Top | Pretzel Making at Home
Buttery Pretzel Crackers
(recipe, Andrea Slonecker)
These buttery crisps are “pretzelized” — sprayed with a food-grade lye solution to give them that dark color and authentic pretzel flavor. Lye is a naturally occurring alkaline substance that has been used for hundreds of years to produce foods like hominy, Chinese noodles, and cured olives. The lye wash breaks down the protein and starch on the surface of the dough, so that when the crackers are placed in a hot oven, the surface gelatinizes to become brown and glossy, with a mineral-tinged flavor. Chemically, the sodium hydroxide (lye) reacts with carbon dioxide in the oven to form edible sodium carbonate.
Food-grade lye is hard to find in stores, but it can be ordered online from companies like Essential Depot. If you aren’t up to the challenge of sourcing and working with lye, there is a suitable alternative: baked baking soda. To bake baking soda, spread it out on a small baking dish and place it in a 250-degree oven for 1 hour. The heat of the oven chemically alters the baking soda to make it behave similarly to lye, and it will keep indefinitely in a covered container at room temperature.
You will need to pick up a plastic spray bottle in order to make this recipe. Store any remaining solution at room temperature in the spray bottle with the nozzle closed, as it will keep indefinitely. (Make sure the bottle can be used to safely store household cleaning products, in which case it will be fine for an alkaline solution.)
Serve these crackers with a cheese plate or a savory dip or pâté.
- 2 cups (255 grams) unbleached all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
- 1 Tbsp. firmly packed light-brown sugar
- 1 tsp. fine sea salt, such as fleur de sel or sel gris
- 4 Tbsp. (55 grams) cold unsalted butter, cubed
- ¼ cup plus 3 Tbsp. (105 milliliters) cold water
- 1 cup (240 milliliters) water
- 1 tsp. food-grade lye or 2 tsp. baked baking soda (see Introduction)
- Coarse salt, for topping
- Make the dough: Whisk together the flour, brown sugar, and fine sea salt in a medium bowl. Use your fingertips to rub the butter into the flour mixture, breaking it up into tiny flour-coated pieces about the size of grains of rice. Add the water and stir with a rubber spatula to form a shaggy mass.
- Turn the dough out onto an unfloured work surface and knead it 8 to 10 times, just until all of the flour is incorporated. The dough should be slightly tacky but not sticky. If it is sticky, add a little more flour, about 1 tablespoon at a time. (If the dough is too dry to come together, add more water, 1 teaspoon at a time. You are trying to prevent the butter from melting from the warmth of your hands, so the dough will not be a smooth, homogenous mass; rather, specks of butter should be visible.)
- Cut the dough into two equal portions and form each portion into a disk. Wrap each disk of dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate it for 1 hour.
- Prep for the alkaline solution: Before preparing the alkaline solution, there are a few precautions to take, since it is a hazardous chemical before it’s baked if it’s not handled properly. Wear rubber household gloves that cover your forearms to prevent the solution from irritating your skin, avoid touching the solution with bare skin before it is baked, and be extremely careful not to let the solution splash into your eyes. Work in a well-ventilated room, with the stove’s hood vent on high power, and be careful not to breathe in the mist (it helps to cover your nose and mouth with a handkerchief).
- Make the alkaline solution: Wearing rubber gloves, put the lye or baked baking soda into a spray bottle. Fill the bottle with 1 cup (240 milliliters) of hot tap water, twist the top on tightly, and gently swirl the bottle to dissolve, without spraying out any of the solution. Wipe down the sides of the bottle with a wet, soapy sponge or paper towels.
- Prep the tools: Position one rack in the upper third and another rack in the lower third of the oven. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees about 20 minutes before baking. Line two 12-by-17-inch rimmed baking sheets with parchment paper; set aside.
- Make the crackers: Lightly dust your work surface and a rolling pin with flour. Working with one disk of dough at a time, roll out the dough into a 10-by-16-inch rectangle, gently pulling and stretching with your hands to form straight edges and sharp corners. Sprinkle the dough with more flour as needed to prevent sticking. Brush any excess flour off the bottom and top of the dough.
- With the spray bottle set to the finest mist, spray one of the parchment paper–lined baking sheets with the alkaline solution, making sure that the entire surface is covered with a fine coating. Roll the dough up loosely on the rolling pin, and unroll it onto the baking sheet. Trim the edges and cut the dough into 12 rectangular crackers using a pizza cutter or fluted pastry wheel. Spray the tops of the crackers with an even, thorough coating of the alkaline solution. Any areas that are not wet with the solution will not be “pretzelized.” Sprinkle the crackers with coarse salt. Repeat this process with the other disk of dough and bake immediately.
- Bake the crackers: Bake the crackers until they are brown and crisp, 12 to 15 minutes, rotating the pans from front to back and top to bottom after 5 minutes of baking, and again after 10 minutes. The crackers may look almost marbled, with some darker spots and some lighter ones from where the alkaline solution was most concentrated. (This just adds to their rustic charm.)
- Transfer the crackers to a wire rack to cool to room temperature before serving. The crackers will keep at room temperature in an airtight container for up to 2 weeks.