What Are Pretzels? The Religious History of the Salty Snack

what are pretzels

Getty What are pretzels? The salty snack has an interesting history.

What are pretzels? It sounds like a simple question. We all think we know the twisted and salty dough turned into beloved snacks. However, what a lot of people don’t know is that the humble pretzel has a rich religious history that is tied into the medieval traditions of the Catholic Church. For example, did you know that the three pretzel holes have important significance? They represent the Holy Trinity.

Google is highlighting the snack with a Google Doodle video that is called “celebrating the pretzel.” The video Doodle shows a person twisting pretzel dough into the word “Google.” The Doodle is designed to celebrate Oktoberfest, which is a world-famous festival in Bavaria, Germany. Believe it or not, Oktoberfest (which means, literally, “Octoberfest”) actually does start in September. It runs from September 21 through October 6 each year.

According to Google, the festival features “Brotfrauen (or bread ladies)” who “will be carrying baskets of chewy Brezeln through Bierhallen (massive tents) in Germany, the center of Oktoberfest revelry.” According to the Oktoberfest website, the fest started with a celebration to honor the wedding of Crown Prince Ludwig and Princess Therese of Saxony-Hildburghausen on 12 October 1810. It’s now known as the world’s largest festival.

Here’s what you need to know:

1. The History of the Pretzel Is Closely Intertwined With the Catholic Church & Lent


A waitress sells pretzels as revelers celebrate with beer in the Armbrustschuetzenzelt tent on the opening day of the 2018 Oktoberfest beer festival on September 22, 2018 in Munich, Germany.

The Catholic Church had a lot of say in the pretzel as we know it today. According to History.com, the pretzel was the perfect food for early Catholics to eat during Lent because of what it doesn’t contain and due to the church’s Lenten dietary restrictions.

Rewind back to the 7th century, and you find a Catholic Church that enforced its Lenten rules more carefully. Among them: Catholics weren’t supposed to eat meat, dairy and eggs during that time period, the History Channel reported. However, according to The New York Times, it probably wasn’t a German invention. The newspaper reports that the first pretzel was probably created by a monk in A.D. 610 who lived in either France or Italy and “twisted leftover bread dough into crossed praying arms” with the three holes representing the Holy Trinity. He was said to have gifted this new treat to children who did well with their prayers, the Times reported.

According to the Times, though, a pretzel can also be found in a “fifth-century illuminated manuscript in the Vatican.”

Enter the pretzel as the perfect solution. It was made of water, flour and salt, so it didn’t contain the items that the church didn’t want people to eat, at least during Lent, a period of fasting and reflection. The first pretzels were called “bracellae,” which means “little arms” in Latin, History.com reported. This morphed into the German “bretzel.” There is dispute over the word’s etymology, though. “Both pretolia (meaning little reward) and the old German word, brezitella, stemming from the Latin word for arm, brachium,” are the historical roots of the word pretzel, according to USA Today.

2. A German Bakery in California Made the Pretzel Featured in the Google Doodle

Celebrating the Pretzel!Flip, twist, and bake! Today’s Doodle, freshly baked by Esther’s German Bakery, celebrates the one and only pretzel—one of the world’s most versatile and beloved foods! As Oktoberfest, the Bavarian fall festival, begins today, Brotfrauen (or bread ladies) will be carrying baskets of chewy Brezeln through Bierhallen (massive tents) in Germany, the center of Oktoberfest…2019-09-20T11:45:01Z

The pretzel in the Google Doodle video was made by Esther’s German Bakery in Berkeley, California by baker Jamie Orlich. He described for Google what it takes to make a good pretzel.

“Relating to the dough is key. You need to relate the pressure of your hands to the dough, and that can all depend on the state and temperature of the dough,” he said. “For example, if you roll the pretzel dough with your fingers and you have your fingers spread apart, it’ll break more easily. It can create peaks and valleys in the dough. Even if your fingers are together, you have contours there, which comes out in the dough. It can make a big difference. At the ends where the dough is thinner, I use my whole palms because it’s a flat surface.”

