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For the sake of this question, I am referring to all lye bread. I want to make this clarification since outside of the US the term "pretzel" is usually referring to the shape one would typically attribute to the American concept of pretzels rather than the style.

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As far as I know, pretzels are the only "bread" that I personally am aware of that gets sprinkled with coarse bits of salt on top. When tasting the pretzel, it has a unique "pretzel" flavour yet it is generally very bland. Is the salt sprinkled on top to make up for the "bland" bread?

Is there anything about the pretzel dough that would prevent more salt from being added into the recipe?

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I assume the salt is added to the top purely for taste. The salt hits your tongue directly when it's on the surface. I would think you'd need a lot more salt if you were to mix it in directly. –  talon8 Mar 9 '12 at 15:57
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"Why is there something rather than nothing?" I am going with Quantum Foam Multiverse. –  mfg Mar 9 '12 at 15:58
    
@mfg Hmmm I guess the title is misleading since the main question is actually if there is anything special about pretzel that would prevent it from having more salt directly in the bread. But of course after some thought, I guess the question isn't the best. lol... maybe I'll end up with 3 downvotes in which case I guess I'll delete it and get the badge. –  Jay Mar 9 '12 at 16:03
    
"I'll tell you a secret. If a pretzel is a quality pretzel, you don't need salt. It's just a fact." - Christopher Walken –  uncle brad Mar 9 '12 at 16:28
    
lotsa folks scrape off the salt from the Brezeln (soft pretzels) at the Munich bakery I trained at. Construction workers, however, choose Brezeln with plenty of salt to get the salivary glands going on their stodgy-doughy 9am breakfast washed down with a wheat beer. –  Pat Sommer Mar 13 '12 at 7:53

3 Answers 3

up vote 6 down vote accepted

IMO the distinctive flavor of a soft pretzel isn't a bland lack of flavor, but rather a slightly bitter, slightly chemical flavor that comes from the lye (or sometimes baking soda) solution in which pretzels are briefly cooked before baking. The lye solution does at least two things for pretzels:

  • It raises the pH of the pretzel's skin, which in turn makes the pretzel brown nicely as it bakes.

  • Imparts that slightly bitter flavor.

I don't think the salt used on pretzels is there to make up for a lack of salt in the dough. You can make pretzels that have plenty of flavor even without salt. I think the salt is there mainly because people like salt, because it adds a pleasing crunch, and because it's traditional -- it's part of what people (or at least Americans) expect from the pretzel experience.

It's worth mentioning that the proper salt for topping a soft pretzel is not kosher salt or rock salt, but a white, soft salt like Cargill Pretzel M Salt. Kosher salt will work if it's all you've got, but it's not what you'll find on a soft pretzel bought at a ball park or from a street vendor.

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We have a bakery that makes a great pretzel bread that I love for sandwiches. It is unsalted and tastes great. For a great pretzel use a liquid butter and baste the preztel then grill over real charcoal :) No salt needed. –  Chad Mar 9 '12 at 20:00
    
@Chad Salt may be optional, but mustard is mandatory! –  William Shakespeare Mar 9 '12 at 20:07

Having the salt on the outside makes it easier for flavor to be pushed back and for the consumer to focus on the tearing and texture, which is the real meat of lye breads. You still have salt and sugar and other flavors in the bread, but they play a backseat role.

Coarse salts are particularly effective at this as they last a bit longer (in their condensed state they don't seem to dissipate like fine salts) on the palate once the rush of dough lands.

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You cannot use too much salt in a yeast-based bread (that 'pretzel' is yeast-based, isn't it), as salt stops yeast from working – see other question: How much salt can I safely add to bread dough? So, if one wants a really salty bread, the best choice is to put most of the salt on the surface instead of into the dough. Others have described the other reasons.

And, BTW, the pretzels, you describe, are not the only kind of bread, which is sprinkled with coarse bits of salt on top. In Poland there is a popular kind of bread called 'solanka' – it is a bread roll covered with salt and carum. See the solanka recipe with pictures.

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