A Salty History of Pretzels

From Lenten fare to street food, pretzels have come a long way.
From Lenten fare to street food, pretzels have come a long way. / Maren Caruso/Stone/Getty Images

Many Christian services use unleavened wafers to stand in for the bread Jesus broke during the last supper. But maybe they should break out some pretzels instead. Some illuminated manuscripts from medieval Europe actually show Christ treating the 12 disciples to a feast of the twisted snack the night before his crucifixion.

This detail is more indicative of the period when the illustrations were made than the time of the last supper. During the Middle Ages, pretzels were a popular Lenten food. The wheat flour dough doesn’t contain meat, eggs, sugar, or dairy, which meant Catholics could eat the simple treats even if they were on a highly restricted diet. Pretzels were so ubiquitous in the weeks leading up to Easter that it was natural for medieval artists to sneak them into their depictions of Jesus’s final meal. 

Whether they’re crunchy or soft, pretzels are enjoyed in various secular settings today, from bars to baseball games to city street corners. So how did they go from virtuous, Vatican-approved fare to one of the most popular snack foods on the planet? Why did Prohibition give pretzels a boost here in the States? And which is the true pretzel: the classic softy or its hard-shelled cousin? No matter which pretzel you prefer, you’re guaranteed to find something to chew on in the snack’s delicious history.

The Pretzel’s Debated Origins

The origin of the pretzel is much debated. According to one legend, Italian monks first had the idea to twist strands of dough into compact packages around the 7th century CE. These treats, dubbed pretiola, or “little rewards,” were given to young students who said their prayers correctly. This is said to be why the baked good’s shape resembles two arms folded in prayer.

A competing theory traces the etymology of pretzel to the German language by way of Latin. In Latin, bracellae means “little arms,” and the German brezel with a b may have stemmed from there. If so, English speakers misinterpreted the way Germans were pronouncing the “b” and switched it to a “p.”

There’s also disagreement over how and why pretzels got their unique form. Instead of folded arms, it's possible the food was originally meant to represent the Holy Trinity through its three holes. 

Another origin story takes the provenance away from Christianity entirely and ties the pretzel to pagan practices instead. Some historians connect the food’s signature shape with ritual baking. According to the folklorist Dr. Hilda Ellis Davidson, in several different cultures, baked goods used to be made in a variety of shapes, including shin bones, boars, and even genitals before being used for religious rites. Other historians, in turn, connect this practice to pretzels and suggest they’re intended to evoke something like ritual funereal arm-rings or, according to one historian, a symbolic noose. 

Whatever religious symbolism they may have been designed to evoke, the unique shape probably wouldn't have stuck around if it didn't also offer convenience. The holes allowed bakers to hang fresh pretzels on poles in shop windows, which helped draw in hungry customers. It’s not so different from what happens today when people smell an Auntie Anne’s from the other side of the food court.

Pretzel Chemistry

The pretzels enjoyed from the Middle Ages through the Early Modern Era were of the soft, chewy variety, but Americans today actually consume more hard pretzels. For either variety, the crust is key. 

The outside of a pretzel should be smooth, shiny, and brown, contrasting with its pale interior. Bakers achieve this look using some clever chemistry. Before it goes in the oven, shaped pretzel dough gets dipped in a caustic alkaline solution. Alkaline is basically the opposite of acidic. Lye, also known as sodium hydroxide, is a caustic alkali which can be used to unclog drains, make soap, and dissolve carcasses. It’s also a vital ingredient in many pretzel recipes—though, to be clear, food-grade lye is a much purer product than the stuff you can pick up at the hardware store.

Pretzels in a basket
The deep brown color of pretzel crust is thanks to the Maillard Reaction. / aalexx/E+/Getty Images

Soaking pretzels in a diluted lye solution pays off with something known as the Maillard Reaction. First described by French chemist Louis Camille Maillard in 1912, this chemical reaction plays a role in many of the tastiest foods we eat. When foods are subjected to the complex interplay of time and temperature (among other factors), many of the sugars and amino acids inside them break down and rearrange to create colors, flavors, and textures that hungry humans find appealing. If you’ve ever roasted a chicken, you’ve used the Maillard Reaction to your advantage. 

This process is what gives bread its crisp, brown crust—and pretzels come out looking even darker than most baked goods by taking a caustic bath. Alkaline ingredients speed up the Maillard Reaction by breaking down proteins in the dough before it enters the oven. Without soaking in an alkaline solution, fully-cooked pretzels would end up looking pale instead of developing the deep brown exterior they’re famous for. 

Though lye is commonly used in pretzel factories, slightly gentler alkalis such as baking soda can be used to achieve the same effect. And don’t worry if your favorite brand uses the stronger stuff—once they’re baked, pretzels soaked in sodium hydroxide can't dissolve human flesh—unlike pineapples, incidentally. The tropical fruit contains something called bromelain that breaks down proteins ... which means that when you take a bite of pineapple, it's biting you back.

Soft and Chewy vs. Hard and Crunchy Pretzels

How modern pretzels became hard and crunchy is its own story. In 1861, 26-year-old entrepreneur Julius Sturgis opened a pretzel bakery in Lititz, Pennsylvania. According to one version of the story, he left a batch in the oven for too long one day, but instead of throwing them out, he gave the well-done morsels a taste. In addition to being delicious, these dry, brittle pretzels lasted much longer than the kind he normally made. Sturgis perfected his hard pretzel recipe and began selling them as a shelf-stable, snackable alternative to the soft variety people were familiar with. 

