Back a few years ago, I participated in Dishcrawl’s Neighborfood event in Old Town Scottsdale. It was basically a restaurant/bar crawl through Old Town, and tons of fun! The first stop was to Brat Haus, where I sampled an amazingly light, soft, fresh-baked pretzel with a cup of beer cheese sauce for dipping. It totally set the bar high for the rest of the day, and of all the foods I sampled that day, Brat Haus’s pretzel and beer cheese stuck with me — so much so, that I’ve been scheming to make my own version ever since! I’m proud to say I’ve succeeded beyond my wildest dreams.
There are lots of recipes for both soft pretzels and beer cheese sauce out there, but I decided to combine the culinary forces of two heavyweights — Alton Brown, and Kenji from Serious Eats. AB provided the truly fantastic pretzel recipe, and Kenji supplied the out of this world, kickass, amazing cheese sauce recipe, which I doctored up with a little beer. You know, just cause.
First off, the pretzels. Alton Brown is a force to be reckoned with, and his pretzel recipe is no slouch. They come out of the oven soft and fluffy, like a good pretzel should be, with great chew and crust. Kenji’s ultra simple homemade nacho cheese-style sauce is revolutionary, creamy, cheesy, and rich — the perfect accompaniment to some piping hot soft pretzels. It’s so good, I admit to eating it out of that little bowl with a spoon. Don’t judge.
makes 18 small pretzels; modified from Alton Brown
1 1/2 c (360 g) warm water
1 Tbs (16 g) granulated sugar
2 tsp (14 g) salt
2 1/2 tsp (10 g) active dry yeast
2 tsp (10 g) baking powder
4 1/2 c (623 g) bread flour
2 oz (4 Tbs / 60 g) unsalted butter, melted
2 quarts warm water
2 Tbs food-grade lye OR 1/2 c baking soda (I used lye, which can be found on Amazon)
coarse salt, for sprinkling
In a glass measuring cup, heat the 1 1/2 cups of warm water in the microwave for 15-20 seconds, until slightly warmer than body temperature. Stir in the sugar, salt, and yeast; let sit until foamy on top.
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the dough hook, combine the flour, baking powder, and melted butter. Add the foamy yeast-water mixture and mix on low speed for 2 minutes until a dough forms. Turn the mixer to medium speed and mix for 4 minutes until the dough is very smooth and not sticky.
Scrape the dough out into a large oiled bowl and cover with a cloth or a piece of plastic wrap. Set in a warm place and allow to rise for one hour, until doubled in size. Meanwhile, preheat your oven to 375 degrees.
When the dough has about 10 minutes left to rise, put the 2 quarts of warm water into a large (4-6 quart) pot, and carefully stir in the lye or the baking soda. Set over high heat and when the pot comes to a boil, turn off the heat.
Be super careful when working with lye, as it is very caustic! Also, be sure not to use a bare aluminum pot with the lye solution, as the lye will react strongly with the aluminum which can be bad news. Stainless steel or nonstick-coated pots should work just fine.
Once the dough has fully risen, punch down and divide into 18 two-ounce portions. Shape each portion into a smooth ball, and then roll into a small log shape on an unfloured surface, to about 3 to 4 inches long. Place the shaped pretzels onto sheet pans that have been lined with very well-greased parchment paper, or a greased silicone mat. Once all the pretzels are formed, drop 4 pretzels at a time into the steaming lye/baking soda bath. Allow them to soak for 30 seconds per side before removing them with a slotted spoon and placing them back on their pans.
Once all the pretzels are dipped, sprinkle them lightly with coarse salt and make three somewhat shallow cuts on top using a pair of scissors. Bake the pretzels in the preheated oven for 12 minutes, then swap the pans’ shelves, rotate the pans, and bake for another 12 minutes until deep golden brown. (Now is the time to make the beer cheese!) Set the baked pretzels aside to cool.
beer cheese sauce
makes about 3 cups; recipe modified from Serious Eats
1 lb extra sharp cheddar cheese, grated from a block
2 Tbs (18 g) cornstarch
1 – 12 oz can evaporated milk (1 1/2 cups)
1/2 c (134 g) Newcastle Brown Ale beer, or your favorite beer
2 tsp hot sauce of your choice
While the pretzels are baking, it’s cheese sauce time! Grate up the whole pound of cheddar cheese and place it in a large bowl with the cornstarch. Toss well by hand until all the cheese is coated in cornstarch.
In a large pot, pour the evaporated milk, beer, and hot sauce. Stir in the cheese/cornstarch mixture and place over low to medium heat. While the mixture heats, whisk constantly until the cheese is thoroughly melted. Do not allow the sauce to boil (one or two bubbles is fine), as it can make the sauce grainy. The end result, once thoroughly melted and thickened, should be a smooth, shiny, moderately thick sauce. You’ll know it’s thick enough when the whisk leaves trails through the sauce that don’t immediately disappear. Serve hot with your freshly baked pretzels!
This has to be my favorite snack in recent memory. The beer lends such a perfect flavor to the cheese sauce, which couldn’t be a better match for the chewy, yet fluffy pretzels. If you’re anything like me, you’ll search your cabinets high and low for other things to dip into this rich, totally addicting beer cheese. The sauce would be excellent for a party, and would stay dippable and awesome in a Crock Pot on low heat! Any leftovers of the sauce can be put into an airtight container in the fridge, and can be reheated gently over low-medium heat, or for 20 second increments in the microwave, stirring in between. The pretzels freeze amazingly well, or can be kept in an open container at room temperature for 1-2 days; if covered or totally sealed, the crust becomes soggy and the salt will start to melt. To reheat, they can be wrapped in foil and heated in a 350 degree oven until warmed through, or simply microwaved briefly to heat.