Do you love pretzels? You’re in good company – over $7.2 billion are sold each year.
Soft or hard, flavored, baldie, dipped, or salted – the world adores pretzels. In Israel you might eat pretzel beigales; Icelanders snack on kringla; and the Dutch have krakeling. The average American gobbles two pounds of pretzels every year. If you’re from Philadelphia – the “pretzel capital of the U.S.” – you will consume 12 times that amount.
What’s so great about twisted “bread?”
No one really knows where it began. There are a lot of legends. Let’s start 1,400 years ago.
The year was 610.
A Northern Italian monk was teaching children how to pray. He wanted to reward them when they got it right. The monk took leftover bread dough, rolled it in long strips, and twisted it into the shape we know today. He called it pretiola (little rewards) because it looked like a child praying.
According to Wikipedia, “within the Christian church, pretzels were regarded as having religious significance for both ingredients and shape.” Pretzels were hidden, like today’s eggs, on Easter morning. They were considered good luck at weddings – “tying the knot” – and served at festivals and holy days.
Fast forward to the Middle Ages.
Germans claim they invented the pretzel. According to pretzel.com “as early as the 1100s, German pretzel bakers used the pretzel shape in the emblem for their guild, and also their coat of arms.”
Classic German pretzels were soft, like the ones you get today on the streets of Manhattan. Bakers made them sweet or salty, dipping them in lye (sodium hydroxide solution) before baking to give them their appealing brown crust.
A German legend tells the story of a baker named Frider, in the 1400s. His boss, the Earl Graf Eberhard V, sentenced the baker to death if he couldn’t make a loaf where the sun shines through in three different places.
Talk about a job demand.
One day Frider’s wife, fearing for her husband, stood in the doorway with her arms crossed. She inspired Frider to create the brezel (pretzel) we know and love.
In 1440, Countess Catherine of Cleves (Germany) had an illustration of Saint Bartholomew in her prayer book. The Saint was surrounded by pretzels! Many believe the pretzels represented spiritual wholeness.
How did pretzels end up in America?
Some historians believe that pretzels arrived in 1620 with the Pilgrims. Stories described early settlers selling pretzels to the Indians. Others say that the Palatine Germans, known today as the Pennsylvania Dutch, brought what they called the “brezel” in 1710. The first commercial pretzel bakery was opened by Julius Sturgis in Litilz in 1861 – the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch country.
Today you can tour the Sturgis bakery and watch bakers making old-fashioned pretzels by hand.
Hard pretzels began in Pennsylvania. One tale says that a baker’s apprentice fell asleep while making soft pretzels. When he woke up the fire in the hearth had died. The apprentice fired it up again – baking the pretzels twice as long as usual. The master baker was furious until he tasted the hard pretzels. He loved them – they were crisp, crunchy, and had a longer shelf life.
Another legend says the hard pretzel came from a tramp looking to trade it for a meal.
Either way, the new American pretzel was hard, not soft.
Everything changed in 1947 when Edwin Groff invented the first automated pretzel machine for the Reading Pretzel Machinery Company. According to pretzels.com, “with more and more people wanting to snack on pretzels, it was bound for innovation.”
Before 1947, the average worker could hand-twist 40 pretzels a minute. With the new machine, bakers could produce 245 pretzels a minute!
Today there are many different pretzel flavors, shapes, and pairings. You can buy them from street vendors, food trucks, fairs, supermarkets, frozen, or make them at home. Many restaurants serve them with the meal. The leading brands are Auntie Anne’s, Snyder’s of Hannover, Rold Gold, and UTZ. Flavors range from salted and chocolate-dipped to barbecue and honey mustard. There are always new sizes, shapes, and flavors. Pretzels.com alone offers over 45 different flavors, from Football Pizza to Blueberry Bourbon.
Guinness World Records awarded the “largest pretzel” title, made by Pilsener (El Salvador) in 2015. It weighed 1,728 pounds and was 29 feet long.