Considered to be the world's oldest snack foods, pretzels reputedly originated around the year 600 in a monastery in the Italian Alps. Supposedly, the monk in charge of the bakery formed strips of bread dough into a shape intended to resemble arms folded across the breast in prayer. When baked, these pretiola (little reward in Italian) were given to children who learned their prayers properly. Later, these baked bread snacks became popular north of the Alps, where the name was germanicized to bretzels, a spelling still used by some pretzel bakers.
Soft pretzels, presumably identical with those made by the Italian monk, are still popular today. They have a moisture content similar to that of bread and a short shelf life. Hard pretzels were supposedly discovered when a baker's apprentice forgot to remove the last trays of pretzels from the oven at the end of the day, and the overnight residence in the cooling oven dried them, giving them a hard, crisp texture. The rest of this discussion concerns itself with the low-moisture (2-3%) hard pretzel.
Pretzel dough is extremely stiff, made with a low-protein flour (that from soft white winter wheat is preferred), and only 38 to 42% water. The only other ingredients are yeast (ca 0.25%) and roughly 1% each of salt, shortening, and dry malt. This dough is mixed in a horizontal sigma-arm mixer, allowed to ferment for up to 4 h, then processed.
The dough is divided into small pieces, elongated into a thin strip, and twisted into the typical pretzel shape by a special machine. The formed pretzels receive a short intermediate proof, then are carried through a caustic bath, which contains 1.25 ± 0.25% sodium hydroxide, held at about 190°F. After exiting this bath, salt is sprinkled on the tops and the pretzels enter the oven. Here they are baked at about 450°F for 4 to 5 min. The caustic bath gelatinizes the starch on the surface of the pretzel, giving the crisp, shiny crust. In the oven all residual caustic is converted to sodium bicarbonate. The baked pretzels are then piled onto slower-moving conveyors that carry them through a drying stage, where they remain for 30 to 90 min (depending on the size of the piece) at a temperature of approximately 250°F. This treatment slowly reduces the moisture to about 2% and also allows equilibration so that the finished pretzel does not check (form small cracks on its surface).
Variations on this production scheme are many. A machine is available that extrudes the dough through a die already shaped in the twisted form, so tying is not necessary. By changing the die the machine will also make straight rods, which are a popular form for this snack. Also, the exact dough formulation and extent of fermentation varies among manufacturers, the details being closely held as proprietary information, each company sure that its particular formula makes the best possible pretzel. As with any low-moisture snack, the shelf life is governed by the quality of the packaging; the loss in consumer acceptance is directly related to moisture uptake, with about 3.5% moisture marking the upper limit of acceptability.
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