The great thing about making a pretzel crust pizza is that your regular pizza dough is already so similar to pretzel dough. All you have to do is brush it with an alkali solution—that’s how pretzels are made and the secret to their unique signature flavor and chew.
The bad thing about making a pretzel crust pizza is that alkali solutions are dangerous. If you want to add a pretzel crust option to your menu, you need to know what you’re doing and do it carefully.
Sodium hydroxide, which is often used to make the alkali solution for pretzels, can inflict caustic burns if it gets onto your skin, as well as severe eye injury or even blindness if it gets into your eyes. Therefore, extreme caution must be exercised when working with a sodium hydroxide solution.
If you’re not willing to sacrifice your eyesight for the sake of a flavorful crust, consider this well-known alternative: baking soda (sodium bicarbonate). The baking soda solution imparts many of the pretzel-like characteristics to the finished product, and it’s much safer to work with. However, there is a slightly different (browner) crust color associated with the baking soda, and the flavor is a little different, too. Regardless, to achieve that true pretzel taste, you need to apply salt to the dough immediately before baking. Once that’s done, both solutions will yield that classic pretzel flavor.
In trials at the American Institute of Baking (now called AIB International), we took a standard pizza crust formula and changed it to a pretzel crust by brushing the edge of the formed dough skin with both sodium hydroxide and sodium bicarbonate solutions immediately before baking.
In one trial, we made a 2% sodium hydroxide solution and heated it to 190°F before brushing it onto the pizza skin. We sprinkled kosher salt lightly on the edge and immediately baked the pizza in an air impingement oven just like our regular pizzas. The resulting crusts had a deep, pretzel-like, mahogany color with recognizable pretzel flavor. We also tried the sodium hydroxide at 6% solution using cold water and applied the solution cold. This gave a very acceptable crust color and flavor.
But, again, it must be cautioned that both of these solutions are highly caustic. We wore a respiration mask, goggles and plastic gloves while working with them!
In a separate trial, as a safer alternative to the sodium hydroxide, we tried a 15% solution of sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) and applied it to the dough both hot (190°F) and cold (room temperature/ambient). This solution is much safer to work with, but the color and flavor were not quite as good as that from the sodium hydroxide solutions. The crust came out more dark-brown than mahogany, and the flavor, while good, was less identifiable as a pretzel taste. (We did not see any significant advantage to using this soda solution hot as opposed to the cold preparation, so we recommend the cold/ambient approach for safer handling.) Immediately after baking, we brushed the crust with melted clarified butter to create a pretzel-like presentation. Also, when forming the dough, we achieved the best appearance and presentation with a raised or beaded edge as opposed to a flat or non-raised edge.
The good news is, taste testers found our salted pretzel crust to be very acceptable in all cases. Different types of toppings can be applied to the edge of the pizza skin, including pretzel salt, sesame seeds or poppy seeds. And mustard makes a great dipping sauce.
Be sure to use a sanitary, plastic-bristle brush to apply the caustic solution to the dough, as the solution can potentially destroy a natural-bristle brush.
One last note of caution: If you value your baking screens, disks or pans, don’t use them for pretzel-crust pizzas made with the sodium hydroxide solution. As the pie bakes, the solution’s highly caustic nature will eventually destroy any aluminum that it comes into contact with. Instead, use an ovenable baking tray designed for take-and-bake pizzas, or try a piece of baking parchment paper to hold the pizza during baking. Either way, spray some release oil on the tray or parchment before you place the dough on it. Otherwise, the edge of the dough—where the alkali solution has been applied—will probably stick to the tray or paper.
Ready to give the world’s most dangerous pizza a try? For a BLT Pretzel Crust pizza, check out our recipe video (below) from 2014!
The late, great Tom “The Dough Doctor” Lehmann was a longtime contributor to PMQ and served as the director of bakery assistance for the American Institute of Baking before his retirement. This article originally appeared in the February 2014 issue of PMQ.