If you’re looking for a salty snack, odds are your mind immediately jumps to pretzels.
This distinctive, knot-shaped, savory treat can be found in snack bowls all over the world, from school lunches to football watch parties.
Pretzels are everywhere; they’re even a part of our language! If you’re sitting with your legs bent in an odd way, your mom might tell you to “stop sitting like a pretzel.” The pretzel is ubiquitous.
But where did the pretzel come from? How long has the pretzel been a part of our snacks? And how do you make pretzels?
Here is everything you need to know about this salty favorite.
What are Pretzels?
A pretzel is a skinny piece of dough, twisted around into a knot-like shape with three holes inside it.
Sometimes soft, sometimes hard, and usually salty, people have been eating pretzels for hundreds of years. But just where did pretzels get their start?
While records vary, the most common origin story of pretzels is that they were invented by an Italian monk in the year 610 AD.
With over a thousand years of history, it’s no wonder pretzels have become a staple in the human snacking routine – the world over!
Taking up the dough that was leftover from making bread that day, the pretzel-founding monk rolled and folded the pieces of dough into a shape that resembled a child with their arms crossed in prayer.
The monk baked the dough in this shape and would give these treats to children who had successfully memorized their prayers. He called them “little rewards,” or “pretiolas.” It’s a cute story – but not the only one!
Other tales about the first pretzel locate the credit with people in France or Germany. Wherever the pretzel began, in the year 1111, a pretzel appeared in the crest of a German bakers’ guild, and it’s appeared in European illustrations ever since.
The pretzel soon took on a reputation as a symbol of good luck. They were hung on Christmas trees in Austria, and used as a marriage knot in Switzerland.
Christians across Europe believed that the three holes in the pretzel represented the Holy Trinity, and German immigrants brought the pretzel with them to America.
The original pretzels were large, soft, doughy foods. There is a myth that says hard pretzels were created when a chef fell asleep and let his soft pretzels bake for much too long.
However, the true story of the hard pretzel lies in the entrepreneurial spirit of America! In 1861, the world’s first commercial pretzel bakery, in Pennsylvania, developed the original hard pretzels.
Hard pretzels lasted much longer in an air-tight container than soft pretzels ever could. Consequently, hard pretzels could be kept on shelves and sold in stores much more easily than soft pretzels.
Today, the average American eats nearly two pounds of pretzels in a year – and even more in Philadelphia, where the average person eats about twelve pounds of pretzels every year!
Philadelphia can also lay claim to the largest pretzel ever made – five feet across, and 40 pounds in weight! Imagine how long that took to eat?
The main components of a pretzel’s dough are flour, water, yeast, sugar, and shortening.
Flour, made of starch and protein, is the key ingredient. The gluten created when flour mixes with water is what makes the pretzel dough flexible enough to be formed into the distinctive knot shape.
Pretzel flour is often enriched with valuable nutrients, including iron, thiamin, and riboflavin. The vegetable shortening adds vegetable fats and oils to the pretzel.
To get the taste that your tongue remembers as a pretzel, ingredients such as salt and sugar are vital. One ounce of the small, hard pretzels found in football party snack bowls can contain three percent of your daily recommended intake of sodium.
That can add up quickly by the handful – but even an unsalted, soft pretzel will usually have some salt content.
Are you interested in joining this centuries-long tradition and making your own pretzels? It’s easier than you might think!
Here is a simple pretzel recipe, which makes eight soft varieties.
These pretzels are best served fresh and hot from the oven, but they will also keep for a couple days if stored in an airtight container at room temperature.
- 2 ¼ teaspoons of active dry yeast (1 standard, store-bought packet).
- 1 cup of water (warm).
- 1 tablespoon of unsalted butter (melted).
- 1 teaspoon of sugar.
- 1 teaspoon of salt.
- 3 cups of all-purpose flour (and an additional ¾ cup if needed).
- 2 cups of water.
- 4 tablespoons of baking soda.
- 1 tablespoon of coarse salt (optional; for sprinkling on top of the pretzels).
- 6 tablespoons of salted butter (melted).
- Start by preheating the oven to 475 degrees Fahrenheit and lining a wide baking sheet with parchment paper.
- Combine the yeast with the cup of warm water, mixing until the mixture becomes frothy.
- Stir in the teaspoon of salt and tablespoon of melted, unsalted butter.
- Add flour to the mixture, one cup at a time, until the dough formed is no longer sticky. Depending on the temperature of your dough, you may need different amounts of flour. Continue to add the flour until the dough can bounce back into shape after being pressed.
- Knead the dough until it is smooth and pliable. This should take about five minutes.
- Form the dough into a ball and set it back into the mixing bowl. Leave it there for 15 minutes.
- While waiting for the dough to rest, prepare the baking soda bath. Boil two more cups of water, with four tablespoons of baking soda, in a medium-sized pot.
- When the baking soda has become mostly dissolved, take the mixture off of the heat and let it cool. Once the mixture is lukewarm, pour it into a baking dish.
- When the ball of dough has rested for 15 minutes, take the dough back out of the bowl and flatten it slightly on the counter.
- Cut the dough into eight triangular sections, similar to slicing a pizza.
