chewy, slightly crispy outer crust with the signature pretzel flavor and the center remains soft and doughy.
How To Cook A Pretzel
To make the pretzel dough, start by mixing your yeast with the warm water. Let it sit for 1 – 3 minutes, according to the directions on the yeast package, and then begin adding and mixing in your flour, sugar and salt. Knead it well for 5 – 10 minutes or until it loses most of its stickiness. Let the dough rise in a clean, covered bowl for an hour.
Once it’s doubled in size, divide your dough into 8 equal pieces. Working with one piece at a time, roll the dough into a long, thin rope shape that’s around 20 inches long.
To make the pretzel shape, start with a horseshoe shape and then cross the ends over each other. Make a complete twist and then fold the ends back towards the top of the circle, sealing by pressing the ends into the top of the dough.
Shape all your pretzels and leave them to rise once more on a parchment paper-lined baking sheet for another half an hour.
In the meantime, preheat your oven to 450F and prepare your baking soda bath. You’ll need a deep pot with about 8 cups of water brought to a boil. Add your baking soda and barley malt but, be warned, this will cause the water to foam up significantly, which is why you need a deep pot for this project.
Give it a good stir to make sure the baking soda and syrup are fully dissolved and then reduce the temperature to maintain a simmer.
Lower each of your pretzels into the pot, without crowding them and let them simmer for about 30 seconds. They should float, so you’ll need to flip them over to brown the other side for an additional 30 seconds before pulling them out and placing them on a waiting cooling rack.
Brush your pretzels with your egg and sprinkle with the coarse salt. Bake them for 12 to 15 minutes, until they’re a beautiful, shiny golden brown.
Bagels also originated in Germany, though their ties are to the Jewish religion. Bagel means “bracelet” in German, which makes sense because of its circular shape. A circle is symbolic of eternal life cycle, without a beginning or an end, and bagels were thought to protect against demons and the evil eye and instead bring good luck.
As Jews migrated to North America, they brought their bagels with them and it became a popular street food. To this day, bagels are iconic in New York, which has a high population of Jewish people. These days you can find bagels in various flavors but purists maintain that the original, plain water bagels are the only acceptable bagel to eat.
Bagel dough is essentially just a dense bread dough. For a standard loaf of bread, you would need about 60 – 70% water, but bagels require only about 50% because they don’t need to rise like a regular loaf. It’s also important that you use a flour in the high protein or gluten range, like a sturdy bread flour, in order to get the dense, chewy quality of a great bagel.
A standard recipe would have the following ingredients:
- 1 1/2 cups warm water
- 2 3/4 teaspoons active dry yeast
- 4 cups bread flour
- 1 tablespoon packed brown sugar
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 1 egg, whisked
- 2 quarts water (for boiling)
- 1/4 cup honey (optional)
How To Cook Bagels
To make the dough, whisk your yeast with the warm water and let it sit for 1 – 3 minutes according to the instructions on the package of yeast. Combine your flour, sugar, and salt and add it to the liquid. The dough is supposed to be quite dry and heavy, and you’ll have to knead it by hand for approximately 5 minutes.
Transfer the dough to a large bowl and let it rise, covered and at room temperature for an hour. When it’s doubled in size, it’s ready to shape.
Divide the dough into 8 equal balls and then press one finger through the center of each ball to make a hole. Work that opening until it’s about 2 inches wide. Cover your bagels with a kitchen towel and let them rest while you prepare the next steps.
Preheat your oven to 425F and fill a large pot with the water you have ready for boiling. If you’re going to add honey to bring a mellow sweetness and depth of color to your bagels, add it to the boiling water and stir to dissolve it completely.
This is a very similar process to the pretzels above, but for bagels you do not add baking soda to the boiling water. Reduce the heat to medium and start to add your bagels, being careful not to crowd them in your pot. Let them cook for 1 minute before flipping them over and cooking them for another minute on the other side.
Once the bagels are all boiled, brush them with the egg and place them on a parchment paper-lined baking sheet. Make sure there is space between each bagel, giving it room to sink and expand.
Bake for 20 – 25 minutes or until your bagels are the ideal golden-brown color.
After using this entire article to convince you that pretzels and bagels are entirely separate baked goods, it is possible to morph the two together and create yourself a pretzel bagel. To do this, you use pretzel dough, twisted into a rope shape and then curled into a circle.
Give your pretzel bagels a baking soda bath before cooking them. Use a water to baking soda ration of 1 ½ teaspoons of baking soda for 3 cups of water. If you use more than that, your bagel will have a bitter tang to it. After the bath, go ahead and bake according to your pretzel recipe directions.
What can you make with pretzel rolls?
Pretzel rolls can be used any way that you would use any other type of bun or dinner roll. They’re great for sandwiches or tiny burgers and they hold up really well to sloppy joes and pulled pork without getting soggy. They also work great using sweet spreads for breakfast or a snack. If they’re fresh out of the oven, nothing beats good old fashioned butter.
Are bagels Kosher?
Bagels are often associated with Jewish customs, so it would make sense that they’re Kosher but it really depends on how and where they’re made. Kosher foods follow an entire handling process from picking to plating, which means that each of the individual ingredients used must be Kosher, and the facility making the bagels must be Kosher friendly. Most Kosher products will be labeled as such.
What’s the best flour for pretzels?
Most pretzels are made with a fairly standard all-purpose flour, with a protein content of around 9.5%. If the protein is lower than that, your pretzel will be flakier, more like a pastry. If it’s too much higher than that, your pretzel will be tougher and denser.