Pretzels started out as bread, and many still are, though the vast majority of pretzels now sold in the world are probably better called snack food.
A bread Pretzel is rather like a bagel that got itself in a knot, being a shaped, chewy bread. To make bread pretzels, the yeast-raised bread is shaped, and then either misted with or dipped in a lye or baking soda solution which makes them chewy and gives them the deep brown colour. Another method boils them in water with a bit of baking soda in it (whereas bagels are boiled in salt water.) Either lye or baking soda makes their surface alkaline, which allows the surfaces to brown more readily and develop more flavour when they are then baked.
As snack food, they are usually bite-sized things that are salted and baked until quite hard and crunchy.
There are a zillion variations in between. Bread pretzels are often best eaten warm, dipped in mustard.
“Brezen” is the German name for pretzels. German pretzels are always of the bread type. In Bavaria, they are sprinkled with coarse salt before baking.
Reading, Pennsylvania calls itself the pretzel capital of the world.
There are two stories about Pretzels, both of which are widely repeated everywhere as fact but are, sadly, apocryphal, or as we would say today, “urban myths”.
The first story has a monk, in 610 AD at the beginning of the Middle Ages, using leftover bread dough twisted and baked in the shape of arms in prayer to reward children who had successful learnt their religious lessons. The Latin word for “little rewards” was “pretiola”, which, the story goes, became “Pretzel” in German. The three empty holes have since come to symbolize the Holy Trinity.
The second story has hard, crunchy Pretzels, coming about by accident in the late 1600s in Pennsylvania. A baker’s assistant fell asleep and overcooked the Pretzels, which were meant to be doughy, and made them crisp. The overcooking also dried them out and gave the Pretzels a longer shelf life.
The first story takes a Latin word that possibly didn’t exist in usage back then (though pretium did mean reward, and iola (-us, -a, -um) was a diminutive suffix) and tracks its transformation into a German word that certainly didn’t and doesn’t exist — the modern German word is actually “bretzel”, and the old German word was brezitella. In any event, it’s suspicious enough that we have such an exact date for such an insignificant event at a time when all other record-keeping was breaking down, and it’s suspicious that the story so exactly fits into a Catholic catechism.
The second story’s problem is that it was Germans who introduced the Pretzel to America, and they didn’t start arriving to settle until about 1710. Plus, with the baker’s assistant falling asleep, it sounds like a zillion other stories, with Pennsylvania and Pretzels swapped in.
What is true, though, is that Pretzels probably began sometime between 500 and 700 AD, and did come to be imbued with religious symbolism. Pretzels may actually, though, be rooted in pagan customs. The pagans in German before Christianity baked circles of dough with a cross in the middle, to symbolize winter solstice. The cross divided the circle into 4, symbolizing 4 seasons. Pretzels in Germany today still even form part of winter festivities.
Literature & Lore
“Pretzels show up and in every which shape, a few remain twisters but there are pretzels in star form, pretzel sticks, thick and thin, pretzel squares, big and little, pretzels in alphabet…
To the outsider, all pretzels of the Pennsylvania Dutch Country taste much the same. But let a native bite into one, or even look at it for that matter, and he can tell instantly whether it’s from Lancaster, Reading, York, or Harrisburg. Bernice Steinfeldt, author of a booklet, The Amish of Lancaster County, has told us the difference in the various Pennsylvania pretzels. She says that Reading pretzels are small and thin; that Lancasterians vow nothing can compare with their thick, medium-sized pretzels, while folks from Harrisburg champion a type thick and big…
The traditionalists consider the new pretzel shapes as sacrilegious.” — Paddleford, Clementine (1898 – 1967). Food Flashes Column. Gourmet Magazine. May 1946.