- Roll each triangle of dough into a lengthy rope, around 20 inches long.
- Shape the ropes of dough into a classic pretzel form, a knot with three holes in it, and place them into the baking soda bath for two minutes. Be sure the whole pretzel is covered by the water. Spoon the bath over the pretzel dough if necessary.
- After two minutes, remove the pretzel from the baking soda bath and place it on the baking sheet. You may have to adjust the shape of the pretzel at this point.
- If you would like a more salty flavor, sprinkle the pretzel with coarse salt while it is still wet from the baking soda bath.
- Repeat steps 12 through 14 until all eight pretzels are on the sheet, ready to be baked!
- Bake the pretzels for eight to nine minutes, or until they are golden brown in color.
- As soon as you remove them from the oven, brush the pretzels with the melted, salted butter.
Here’s a video showing a unique pretzel recipe.
Sourdough Pretzel Recipe
Of course, the standard pretzel isn’t the only kind out there. There are also sourdough pretzels.
While regular pretzel dough is made through a reaction between store-bought yeast and the gluten in flour, sourdough pretzel dough is made with a starter, a combination of yeast and bacteria growing inside a flour and water paste.
While, nutritionally-speaking, the two kinds of dough are the same regarding sugar content and number of calories, sourdough has a distinctive sour taste which comes from the lactic acid produced by the bacteria.
Here is a sourdough pretzel recipe to help you make this treat yourself! This makes 12 soft, sourdough pretzels.
- ¾ cup of lukewarm water.
- 1 ½ cups of sourdough starter.
- 3 cups of flour (and an additional ¾ cup if needed).
- ¼ cup of Greek-style yogurt (well-drained and thick).
- 1 tablespoon of sugar.
- 1 tablespoon of butter.
- 1 ½ teaspoon of salt.
- 2 teaspoons of baker’s yeast.
- Melted butter.
- Coarse sea salt (optional; for sprinkling on top of the pretzels).
- Mix the water, sourdough starter, flour, yogurt, sugar, butter, salt, and yeast together in a large mixing bowl.
- Add flour to the mixture, one cup at a time, until the combination forms into soft dough. If needed, add more flour. The dough should be a little sticky, but not too sticky.
- Knead the dough for five minutes, form it into a ball, and then place the ball of dough into the mixing bowl.
- Cover the bowl with a towel and leave it to rest for 45 minutes. It will not rise much.
- While you wait for the dough to rise, preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit and cover a baking sheet with parchment paper.
- Turn the dough out onto a lightly greased work surface, and punch it down a little, until it is slightly flattened.
- Using a sharp knife, cut the dough into 12 pieces.
- Roll each piece of dough into a rope about 15 inches long.
- Form each rope of dough into a classic pretzel shape, with three holes in it.
- Place the pretzels onto the baking sheet.
- Brush the pretzels with the melted butter, and, if desired, sprinkle the pretzels with the coarse sea salt.
- Bake the pretzels for 25 to 30 minutes, or until they are light golden brown.
What to Have with Pretzels
You may like to eat your pretzels plain – fresh out of the oven if they’re soft, or by the handful straight out of the snack bowl if they’re hard. Nonetheless, there are several different ways to eat a pretzel!
The classic, plain, salted or unsalted pretzel is ever-popular all over the world, but dips can add extra flavor to your snack.
The most common dip that people use with their pretzels is yellow mustard, followed closely by all kinds of cheese – such as cheddar cheese, nacho cheese, and even cream cheese.
Pizza sauce, also known as marinara sauce, is another great dip for a soft or sourdough pretzel. Honey mustard is a close second in popularity.
The more adventurous or health-conscious pretzel fans may dip their pretzels in artichoke or spinach dip. And for those of you with a sweet tooth, caramel, peanut butter, and icing all definitely belong on a pretzel!
Many pretzels are baked with extra toppings for added fun with interesting flavors and textures. Some pretzels are baked with cheese, and others with garlic. Ranch, jalapeño, and raisins are each popular to different taste buds.
This video shows an example of a pretzel recipe with a twist.
Naturally, there are sweet options as well, such as almond crunch, cinnamon sugar, and chocolate chips!
It’s possible to combine the pretzel with other parts of a meal, too. Pretzel dogs are a hot dog wrapped in a fresh pretzel – and they go very well with all of the dips listed above, such as mustard and cheese sauce!
Some pretzel-lovers are also pizza-lovers, combining the two into a pretzel roll, full of delicious sauce, cheese, and pizza toppings like pepperoni, mushrooms, or black olives.
With a little creativity, a pretzel can turn into the base of a more elaborate snack, hors d’oeuvre, or dessert.
Dip them in chocolate, drizzle them with caramel, crumple them up into cheesecake or granola bars, combine them with popcorn into a trail mix, put them in cookies, use them to top a pie – if you can imagine it, it can be done!
Of course, it’s hard to beat the classic soft pretzel with coarse salt sprinkled on top. And as any Oktoberfest celebrant will tell you, there is nothing like a nice, salty pretzel followed by a gulp of beer.
Now that you know where pretzels began, how to make them yourself with a sourdough soft pretzel recipe, and what to serve them with, you are ready to host a pretzel party!
What’s your favorite way to eat or bake pretzels?