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While sitting at a bar with a friend, noshing on a few pretzels over a beer, I got to thinking about what makes a really great pretzel.

Freshly puffed and temptingly aromatic, they're the ones with the deep brown sheen that -- if you're lucky -- you get still warm, the large specks of salt catching the light just so.

But until recently, I didn't think it was possible to make them at home. It took a little trial and error, but I've found the process is surprisingly easy (well, except for twisting them in the air -- like flipping pizza dough, that takes practice).

The secret? Lye.

The dough is simple; use a basic yeast-risen dough that can be readied in an afternoon. But the trick to great pretzels is dipping the pretzels in a liquid wash before baking -- and not just any wash, but a combination of water and lye. That's what gives pretzels their terrific color, texture and flavor.

Alkalies, like lye, are also widely used in the food world, a common one being baking soda (a mild alkali, the soda reacts with acidic ingredients to help leaven baked goods). Lye is also used in the curing of olives, the canning of mandarin oranges and the preparation of Chinese "century eggs" and Nordic lutefisk.

When shopping, look for food-grade lye. It can be hard to find at the grocery store, but it's easy to find online. I got it from Essential Depot (www.essentialdepot.com).

With pretzels, the dough is dipped in a very mild solution of lye; most sources I found call for a 3 percent solution, which is about 2 tablespoons (1 ounce) of lye dissolved in a quart of water (wear gloves and goggles). When the pretzel is dipped in the solution, the lye immediately begins to react with the surface of the dough, yellowing it. As it bakes, the color intensifies and turns a deep, glossy brown, the pretzel taking on a crisp, chewy texture. The alkali is neutralized in the process, making the pretzel safe to eat.

Soft pretzels bake in almost no time, 10 to 15 minutes, give or take, depending on the size. Serve them right away: Soft pretzels are best straight out of the oven; they just don't taste as good after they've sat around. For hard pretzels, roll them a little thinner and make them smaller (a giant hard pretzel is just awkward) and bake them at a slightly lower temperature for a longer period of time to dry them out.

> Pretzel Rolls

1 ( 1/4 -ounce) package active-dry yeast (2 1/4 teaspoons)

1 3/4 cups warm water

2 teaspoons light brown sugar

5 cups (22.5 ounces) bread flour, divided

1/2 cup (2 ounces) rye flour

2 teaspoons salt

3 tablespoons butter, melted

Pretzel wash (see chart)

Toppings, as desired

In the bowl of a stand mixer or in a large bowl, sprinkle the yeast over the warm water. Stir in the sugar and one-half cup of the bread flour. Set aside until the yeast begins to bubble, about 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, in a medium bowl, whisk together the remaining bread flour with the rye flour and salt.

Beat the melted butter into the large bowl with the yeast. Using the dough hook (if using a stand mixer) or a fork or wooden spoon (if mixing by hand), slowly mix in the remaining flour mixture until a firm, thick dough is formed.

Move the dough to a lightly floured board. Knead the dough until it is smooth and elastic, 2 to 3 minutes. Place the dough in a large, oiled bowl. Cover and set aside in a warm place until the dough is almost doubled in size, 45 minutes to an hour.

Meanwhile, prepare the pretzel wash and heat the oven to 375 degrees.

Divide the risen dough into 12 pieces, each weighing about 3 1/2 ounces. Form each piece into a ball, pinching the seams together at the base of each one. Dip each roll into the pretzel wash (wear rubber kitchen gloves and goggles if using lye) for 15 to 20 seconds, turning to coat evenly. Remove the roll to a greased nonreactive baking sheet and add topping as desired. (If using an aluminum baking sheet, line the sheet with parchment before greasing).

Use a serrated knife or razor blade to make a crosswise slit into each roll about one-half-inch deep. Top with salt, or as desired. Set the rolls aside until puffed and risen, about 15 minutes.

Bake the pretzel rolls, 1 sheet at a time, in the center of the oven until puffed and a rich golden brown (color will vary depending on the wash), about 20 minutes. Rotate the sheet halfway through baking for even coloring. Remove baking sheet to a rack and lets rolls cool slightly before serving. Serves 12.