The Sturgis Pretzel House in Lititz, Pennsylvania.
The Sturgis Pretzel House in Lititz, Pennsylvania. / Doug Kerr, Wikimedia Commons // CC by SA 2.0

Alternatively, it’s sometimes said that in the 1850s Sturgis was apprenticing at another bakery when someone, possibly a German immigrant, was passing through town and asked for food. Sturgis fed him and in return the man gave Sturgis a recipe for hard pretzels. 

While that story might seem dodgy—it sounds a little bit like the pretzel fairy came to town and bestowed his magic snack food on Sturgis—there is evidence of hard pretzels predating 1861. A newspaper article from 1854 discusses German refugees coming to the United States in great numbers, noting, “As they cannot speak English, they crowd into the Dutch boarding houses, and beer saloons, and during the day may be seen quaffing their mugs of [lager] beer, and [chewing] those hard, crisp salted cakes which the Germans call Bretzels.” This version could still make room for an inattentive baker, but that baker would likely have been a long way from Pennsylvania.

Either way, Pennsylvania continues to be the pretzel capital of the U.S. When a flood of German immigrants settled in the Keystone State in the 18th and 19th centuries, they brought their country’s cuisine with them. As the influence of the group grew, the rest of the state adapted parts of their culture, including their love of pretzels. Today, 80 percent of pretzels made in America are manufactured in Pennsylvania.

Pretzels, Beer, and Mustard

Philadelphia in particular is famous for its soft pretzels. Even as the hard pretzel became a popular snack to have at home, people continued to eat soft pretzels on the streets of the City of Brotherly Love. The treat’s portability made it a no-brainer for street cart vendors. And once it’s baked, the recipe requires no additional ingredients—other than a dollop of mustard, of course. 

Man Selling Pretzels
A street vendor setting up his cart to sell pretzels. / Hulton Deutsch/GettyImages

Germans have long served pretzels with whole-grain mustard, but American street vendors may have been the first to slather pretzels with the bright-yellow version of the condiment. The grains of salt on pretzels can form blisters on the crust on humid days, and vendors who sold both pretzels and hot dogs may have covered these blemishes with the mustard they already had in their carts.

Beer is another item commonly paired with pretzels. In the late 19th century, pretzels became a popular offering at saloons, which typically didn’t serve full meals like taverns did. If a bar owner wanted to give customers something to snack on without hiring a cook, pretzels made perfect sense. Along with being easy to serve, they were salty, which has the tendency to make a person thirsty. The more pretzels patrons ate, the more beer they drank, which generated more profits for the business.

When War (and Prohibition) Threatened Pretzels

In the early 20th century, American imbibers’ love affair with pretzels came under threat. They were still considered German fare at this point, and anti-German sentiment during World War I triggered a wave of disdain for the treats. Some saloons went so far as to ban the products under the guise of patriotism. 

The bar snack survived the war, but then came Prohibition, which presented another challenge. Bars had been one of the pretzel industry’s largest buyers up to that point, and without them manufacturers feared they wouldn’t be able to stay afloat. 

But surprisingly enough, pretzel makers actually flourished under the 18th amendment. When former saloon patrons were forced to brew beer at home, they didn’t forget to buy pretzels to go with it. But instead of ordering a pretzel or two like they would at a bar, they bought them by the bagful to keep at home. As The Baltimore Sun reported in 1933, pretzel production increased by 35 million pounds between 1914 and 1932.

Pretzels Around the World 

Many pretzel varieties eaten around the world today would be better suited for Fat Tuesday than Lent. In the Netherlands, pretzel-shaped cookies called Krakeling are commonly served at funerals, accompanied by coffee. Japanese consumers also enjoy a sweeter, cookie-like version of pretzels called Pretz. Long and skinny instead of twisted, the snack resembles Pocky sticks without the frosting. They come in varieties like ripe tomato, butter soy sauce, and magical milk.

Chocolate covered pretzels on a tray
Chocolate covered pretzels are a very tasty treat. / jmalov/E+/Getty Images

The U.S. has its own decadent versions of the traditionally plain food, such as chocolate-covered pretzels. In 2021 alone, the top two vendors of the sweet treat sold over 50 million units between them.

Few companies cater to international pretzel tastes quite as well as Auntie Anne’s. In addition to the cinnamon sugar variety that's famous in the U.S., the chain offers seaweed pretzels in Singapore, ube cheese bites in the Philippines, and sesame-flavored pretzels in the UK. 

When you order a pretzel from a bar or street cart, you likely don’t think of its history as a plain, Lenten food. But that isn’t for a lack of trying on the part of one group of American Catholics. In the 1970s, proponents of the Pretzels for God movement attempted to reclaim the pretzel as a Christian symbol. They held bake sales, met with the National Pretzel Bakers Institute, and even conceived a “Ceremony of the Pretzel” that included a special pretzel prayer especially for Ash Wednesday.

The movement failed to catch on, and today the snack is divorced from any religious origins it may or may not have had—but that doesn’t mean biting into a freshly-baked pretzel with mustard can’t be a spiritual experience. 

This story was adapted from an episode of Food History on YouTube.