This pretzel dough, adapted from Martha Stewart, is forgiving and easy to work with. You can knead it in a stand mixer or by hand. Soft pretzels get their appealing chewiness from a quick poaching in water and baking soda before heading off to the oven. This extra step may seem like a bit of a hassle, but it's a small price to pay for the magic it creates.
cups warm water (should feel warm but not very hot to the touch)
teaspoon active dry yeast
cups all-purpose flour (or substitute up to 2 1/2 cups whole wheat flour)
teaspoons fine sea salt
cup olive oil, divided
Tablespoons baking soda
Coarse sea salt, for sprinkling
Sesame seeds, for sprinkling
In a large bowl or the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook, combine the water and sugar and stir to dissolve sugar. Sprinkle yeast overtop and set aside for 10 minutes in a warm spot in the kitchen. Yeast will be foamy.
Add one cup of flour to the bowl and stir with a spoon or on low with the dough hook until incorporated. Then add salt and four additional cups of flour. Stir with a spoon or the dough hook until combined, about one minute.
If kneading by hand, turn the dough out onto a clean work surface (no need to flour it), and knead until it loses most of its stickiness and becomes quite elastic, about ten minutes. (To knead, hold the dough in place with one hand and stretch it out in front of you with the heel of your other hand as shown in the photos above, then roll it back up on itself and repeat.) If using a stand mixer, turn machine on medium-low and let the dough hook knead for about 90 seconds, until the dough pulls away from the sides of the bowl.
Add the remaining 1/2 cup of flour and knead by hand for about two minutes more or in stand mixer for one minute more, until smooth. (If using a stand mixer, turn out the dough and knead it a few times by hand at the end.) Wash and dry the bowl, then pour about a Tablespoon of the oil into it. Place the dough back in the bowl and roll it to coat lightly with the oil on all sides. Place a clean kitchen towel over the top of the bowl and set aside in a warm spot in the kitchen to rise. Dough is ready when it has approximately doubled in volume, which will take an hour or a little more depending on the temperature of your kitchen. Brush two large baking sheets lightly with some of the olive oil.
Turn the dough out onto a clean work surface and punch it down a few times to release any trapped air. Divide the dough into sixteen equal pieces. Place fifteen of them back in the bowl and cover with a damp paper towel.
Starting with one of the small pieces of dough, roll with your hands into an approximately 18-inch "snake," and then twist into a pretzel shape. Set pretzel on baking sheet, leaving two inches of space on all sides. Repeat with remaining dough balls. Set pretzels aside for 15 minutes for their final rise.
Preheat the oven to 450°F with one rack 1/3 of the way up from the oven floor and another 1/3 of the way down from the top. If you have a convection oven, it's great to use here -- just set it to 425° instead. Fill a large, heavy pot with two inches of water, add baking soda, and bring to a boil over high heat. Lower heat to maintain a slow simmer. Place a sheet of parchment or waxed paper on the countertop next to the stove.
In batches of four to six depending on the size of your pot, gently place pretzels into the simmering water and poach for one to two minutes, until they are quite puffy and floating at the top of the pot. Remove to the parchment paper.
Brush a little more oil onto the baking sheets. Gently blot any moisture off each pretzel with a paper towel and place back on the baking sheets. Brush each pretzel with a little olive oil and then sprinkle with sesame seeds and a bit of coarse salt.
Place one baking sheet on the lower rack and one on the upper rack of the oven. Bake pretzels for eight minutes, then reverse the positions of the baking sheets and bake about seven minutes more, until pretzels are beautifully golden brown. Serve warm or at room temperature, preferably the same day they're made.