Four key things make a pretzel “authentic,” Orlich told Google. “The texture, flavor, color, size… they’re all important. A lot of people make pretzels and they’re really different. We make an authentic pretzel here and it all has to be right,” he said.

3. Pretzels Came to the United States on the Mayflower & Pennsylvania Was Home to the First Pretzel Bakery in America


Master baker Juergen Ipta forms a typical Bavarian pretzel at the”Duell” bakery, confectionery and gingerbread manufactory in Nuremberg, southern Germany, on November 18, 2014.

According to The New York Times, pretzels have existed in the United States since the Colonies when they were brought from Europe. It took 200 years, though, for the first pretzel bakery in America to launch in Lititz, Pennsylvania, not far from Philadelphia, The Times reports.

The Times says the pretzel was brought to America on the Mayflower, but according to Pennsylvania’s Twist, it might have actually been brought over by the Palatine Germans, who are more commonly known as the Pennsylvania Dutch.

The first pretzel bakery in America was known as the “Julius Sturgis Pretzel Factory, the first commercial pretzel bakery in America,” according to the article Pennsylvania’s Twist. In part due to the Sturgis factory, most of the pretzels in the U.S. are still made in Pennsylvania.

What are the ingredients in a typical pretzel? There are two kinds of pretzels: Soft and hard. According to Pennsylvania’s Twist, hard pretzels were an accident caused by a Pennsylvania apprentice who baked pretzels too long because he fell asleep, cooking the moisture out of the dough.

In Germany, according to NPR, traditional Bavarian pretzels “are dipped in a lye solution before they are baked.” Yes, that’s the sodium hydroxide that is “essentially the same stuff that’s used to make soap and clean drains.” It won’t hurt you because it’s diluted. Hot water and baking soda flakes are sometimes used as a substitute, NPR reports.

Something called the “Maillard Reaction” is responsible for the pretzel’s famous brown color. That’s “a heat-activated reaction between small sugars and amino acids. Dipping dough in lye alters the ratio between sugar and protein,” NPR explains. Flour, hot water, salt, baking soda, and yeast – those are the ingredients it takes to make a pretzel.

According to the Press of Atlantic City, pretzels are “boiled before baking. On contact with the hot water, the starches on the surface of the dough gelatinize, forming a protective crust.” Bagels and pretzels are similar but are boiled in different solutions – pretzels are boiled in an alkaline solution, the newspaper reported. You can find a recipe for soft pretzels here. Here’s a recipe for Pennsylvania Dutch hard pretzels.

4. Pretzel Bakers Were Important During the Siege of Vienna


A photo taken on June 27, 2017 shows a Pretzel production line at the Boehli Bretzel factory in Gundershoffen, eastern France.

The pretzel bakers were important to saving Vienna from the Turks during the Siege of Vienna. According to Pennsylvania’s Twist, pretzel bakers heard the invaders, who were trying to tunnel into the city, and were able to sound warning because they were “awake and busy at work.”

They were credited with saving the city from invasion and were later given a coat of arms, which the article says shows “a pretzel and a lion on a shield.” As a result of this rich history, pretzel bakeries in Europe often proudly display that coat of arms above their doors.

According to the book Foodie Facts by Ann Treistman, the Turks were planning a surprise attack but didn’t realize that “Vienna’s bakers were early risers, and on their way to the shops.” Pretzels reached a mass market audience when the Reading Pretzel Machinery Company introduced “the first automatic pretzel-twisting machine,” according to the book.

5. The Pretzel’s Shape Has Deep Meaning in Medieval Art


A vendor holds a pretzel at the Hofbraeu tent on the opening day of the 2015 Oktoberfest on September 19, 2015 in Munich, Germany.

We’ve become so used to the pretzel that most of us probably never stop to contemplate its shape. However, it had great meaning to medieval artists.

According to Food and Wine, the pretzel, in addition to its early religious meaning, came to be regarded as a symbol of luck. This was perhaps because it was a gift that monks often gave to the poor who needed pretzels because they were hungry.

Thus, reported Food and Wine, the pretzel became known as a “sign of fulfillment, good fortune and prosperity,” showing up in Herrad of Landsberg’s encyclopedia Hortus Deliciarum, among other works in the Middle Ages.

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