I was recently consumed with curiosity about lye used in cooking and found that its use is critical to the pretzels we know and love. One thing led to another, and so I decided to explore the twisted world of pretzels: Why the knots? Why use lye? Why desiccated bread?
What are they?
Pretztels can be sweet or savory, but for many people, this pretzel lover included, when we ponder pretzels we think of the German variety made from wheat flour and yeast, glazed in an egg wash, and usually sprinkled with coarse salt. Its chewy, not brittle, and best consumed the same day it is made; often accompanied by some lovely mustard, and beer would not be amiss. The German’s call this version of pretzel the “laugenbrezel” (lye pretzel) because it is boiled in a lye solution prior to baking.
Speaking of Lye
The use of lye in pretzel making was thought to have started quite by accident in the 19th century, when a baker dropped a tray of pretzels ready for baking into a vat of lye, set out to clean baking utensils. Being thrifty (cheap) and fearless (crazy) , he discovered that the resulting baked goods took on an appealing color and flavor. Lye pretzels are popular throughout southern Germany, Alsace, Austria and German-speaking Switzerland; almost every region and even city has their unique version. Often, they are sliced horizontally, buttered, and sold as Butterbrezel, or come with slices of cold meats or cheese. Sesame, poppy, sunflower, pumpkin or caraway seeds, melted cheese and bacon bits are other popular toppings. Some bakeries use different flours, such as whole wheat, rye or spelt. Some parts of Bavaria, especially in lower Bavaria, still offer unglazed “white” pretzels, sprinkled with salt and caraway seeds. Lye pretzels are generally similar in terms of ingredients, but the shapes, fat content and degree of baking are adapted to local taste and use. Typical Swabian pretzels, for example, have spindly “arms” and a “fat belly” with a split, and a higher fat content, all the better to slice them for sandwiches. In Bavarian pretzels, the arms are left thicker so they do not bake to a crisp and contain very little fat.
The pretzel shape is used for a variety of sweet pastries made of different kinds of dough (flaky, brittle, soft, crispy) with a variety of toppings (icing, nuts, seeds, cinnamon). Around Christmas soft gingerbread pretzels (“Lebkuchen”) with chocolate coating can be found.
In the Rhineland region, sweet pretzels are made with pudding-filled loops (pudding pretzels).
A variety typical for Upper Franconia is the “anise pretzel”. The town of Weidenberg celebrates the “Pretzel weeks” during the carnival season, when anise flavored pretzels are served with special dishes such as cooked meat with horse radish or roast.
Crisp hard pretzels, both twisted and in stick form are made from the same ingredients as the laugenbrezel but baked until all excess moisture is gone, thereby increasing shelf life and crispness. They’re a dubious favorite of teething kids and imbibing adults, and few snack bowls would be considered complete without them.
During the 1900s, Philadelphians took small slender pretzel stick to accompany ice cream or would crumble pretzels as a topping.
How did they come to be? What is the significance (if any) to the shape?
Pretzels, or brezels as the Germans call them originated in Europe and go back centuries. The German Baker’s Guilds have used pretzels (brezels) as a symbol since the 12th century, so there’s been plenty of time to perfect the craft.
The most accepted notion is that the pretzel was invented sometime in the 6th century AD. The story goes that a baker monk (either Italian or French, both nationalities have been promoted) was playing with some leftover dough and twisted it until it resembled a person’s arms crossed in prayer (a standard pose back then). This baked “pretiola” was given to children as a reward for their reverence.
The pretzel became a religious symbol (Catherine of Cleves’ prayer book depicts St. Bartholomew surrounded by pretzels which were thought to bring good luck, prosperity and spiritual wholeness). On the other hand, an upside-down pretzel would have been a sign of disgrace.
Controversy surrounds the first appearance of pretzels in America (here are two stories I found):
The pretzel first appears in America in the record of a court case. In 1652, Carl Carmer, a baker, and his wife were charged with selling pretzels to the Indians. The problem wasn’t that the Indians were eating pretzels, but that the pretzels were made from the good flour from milling while the bread sold to the citizens of Beverwyck, New York was made from the left-overs. As recorded in the town’s history “The heathen were eating flour while the Christians were eating bran.”
