We equate pretzels with many events in our lives. Baseball games, where they’re usually dipped in steaming cups of liquid cheese. Walking through New York City or Philadelphia where you can pick one up on almost any street corner. Or on long plane trips when there are never enough and you’re forced to turn those little plastic bags upside down into your mouth and end up gagging on salt. But how did the pretzels that we know and love come into existence?
Pretzels have a long and ancient history with roots in the Catholic church. Although the exact origin story of the pretzel is highly debated most people think that they were first created by monks, some say Italian, some say French, around 610 AD. They say that the pretzels were made of scraps of leftover dough from their daily bread that they would twist into a shape resembling a child crossing its arms in prayer. Because nothing gets the salivary glands flowing like imagining you’re sinking your teeth into the tender crossed arms of a prepubescent and seemingly devout young child.
They dubbed them “pretiolas” “little rewards,” or “bracellae”, delicious “little arms” and gave them out as prizes to the children who were able to memorize their prayers correctly. Germans later started calling them “bretzels”. Wait, Bretzels?
The church’s celebration of Lent used to be much stricter than it is today and good Catholics were expected to abstain from any and all animal products for 40 days making pretzels a popular choice for those early church-goers.
The picture above depicts the battle between the pious pretzel eating Catholics and the sacrilegious pagans horking down their various meats and cheeses. If we look closely towards the bottom middle of the painting we see a gaunt figure holding a broom being pulled by two lusty pretzel fueled wenches as he endeavors to joust with Humpty-dumpty who straddles a giant cask of alcohol and pokes at his enemy with a massive shish-kebab skewer.
As pretzels spread across medieval Europe their three holes came to symbolize the church’s holy trinity and became associated with good luck and prosperity.
In 1510, the Turks were attacking Austria, probably not for the first time. Like something out of a Wiley E. Coyote episode the Turks were attempting to invade Austria through a series of tunnels they were digging under the city’s walls. Monks, who had apparently left off all other sacred duties in pursuit of making pretzels were up in the middle of the night feverishly baking in the basement of the monastery when they heard the suspect scratchings of a Turk’s shovel. If it weren’t for that vow of silence they had all taken at the beginning of the summer Austria might have been overcome and the Turkish empire might still be relevant today. The monks upon hearing the noise knew exactly what the rustlings beneath them must be, via divine inspiration presumably, and alerted the rest of the city. Without the assistance of their voices, this must have been quite a task. Real heroes. seeing as how they had forsaken earthly wealth as a reward the Austrian Emperor gave the pretzel makers their own coat of arms.
A century passes and in 1614 a charming little custom springs up amongst the Swiss. Pretzel legend has it that royal couples used pretzels in their marriage ceremonies. Pulling them in half a la wishbone to seal their matrimonial bonds. This is said to be where we get the term “tying the knot”.
Some people say that pretzels made their way to America as early as the first load of Separatists. Seemingly having brought nothing with them of value, the pilgrims used pretzels as a form of currency. One bag of Hanover’s got you 10 ears of corn, fish heads not included.
In 1861 the first commercial pretzel bakery opened in Lititz, Pennsylvania. Julius Sturgis, the founder, also claims the rights to making the first hard baked pretzels. Some accounts claim a bungling assistant fell asleep and let the pretzels burn. In the process of throwing them out the head baker tried one and realized that they were still delicious! The moisture baked out of the pretzels they now lasted much longer and were able to be shipped all across the country and soon overshadowed their larger softer brethren. And so concludes the dark twisted history of the pretzel.
Here’s a recipe for what in my opinion is one of the best pretzels I’ve ever encountered.There are two popular varieties of the large soft pretzel. Some are made with milk and a higher percentage of sugar yielding a soft, enriched dough that, though delicious, did not remind me of the conventional pretzel. A simpler dough and one which seems much more traditional is as follows.
1 ½ cups water
1 tablespoon + ¼ teaspoon active dry yeast
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1 ¼ teaspoon salt
1 cup bread flour
3 cups all-purpose flour
Baking Soda Bath
2 cups water
⅔ cup (baked) baking soda
4 tablespoons melted butter
Add water to the mixing bowl of your stand mixer being sure that it is 110℉. Sprinkle yeast on the surface of the warm water, and give a brief whisk to ensure the yeast makes full contact with the water. Allow the yeast a moment to rest and acclimate to this new environment (about 2-3 minutes) before feeding it the brown sugar. Give another whisk. While the yeast has a tendency to remain aloof the sugar makes a habit of sinking to the bottom. Next, add your flours and salt. Before giving all this over to the stand mixer to knead, I like to mix the ingredients with a large wooden spoon as the stand mixer sometimes leaves certain amounts of flour unincorporated. Once I’ve reached a shaggy dough on my own I fit the standing mixer with the dough hook and allow it to knead my dough on medium for about 5-7 minutes. The dough should be pulling away from the sides of the bowl and clinging to the hook. The dough should be smooth and elastic to the touch.
Remove the dough from the stand mixer and pull it out onto the counter, washing the bowl clean of any dough remnants and greasing the bowl with a small amount of oil or butter. Return the dough to the bowl cover with a clean cloth and allow to sit in a warm place for an hour.
Baking Soda Bath
While the dough is rising we are presented with a perfect opportunity to prepare our soda solution. Traditionally food-grade lye is used to make the alkaline bath the pretzels must be dipped in, but for the average home cook, lye is harder to get one’s hands on and it is definitely more dangerous to use. To eliminate such risk one can use baking soda for an excellent substitute. And by baking the baking soda before we use it, we can improve its strength and alkalinity and make it something even closer to lye.
The “pretzel” flavor may be slightly subtler and the color not so dark but the perk is you don’t have to work with hazardous chemicals.
To do this, spread a layer of baking soda into a foil lined pan and bake at 250-300℉ for an hour. Keep the baking soda in a tightly sealed container to prevent it from picking up moisture from the air. Although it is not as dangerous as lye, discretion is needed when handling this new and improved baking soda as it can irritate the skin. So be sure to wash your hands after measuring out your ⅔ cup.
Measure out soda and water into a large, wide-bottomed pan and set aside for later use.
To Bake the Dough
After the dough has risen, punch it down and roll it out onto your counter top.
Using a bench scraper or a large knife cut the dough in half.
Then each half in thirds and finally each third in half again yielding 12 nearly identical bits of dough.
Taking each piece of dough separately, and roll them out as long as they will go; this is usually only 12-15 inches on the first roll. When the dough starts to spring back, set it aside and begin to roll the next piece out. When each piece has been rolled and set aside, start at the beginning again and roll out your dough a second time. You should find it more relaxed and this time able to reach 30 inches. When each rope is roughly shaped into the traditional pretzel shape, place on a greased baking pan.
This next step is totally optional but highly recommended: After all the pretzels have been shaped and neatly lined up on their various greased pans put them into the freezer for about an hour. This extra step allows them to maintain their shape when they are later submerged into our boiling soda solution.
To Boil the Pretzels
Bring your soda water to a gentle boil and dip each pretzel into it for 15 seconds on each side. Place on the greased baking sheet and allow to rise again for ½ hour. Right before popping the pretzels into the oven, sprinkle them generously with pretzel salt.
Bake at 450℉ for about 12-15 minutes or until a dark golden brown. Brush with your melted butter and enjoy!