Chefs now compete with sidewalk vendors to sell the best pretzels. (Chefs' pretzel recipes are winning—handily.) A pro shares his twist.

"At its best, a pretzel has a crunchy exterior, a soft, chewy interior and an earthy flavor—slightly sweet, salty and a little bit bitter," says Los Angeles chef Hans Röckenwagner, whose eponymous bakery's pretzels are so popular that he recently quadrupled the size of his production facility. His secret: briefly soaking the uncooked twists in a solution of lye, a caustic alkali. (Don't let the fact that lye is used to make soap and clear drains put you off. Its high pH, which browns a pretzel's crust, is neutralized in the process.)

For cooks who want an authentic pretzel, there's no substitute for lye. "I have not found anything that comes close," says Röckenwagner. He points out that, with the proper precautions, using lye is no more of a risk than boiling water or heating oil, two other kitchen tasks that can go awry. In addition to Röckenwagner's must-try pretzel recipe, we've also included a method that uses baking soda, a less powerful alkali than lye—the results are more like bagels than pretzels, but they're still delicious hot from the oven.

A Pro's Pretzel Tips

Mustard or No?

"The best way to eat one of my pretzels is with a little butter and maybe some radish slices," says German-born Hans Röckenwagner.

Slideshow: How to Make Homemade Pretzels

Secrets to the Perfect Pretzel