Yes, lye. I understand why you might be worried about it. I confess that it’s worrisome having a dangerous caustic alkaline in the kitchen. However if you take the proper precautions, it’s no more dangerous to work with than a strong drain cleaner. The big problem is getting it. I confess I didn’t plan terribly well for my topic this week, so ordering it off the web — where of course you can get pretty much anything — isn’t an option. If I were still living in the Twin Cities it wouldn’t be a problem (lots of lutefisk makers up there, donchaknow). Here in Kentucky some people still make hominy, which requires lye, but so far I’ve had no luck finding any.
But then why is lye so critical for pretzel-making? What does it do? The answer is that in the oven it reacts with carbon dioxide to produce an edible carbonate, which gives the pretzel a crunchy texture. It also fosters the production of browning pigments which help give the pretzels a deep, even mahogany color.
I’m told that some pharmacies carry the food-grade stuff (the lye from hardware stores is not the stuff you want), but so far, no luck. Anyone got any ideas?