It is Oktoberfest in Munich right now—a celebration of beer, bratwurst, and impossibly huge crowds. As I approach my third trimester of pregnancy, none of those things is particularly good for me to indulge in, but one other Oktoberfest treat presents no qualms: my favorite salty snack, pretzels. While I rarely pass a day without a pretzel, I'm surprised by how little respect pretzels get in the snack-food world, particularly here on the West Coast. They are generally viewed as innocuous—an acceptable backup snack—but they're no competition for whiz-pow-bang-flavor-dusted potato and tortilla chips. (This is echoed in sales statistics, where potato chips grab about 38 percent, and tortilla chips 26 percent, of the salty-snack market. Pretzels hover closer to 7.5 percent to 8 percent.)
But it is the very lack of flash that draws me to the pretzel. Pretzels do not need the lush fattiness of chips or cheese puffs. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the pretzel as a snack "used, esp. by Germans as a relish with beer," and it is perhaps this complementary quality that keeps pretzels below the radar.
Because of their link to beer and harvest-time drinking, I like to think of pretzels as one of those pagan holdovers like mistletoe, but, at least in legend, their invention is decidedly Christian. An Italian monk, in the year 610, is said to have twisted a rope of dough into the classic form—the twist itself representing arms folded in prayer, and the three holes a nod to the Holy trinity. Some claim pretzel comes from the Latin pretiola, which means "little rewards," as the crunchy knots were purportedly given to children as prizes for piety. Other etymologies look back to the Medieval Latin term bracellus, meaning "bracelet."
Strip away their salt, and pretzels, both soft and hard, share their distinctively smooth crust with a decidedly un-Christian—and also glorious—food, bagels. While bagels usually take a bath in warm water before baking to obtain that signature sheen, the secret to a pretzel's telltale crust is traditionally the powerful base lye. According to Harold McGee's essential reference On Food and Cooking,a short dip or shower in a dilute solution of lye before baking converts some of the pretzel's outer starches into an alkaline gel, which browns especially quickly and creates the pretzel's distinctive sheeny surface. (Soda ash or baking soda is often used for alkalinity in place of lye these days.) For fun diagrams, click here.
Soft pretzels were probably the first pretzels, since they require a single short spell in the oven. (Hard pretzels, which are dried out in a lower temperature cycle, were probably developed to keep pretzels fresh for storage.) I was pleased this summer while traveling through German-speaking Switzerland to realize that pretzels are a perfectly acceptable breakfast there—soft-pretzel stands grace every public square, and I even had a sandwich of a pretzel roll, cut in half, smeared with butter and mustard and layered with salami. Still, as much as I relish the mahogany sheen of a well-crafted soft pretzel, I am too often disappointed by them. I can't count the number of times I've visited New York and giddily bought a street-side pretzel, only to experience the tired tug of stale dough.
Strong, hardy—the hard pretzel is less delicate than its soft sibling, and for me, it is the purest expression of pretzel soul. In this country, hard pretzels are the specialty of southern Pennsylvania, that is, Pennsylvania Dutch country, where Germans settled, bringing their bread-making traditions with them. The first pretzel business was established by bread baker Julius Sturgis in 1861 in Lititz, Pa. (he reputedly got the recipe from a tramp to whom he had offered his hospitality), and Pennsylvania still has an astounding hold on pretzel production today.
Like pasta, a pretzel's shape has a surprising effect on its character. A thin pretzel is almost entirely crust, but with little interior to contrast with that crust, it lacks interest. Pretzels that are too thick, like Snyder's (Hanover, Pa.) sourdough boxed hard pretzels, do not possess enough nut-brown crust to balance the dryness of the crunchy interior. Straight pretzels and nuggets are boring, lacking the nooks and crannies of the knotted ones. It is the traditional medium-thick looped pretzel that holds your mouth's interest, with its curves and straightaways, offering the best balance of crust and crunchy interior.
Even this classic pretzel form has qualitative differences. Traditionally, the woven pattern was done by hand-twisting. You can still find some hand-twisted pretzels today, from companies like Martin's (Akron, Pa., and famously sold in NYC Greenmarkets), Uncle Henry's (Bowmansville, Pa.), Happy Herbert's Penn Dutch (the company's in Jersey, but the pretzels are made in Lancaster County, Pa.), and Hammond (Lancaster, Pa.). And it's this method that generates the best pretzels—the slight variation in thickness throughout the pretzel offers toasty, brown nubbins in one place and thicker, crispier curves in others. In hand-twisted pretzels, form becomes flavor. Depending on your geography, you might never see these pretzels in your supermarket, but each brand is fully equipped to send you, as they did me, pounds of pretzels wrapped in cellophane or sealed in a decorative tin.
Most pretzels today are made in industrial plants, however, and their loops are created by an extruder and a wire die stamp that cuts the dough into pretzel shape. (Examine your pretzel to see if there are any seams in the central crisscross. If not, you've got an extruded pretzel.) Without a doubt, the richest pretzel experience comes from the handcrafted, hearth-fired pretzels. But I do have some fondness for slightly less intensively crafted pretzels and feel a couple of outliers are worth mentioning. I have a not entirely justifiable fondness for Keystone (Lititz, Pa.) Oatzels, a sweeter, lower-salt, maltier pretzel flecked with oat bran. Unique (Reading, Pa.) Splits pretzels are not hand-twisted, either, but they approximate some handwork with a scored, nubby surface, and they have a distinctive, addictive taste that's heavy with baking soda.
Pretzel manufacturers always seem to be looking for ways to expand the market—pressing pretzel dough into chips and crackers or spray-coating them with cinnamon sugar, honey mustard, or cheese powders (Hershey's has even built its Take Five bar around a pretzel base). Such coatings are anathema to real pretzels, but there is one trend that seems a natural outgrowth of the pretzel-baking process itself: Some bakeries like Unique have been pushing extra-dark varieties, or somewhat-burned pretzels. I generally like a softer finish—more cherry wood than wengé—but I can imagine the appeal of this style to char-hounds. For those, like me, not truly committed to the dark side, the large but still respectable snack-food firm Utz (Hanover, Pa.) makes an Extra Dark pretzel that is not quite as carbonified as Unique's.
In the end, factors as simple as baking time and hand-twisting determine one's personal pretzel ideal—do you look for something blond and mild, or something darker, with a more shattering texture? This simplicity is why I love them. To compare snack food to the wine industry, pretzels are like table wines: They both make up for their lack of flash with the constant pleasure they provide.