Linda explores food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes one ingredient at a time.
What Is It That Makes a Pretzel so "Pretzel-ly"?
Yes, it's a bread made with yeast, and it's twisted into an odd criss-cross shape. But there's something else that separates them from every other yeast-risen bread, and that is the chew, how they feel on and between your teeth when you bite into them.
So, how is that done?
First, the Technique
There are two actions (or reactions) that make a pretzel truly a pretzel. One is "fermentation" and the other is "relaxation."
Purists will tell you that the dough for a true pretzel must be proof for a day before baking, and they're right. Yes, you can prepare the dough, shape, and bake in one day, but the end product will not have the yeasty flavor of dough that has been allowed to chill overnight. This is the fermentation part.
And then there is the boiling or simmering—think of it as relaxation—a sauna for your pretzel. Boiling, not misting with water, not baking with a steaming pan of water, but actually placing in simmering water with baking soda prior to baking is what gives pretzels their sheen and their crunchy, chewy exteriors.
And the Ingredients
But these two techniques alone do not make a pretzel. The ingredients are also a part of the equation; the whole truly is greater than the sum of the parts.
There are some foods that are amazing in their complexity—the layering of flavors and textures, the unique blends of herbs and spices. I'm thinking of French cassoulet, rich Italian bolognese, perhaps a Latin American mole sauce. All of them are bold and elaborate, employ a lengthy list of ingredients, and require long hours of cooking. Each of them, when made correctly, is outstanding, memorable, Heavenly.
And then there is the pretzel . . . so exquisite in its pure simplicity.
Flour, water, salt, yeast, sugar.
How They Work Together
Flour is the foundation for a good pretzel, and a key component of that foundation is protein (otherwise known as gluten). Despite what you might think, gluten is not a poisonous substance. It is a nutrient, a basic part of many of our foods. When viewed under a microscope, protein looks like a spider web; it is that “web” that traps carbon dioxide bubbles. The other important part of flour is starch. When heated, starch becomes firm and supports the protein webs.
Bakeshops use high-protein flour which you won’t be able to replicate exactly at home, but unbleached bread flour will get you pretty darned close. I am comfortable in recommending King Arthur or Bob’s Red Mill bread flour.
Water, when mixed with the flour starts a chain reaction. Water reacts with starch molecules and creates the gluten bonds (webs) that hold everything together. Water also carries the sugars to the yeast, helping it to bloom and form the gases that make bread dough rise.
Pretzel dough has a lower percentage of water than other yeast breads, resulting in a dough that is stiff and sturdy. When you see how they are shaped you’ll understand why this is so important. Stay tuned!
Salt adds flavor and it also chemically alters the gluten to make it stronger. Salt also slightly inhibits the work of the yeast; it slows it down so that bread doesn’t rise too quickly. Why is this important? If the dough rises before the gluten strands have become tight and strong, the bread will collapse. (Think of how much sturdier a balloon is than a bubble.)
Yeast. Here’s the really cool part—did you know that yeast is a living thing? Enzymes in the yeast, when mixed with water, break down the starch molecules, converting them to simple sugars. And why? Yeast eats sugar. Sugar goes in, is digested by the yeast microbe, and then carbon dioxide is formed. It’s that gas, trapped in the webs, that makes your dough rise.
Baking soda in the boiling water bath helps to gelate (stiffen) the surface crust. It also contributes to the Maillard reaction, in other words, it's what gives pretzels their dark brown exterior.
Sugar (sweetener) – There is a league of pretzel defenders who say that it is impossible to create a true pretzel without using malt barley syrup. They are correct…and not. Barley malt syrup imparts a unique flavor to the finished product, but the texture of your dough will not be affected if you substitute another sweetener. (I hope I am not bombarded by hate mail). You can use any of the following with my blessing:
- Barley malt syrup – You can certainly purchase this on Amazon, or if you are lucky enough to live near a shop that sells beer-making supplies (or better yet have a friend who makes his or her own brew) you can obtain it there.
- Korean malt syrup or Korean rice syrup – both of these are available in Asian markets
- Dark molasses – available at any grocery store
- Organic honey – available in gourmet grocery stores and many/most large grocery stores.
So now that we know of the technique and understand how the ingredients work together, let's start making pretzels!
The Best, Most Authentic, Most Awesome Pretzel Recipe (EVER!)
I wish that I could take claim of this recipe, but honestly, it is not my own creation. I knew, however, what the requirement should and would be for a truly memorable, authentic soft pretzel and this is it!
Olivia is a supremely accomplished cook and baker, and her German pretzels hit the mark on every level. She "allows" you to bake them after just a few hours of rising. However, you will be richly rewarded if you take the time to let this dough ferment overnight in your refrigerator.
The Perfect Cheese Sauce
What would soft pretzels be without a cheese sauce? (OK, yes they'd be fantastic, but this sauce makes them even fantastic-er).
It Began as a Little Reward
Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn: for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek: for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness: for they will be filled.
Beati pauperes spiritu: quoniam ipsorum est regnum cælorum.
Beati, qui lugent: quoniam ipsi erit consolabantur.
Beati mites: uoniam ipsi possidebunt terram.
Beatus, qui esuriunt, et sitiunt iustitiam: quoniam ipsi possidebunt terram.
The young boy humbly cast his eyes downward then, just for a moment, looked upward for a glimpse of his teacher's face. The kindly, gray-haired monk looked down at the small protégé, so proud he was of this dear student.
“You have learned your lessons well. Your Latin is perfect.”
Smiling, he reached into a basket and retrieved a twist of freshly-baked bread. “A pretiola for you my child. The arms are crossed in prayer, and the three holes that they form represent the Holy Trinity.”
In 600 A.D., Columban monks in Northern Italy gifted their students with small bread treats twisted into the the traditional posture for prayer. These "pretiolas" (little rewards) were created from the leftover remnants of the daily baking of bread.
Some food historians say that they were originally christened “bracellae” (Latin for ‘little arms’), which the German language interpreted as “bretzel.” No matter what they were dubbed, these bread treats soon became not only a reward but a way of providing sustenance to a hungry populace.
The Catholic Church had strict moral laws governing the prohibition of certain foods during Lent and times of penance. Pretzels, made simply of flour, water, and salt, were given a nod by the Church when meats and eggs were forbidden.
History of the Pretzel
By the 1600’s the pretzel came to signify not only arms folded in prayer, but intertwined in love. According to The History Channel
Pretzel legend has it that in 1614 in Switzerland, royal couples used a pretzel in their wedding ceremonies (similar to how a wishbone might be used today) to seal the bond of matrimony and that this custom may have been the origin of the phrase “tying the knot.” German immigrants certainly brought pretzels with them when they began settling in Pennsylvania around 1710. In 1861, Julius Sturgis founded the first commercial pretzel bakery in the town of Lititz in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.
- The annual U.S. pretzel industry is worth more than $550 million
- The average American consumed 1.5 pounds of pretzels per year
- There is a Pretzel Museum in Philadelphia
- In 2003 the Governor of Pennsylvania declared April 26 “National Pretzel Day”
- The Sturgis Bakery in Lititz, Pennsylvania was the first commercial pretzel manufacturer.
Questions & Answers
Question: When making pretzels, what do you think about lye or baking soda in the boiling water? What about the method of baking the baking soda to increase its alkalinity?
Answer: Although that step is outlined in the recipe, I should have pointed out the section where I list the main ingredients and how they work together. I've added that information now.
© 2018 Linda Lum