A pretzel is a type of European-descended baked good made from dough in soft and hard varieties and savory or sweet flavors often in a unique knot-like shapes. The archetypal pretzel shape is a distinctive symmetrical looped form, whereby the ends of a long strip of dough are intertwined or brought together and then twisted back onto itself in a certain way (“a pretzel loop”). However, some varieties are instead made in a more plain stick or rod shape. For seasoning and decoration glazes of lye or sugar, coarse or fine salt or sugar, various seeds and nuts can be used. Larger pretzels are typically consumed singly while small pretzels are served in multiples.
Pretzels as a food are associated with different backgrounds, cultural purposes and ingredients that include a variety of glazes and coatings. Pretzels made of sour or yeast dough are assumed to be of Christian Medieval European origin. Today, they are still used in southern Germany and adjoining German-speaking regions on Christian holidays and in local customs.
A bread pretzel popular in southern Germany and adjoining German speaking areas as well as in some areas of the United States, is basically made from wheat flour, water and yeast, glazed with lye, usually sprinkled with coarse salt, hand-sized and made for consumption on the same day. To avoid confusion with any other pretzel kind, German speakers call this variety “Laugenbrezel” (lye pretzel). The sweet pastry varieties have no special purpose or background, come in many different textures, toppings and coatings and are part of the wider selection of pastries and cookies. The crispy hard pretzels, e. g. pretzel sticks and a variety of shapes basically made from the same ingredients, have evolved from the same lye pretzel by baking out excess moisture, thereby increasing shelf life and a crispy taste. They originate in the United States and have become popular in many countries.There are numerous accounts on the origin of the looped pretzels as well as the origin of the name. Most of them agree that they have religious and/or Christian backgrounds and were invented by monks. According to The History of Science and Technology, by Bryan Bunch and Alexander Hellemans, in 610 AD “…an Italian monk invents pretzels as a reward to children who learn their prayers. He calls the strips of baked dough, folded to resemble arms crossing the chest, ‘pretiola’ (“little rewards”)”. However, no source is cited to back up these details. Another source locates the invention in a monastery in southern France. The looped pretzel may also have evolved from a Greek ring bread which was served in monasteries for the Last Supper 1,000 years ago. In Germany there are stories that pretzels were the invention of desperate bakers. Meyers Konversationslexikon from 1905 suspects the origin of pretzels in a ban of heathen baking traditions, such as in form of sun wheels, at the Synod of Estinnes in the year 743. The pretzel may have emerged as a substitute. The German name “Brezel” may derive also from Latin bracellus (a medieval term for “bracelet”), or bracchiola (“little arms”).
The pretzel has been in use as emblem of bakers and formerly their guilds in southern German areas at least from the 12th. century to this very day. A 12th-century illustration in the Hortus deliciarum from the southwest German Alsace (today France) may contain the earliest depiction of a pretzel.
Within the Catholic church, pretzels were regarded as having religious significance for both ingredients and shape. Pretzels made with a simple recipe using only flour and water could be eaten during Lent, when Christians were forbidden to eat eggs, lard, or dairy products like milk and butter. As time passed, pretzels became associated with both Lent and Easter. Pretzels were hidden on Easter morning just like eggs are hidden today and are particularly associated with Lent, fasting, and prayers before Easter. The classic pretzel’s three-hole shape begins to take form. The three holes represent the Christian Trinity of “Father, Son and Holy Spirit”, and pretzels are thought to bring luck, prosperity, and spiritual wholeness. The wedding phrase “tying the knot” got its start when a pretzel was used to tie the knot between two prominent families. The pretzel’s loops stood for everlasting love.