The first American pretzel bakery began when a kindly baker gave a drifter a free meal in the 1850’s. In return, the drifter gave the baker a recipe for European pretzels, and the baker made him a baker’s apprentice. The pretzels they created were the first versions of the hard and crusty Pennsylvania Dutch pretzel.
Symbols and Uses
Pretzels were once a part of the wedding ceremony, with the bride and groom treating them a bit like a wishbone. They made their wish and then broke the pretzel, and ate it as a sign of their unity.
Within the Catholic church, pretzels were thought to have religious significance for both ingredients and shape. Pretzels made with with only flour and water could be eaten during Lent, when Christians were forbidden from eating eggs, lard, or dairy products. Pretzels were hidden on Easter morning just as eggs are hidden today, and are particularly associated with Lent, fasting, and prayers before Easter.
Like the holes in the hubs of round Swedish flat bread (which let them be hung on strings), the loops in pretzels served a practical purpose: bakers hung them on sticks, projecting upwards from a central column.
Pretzels were once a common food to distribute to the poor.
Pretzels were often placed into caskets of the dead, similar to the way jewels were buried with the rich.
At the start of a new year, German children tie pretzels on a string around their necks for luck in the upcoming year.
On Laetare Sunday in Luxembourg, the fourth Sunday in Lent, there is a festival called “Pretzel Sunday”. Boys give their girlfriends pretzels or a pretzel shaped cake; note that the size directly correlates to how much the fellow likes his sweatheart. The girl, if she is inclined, will respond with a decorated Easter egg.
For goodness sake, why dry them out?
A version of the pretzel, I am not sure its an improvement, was created in the United States. Those hard, crispy pretzels are baked until they are more cracker than bread. In 1850, the Sturgis bakery in Lititz, Pennsylvania, became the first commercial hard pretzel bakery. These hard snack pretzels come shaped as sticks, loops, braids, or letters. Unlike the soft version, these snacks are designed to keep in airtight containers for extended periods of time. They also call for a a variety of treatments, from being sprinkled with salt, sesame seed, poppy seed or cheese, to coatings of yogurt and chocolate. or filled with peanut butter.
What shall I call you?
Other names for the looped pretzel vary by location:
Czech Republic: preclík
Spanish, French and Italians: pretzel, bretzel or brezel
Dutch: have a sweet variant called krakeling
Norwegian and Danish: kringle
In Philadelphia, they’ve coined a phrase “Pretzelphyte” for soft pretzel aficionados if you really find this stuff interesting. Of note, pretzel consumption in Philly exceeds the national average by a factor of 12x (not all surprising considering Pennsylvania produces 8-% of the nations pretzels), but it should be noted that the city of Freeport, Illinois is known as “Pretzel City USA”.
Final Note - panis quadragesimalis:
In 1609, the German astronomer Johannes Kepler stated that “If one puts all of this information together in one bundle, and at the same time believes that the sun truly moves across the Zodiac over the space of a year, as Ptolemy and Tycho Brahe believed, then it is necessary to concede that the circuits of the three above planets through ethereal space are, as it were, a complex of several movements, that they are actually twisted; not like piled-up cord, with coils in a sequential order, but rather in the image of a lenten bread, as the following diagram shows…” (panis quadragesimalis, lenten bread = pretzel).
I just wanted to let you know that’s a bit like my life right now, but in a good way. I started a consulting practice and its really starting to pick up steam, I’ve also been asked to teach another class at a local university, all of which leaves me desperately short of time. I’ve been behind on my posts and reading, which has me disappointed as I love keeping current with everyone’s hard work. I’ve yet to settle on a satisfactory solution, and in the meantime I feel like I’ve only been able to employ pretzel logic to no good results (pretzel logic is like circular logic only more confusing).