> Soft Pretzels

1 ( 1/4 -ounce) package active-dry yeast (2 1/4 teaspoons)

1 3/4 cups warm water

2 teaspoons light brown sugar

5 cups (22.5 ounces) bread flour, divided

1/2 cup (2 ounces) rye flour

2 teaspoons salt

3 tablespoons butter, melted

Pretzel wash (see chart)

Toppings, as desired

(Follow instructions for pretzel rolls, using above ingredients, up to setting dough aside.)

Meanwhile, prepare the pretzel wash and heat the oven to 450 degrees.

Divide the risen dough into 12 pieces. Form each piece into a ball, pinching the seams together at the base of each ball. Slowly roll each ball out into a rope. Roll each out as far as it will go without springing back, then move to the next ball and start rolling it out, giving each rope time to relax. Eventually, roll each of the ropes out to a length of about 24 inches. Twist the ropes to form a pretzel shape, pressing the ends into the pretzel.

Dip each pretzel into the pretzel wash (wear rubber kitchen gloves and goggles if using lye) for 15 to 20 seconds, turning the pretzel over halfway to coat evenly. Remove the pretzel to a greased nonreactive baking sheet and top as desired (if using an aluminum baking sheet, line it with parchment before greasing). Allow a few inches of space between the pretzels.

(Continue directions as for pretzel rolls.)

> Hard Pretzels

1 ( 1/4 -ounce) package active-dry yeast (2 1/4 teaspoons)

1 3/4 cups warm water

2 teaspoons light brown sugar

5 cups (22.5 ounces) bread flour, divided

1/2 cup (2 ounces) rye flour

2 teaspoons salt

3 tablespoons vegetable or canola oil

Pretzel wash (see below)

Toppings, as desired

(Follow instructions for pretzel rolls, using above ingredients, to setting dough to rise.)

Meanwhile, prepare the pretzel wash and heat the oven to 400 degrees.

Divide the risen dough into 36 pieces, each weighing about 1 ounce. Form each piece into a ball, pinching the seams together at the base of each one. Slowly roll each ball out into a rope. Roll out as far as it will go without springing back, then move to the next ball and start rolling it out, giving each rope time to relax. Eventually, roll the ropes out to a length of about 18 inches. Twist the ropes to form a pretzel shape, pressing the ends into the pretzel.

Dip pretzels as in other recipes and place on baking sheets a few inches apart.

(Continue as for other pretzels, baking about 18 minutes, turning sheet halfway through.) Makes 36 pretzels.

> Pretzel washes

Lye: This is the classic pretzel wash that creates a rich brown sheen with thin crust. To make enough wash for one batch of pretzels, dissolve 1 ounce (about 2 tablespoons) food-grade lye in 1 quart of warm water (add the lye to the water, not the other way around). Wear gloves and goggles while using this wash; lye can burn if it comes into contact with your skin or eyes. Place the wash in a shallow glass baking dish and dip the pretzels for about 10 seconds on each side to coat. Shake off any excess lye and place the pretzels on a greased, non-aluminum baking sheet.

Baked baking soda: The flavor from this wash is somewhat similar to lye, but the color isn't as dark or shiny, and the crust isn't as crisp. Harold McGee recommends spreading a layer of baking soda on an aluminum foil-lined baking sheet. Heat the oven between 250 and 300 degrees and bake the soda for 1 hour. To store, keep the soda in a tightly sealed jar so it does not absorb moisture from the air. To make enough wash for 1 batch of pretzels, dissolve 1 1/3 cups baked soda in 1 quart warm water. Place the wash in a glass bowl and immerse the pretzels for 3 to 4 minutes. Rinse the pretzels in a large bowl of plain water before baking.

Plain baking soda: Probably the easiest alkaline wash to make, it lends a mild tang, though the pretzels are not as crisp or thin, and there is little to no sheen. To make enough for one batch of pretzels, dissolve 1/4 cup soda in 1 quart of water in a small pot. Bring the mixture to a simmer, then remove from heat. Dip the pretzels in the wash for 20 to 30 seconds before baking.