What Are Pretzels? The History of the Classic Snack

Have you ever wondered what are pretzels and where did they come from? Most of us know they’re freshly baked bread products made from dough, shaped into a unique twisted knot. They come in all different shapes, sizes, textures, but one thing all versions of this snack share is their unique golden brown color. By immersing the dough in alkaline water before cooking, you obtain this unique rind. This process gelatinizes the outside of the dough, giving it a unique flavor and its classic appearance.

History of What Are Pretzels

In order to understand what are pretzels, we must take a look at its history beginning with the soft pretzel
Pretzels in their earliest form were salty, soft and baked from European descent

Early versions were baked into soft, fluffy bread, like today’s soft pretzels you might find on a city street corner. Locals called them “bracellae” meaning “small arm” in Latin. Over time, the snack’s terminology shifted as it eventually made its way to Germany. Locals called their snack “bretzel.” Other accounts point to the term “pretiolas,” meaning “small rewards,” for the pretzel’s origin. Monks and other religious figures distributed these snacks when young students chanted their prayers correctly. Additionally, people considered it a symbol of spiritual fulfillment so they’d distribute them to provide the poor with spiritual and literal nutrition. Regardless of origin, the popularity of these winding treats spread throughout Europe during the Middle Ages. 

Pretzels received theatrical attention in 1510 when the Ottoman Turks attempted to tunnel under the city walls. Pretzel bakers in the basement of a monastery sensed the enemy approaching and warned the city of the invasion. Ultimately, the Austrians defeated the Turks thanks in part to these bakers who were recognized by the Austrian emperor. By the 17th century, the snack had become a symbol of love and even fashion. In 1614 Swiss royals used the snack to seal their marriage bond. This later helped inspire the term “tying the knot” as a euphemism for getting married. Around the same time, German children wore pretzel necklaces for the new year as a symbol of good luck and prosperity. 

American Arrival

So how did this middle aged European snack become a $550 million dollar annual business in the U.S.? Much of the credit goes to German immigrants who brought ring pretzels when they began to settle in Pennsylvania around 1710. However, the snack didn’t become commercialized until 1861, when Julius Sturgis founded the first commercial pretzel bakery in Lititz, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Sturgis also claimed credit for inventing the hard version of the snack that eventually overtook other forms of pretzel in popularity. Hard pretzels were able to last longer and travel further for distribution, making it the commercial crisp. 

The hard crisp took off across the U.S. in the 1930s due to its extended shelf life

The commercial business really took off in 1935 when the Reading Pretzel Machinery Company introduced a machine on their production line. Up until that point, the snacks were still hand-made. The machine multiplied output production six-fold from 40 pretzels per minute by hand to 245 per minute by machine. Given the snack’s history in Pennsylvania, it’s no wonder why 80% of all American pretzels still originate from the keystone state. While the name has remained, the game has changed. 

Soft Pretzel Types

Bavarian pretzels: German soft pretzels, called Brezern or Brezen in Germany, are softened on the inside and dark brown outside by boiling in a rye solution or baking soda before cooking. This German version is slightly different in shape from their softer American counterparts. They have a rounded top and skinny sides.

Cinnamon sugar: Brushing hot pretzels in melted butter and roll with a combination of sugar and ground cinnamon.

Everything Pretzels: Like bagels, this version is topped with all the aromatic seasonings of bagels (toasted sesame seeds, poppy seeds, dried garlic, salt, dried onions).

Jalapeno Cheddar: A pretzel filled with grated cheddar cheese and chopped jalapenos for a spicy kick.

Pretzel Buns: Buns are entirely brown, dense rolls, similar to the soft snack, but more versatile in shape. Crusted with plenty of butter, stuff your favorite sandwich toppings, or enjoy directly from the pot.

Pretzel Dogs: These are soft buns wrapped around hot dogs or sausages for a delicious lunch or appetizer.

Sour cream and onion: Pretzels brushed with butter and wrapped with a mixture of spicy seasonings.

However you like your pretzel, now you have some history to go along with a bite of your salty snack. If you’re looking for other cooking or baking inspiration, check out some of our courses on making naan, a challah, or a yummy blueberry pie for dessert.

Written by: Anonymous Gooroo Blogger

About the Author

Sam Kahn

Sam Kahn

Sam is a content creator and SEO specialist at Gooroo, a tutoring membership and online learning platform that matches students to tutors perfect for them based on their unique learning needs. Gooroo offers Math, English, SAT, Coding, Spanish tutoring, and more.