The pretzel has come a long way from its origins in medieval France, somehow managing to retain its shape and, remarkably, the method of baking.
Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat, in her History of Food, believes its origin was a delicacy called nieules or nioles sold at French fairs.
‘They were twisted ribbons of hard, unleavened dough, cooked in boiling water with the ashes of vine shoots, which contain natural potash. They gave the dough a dark colour, whence their French name and their savoury, smoky flavour.’
The nieules were drained, dried and baked in the oven.
How they came to have a peculiar shape is told in The Great European Food Adventure.
In the 1680s the Huguenot bakers of these delicate biscuit-breads migrated to the southern German states and the northern Swiss cantons.
The nieule became the bretzeln, and over time became to be known as brezel, then laugenbrezel and laugengebäck in Baden, Bavaria and Swabia, laugenbrötli in Basel, Berne, Lucerne and Zurich.
The method of using potassium hydroxide from vine ash was replaced with sodium hydroxide or lye (lauge in German), and eventually with baking soda.
Laugengebäck (lye pastry), laugenbrezel (lye pretzel) and laugenbröd (lye bread) are interchangeable these days, but the method has not changed.
The shaped dough is boiled briefly in soda water (commercial makers use a salt bath) before baking.
In Switzerland a starch glaze made from a cornflour solution gives the pretzel its distinctive colour.
Pretzels are rarely made bald in Germany and Switzerland, and are never ordinary, coming in various shapes (buns, loaves, rolls, sticks and twists), not least the famous knotted-handles.
They are coated with coarse salt, seeds or with a topping of cheese and, depending on the region you are in, are available with an assortment of savoury or sweet fillings.
- 500 g white wheat flour, t550
- 245 ml water
- 40 g butter
- 25 g yeast
- 15 g malt extract
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 tsp sugar
Lye / Soda Solution
- 2 litres water
- 50 g baking soda
Sieve the flour into a large bowl, crumble yeast into the flour followed by the sugar and half of the water, stir with a wooden spoon into a loose dough, cover and leave to rise for 30 minutes.
Desired dough temperature is 23°C.
Add remaining water, butter, malt and salt. Work into a soft smooth dough, knead for ten minutes. Leave to rise for an hour.
On a floured surface cut the dough into 16 pieces (roughly 50g each), shape into rounds or oblongs. Place on heavily greased baking trays.
With a sharp knife cut a cross in the rounds or several slashes in the oblongs. Leave to rise covered for 30 minutes.
Preheat oven to 220°C.
Bring the soda solution to a rolling boil, drop the dough into the water four at a time for no longer than 60 seconds.
Place on greased baking trays and bake for 25 minutes until golden brown.