Yes, you read that correctly. These are VEGAN soft pretzel bites with BEER CHEESE. By now you may have noticed that I have a little love affair with snack foods. I love making little bites of stuff that you dip into some kind of delicious sauce. Don’t worry, we eat our veggies too, and I do have a reason for posting all these snack recipes. I want to promote the idea that eating vegan or vegetarian doesn’t just mean salad all day every day. That it can be fun and look and taste delicious to everyone, whether you eat animal products or not. My goal is for ALL of my recipes to have the same level of yum factor without having to sprinkle bacon on top of it.
Back to the pretzels! I tested these on some real men who are not vegan, and they ate them all. I may have enticed them by disclosing the whole beer in the cheese thing…
So this recipe is inspired by another Austin, Texas food spot called Haymaker. They have a sort of, “yes we are kind of a sports bar, but we have a thousand beers on tap and we make pretty darn crazy good sandwiches and stuff” kinda vibe going on. They have soft pretzel bites, and while it’s not really written on the menu, you can order them with beer cheese. I have no idea how they make their beer cheese, but this sparked the idea to make a vegan version. And, not to brag or anything, but I’ve made a few soft pretzel bites in my day…
THE SCIENCE OF PRETZELS
The pretzel dough is quite easy to make – I did mine in the food processor a day ahead of time and refrigerated it until I was ready to make them. The trick to soft pretzels is really in the boiling. Traditional soft pretzels are dipped in a lye solution that causes the brown crust and chewiness because lye is an alkaline on the ph scale. It causes what’s called the Maillard reaction, which is basically the explanation for food browning when you cook it. NPR has an article on this if you want to read more on the subject.
We know that lye is really caustic and pretty darn dangerous, so no one is asking you to go out and get some just to make pretzels. What we can do is use some more readily-available products to create a similar alkaline environment to encourage the maillard reaction without lye. For soft pretzels at home, you will want to use baking soda, which is also alkaline but not as much as lye, and as an option, some kind of sweetener to further encourage browning. I used a combination of baking soda and molasses. Other recipes call for barley malt syrup or rice syrup, but I don’t really consider those ingredients “readily-available”. You’re more likely to have some molasses somewhere in your kitchen cupboards. If you don’t do not worry, you can use brown sugar, or nothing at all. The sweetener is optional, the recipe will work with just the baking soda, although you may not see quite as much browning.
VEGAN BEER CHEESE? ARE YOU SERIOUS?
So I did not invent vegan beer cheese. There are definitely a few other recipes out there that claim to be vegan beer cheese, although a number of them happen to use a particular store-bought vegan cheese product that might happen to taste terrible. I’m not naming any names. But I can promise that you will never find that particular vegan cheese product anywhere on this blog, ever. Also, one recipe I saw had 1/8 of a cup of beer in it. What? I just don’t really think that can be called beer cheese. 1/8 of a cup is two tablespoons, btw. My vegan beer cheese starts out with my vegan queso recipe as a base. I changed a few things with the seasonings, and I found that achieving the best beer flavor comes from cooking the cheese sauce (without the beer) until it is verrry thick, almost weird and lumpy looking. Then you can add up to 1/2 a cup or more of beer, whisking it in to bring the cheese down to a nice and smooth consistency. Any beer is fine as long as it’s not a dark beer. Use one that you like drinking since you’ll have a little left over. For this recipe, I used Robert Earl Keen Honey Pils from Pedernales Brewing Company in Fredericksburg, Texas.
WHAT ELSE DO I NEED TO KNOW?
First, for making the dough, it is 100x easier if you have at least an 8-cup capacity food processor. This is the one I have – it’s inexpensive and it works great. If you don’t have a food processor, of course it’s possible to mix this dough by hand. For cutting the bites, I think a dough cutter/scraper is really handy. I find I’m using mine all the time for not only baking, but also transferring cut veggies from the cutting board to the pan. Again, this is the exact one I have and I think it’s especially handy for this recipe because it has a ruler on it so you can measure your bites out easily. It’s also seven dollars so… just get one.
I also haven’t mentioned yet that the only thing that separates this recipe from regular soft pretzel recipes is the vegan element, which is no egg wash before baking. The egg wash is used to help the coarse salt stick to the dough, and it also helps in browning. I found that spraying the bites with vegetable oil spray then sprinkling with salt works just fine. In fact, lots of my recipes have “vegetable oil spray” in them. I’m not really talking about “Pam”. This is the stuff I’m referring to – it’s coconut oil spray by Spectrum, and I like it because it’s really versatile. It’s a high heat oil, so it’s good for baking and cooking at high temperatures, and the spray is obviously easier to dispense than those big jars of coconut oil, and you can better control the quantity you’re using.
Finally, the salt you use for your pretzels is kind of important. There’s such a thing as pretzel salt, but who has that? We used Himalayan coarse pink salt which, admittedly is not much more accessible than pretzel salt, although I can say I’ve seen it in every grocery store spice aisle so look next time you’re there. I think it has a similar crunch to pretzel salt, and it’s just a tasty seasoning. I would also use coarse kosher salt. Try to not use regular table salt or fine sea salt because the effect is really not the same, and any fine ground salt is going to just melt into the dough anyway.