German pretzel dough has a long history and interesting connections to chemistry, besides being one of the most popular snacks in the world.
Pretzel dough travels through a lye bath before entering the oven. Lye, also known as caustic soda, is a mixture of sodium hydroxide and water. Regular lye is used for soap and cleaners. Food-grade lye is a milder version that is commonly used as a preservative and softening agent. Lye reacts with the starch on the surface of the dough, forming a gel. When baked, this gel transforms into a shiny brown surface with the characteristic pretzel flavor.
The invention of pretzel dough was a happy accident. In 1839, the Munich-based baker Anton Pfannenbrenner meant to give his pretzels a sugar-water glaze, but accidentally used a lye solution intended for cleaning. As a result of this mix up, Anton was surprised to see his pretzels come out of the oven with an unusual brown crust. When he noticed the soft center and delicious taste, he knew he was on to something.
The pretzel shape had its humble beginnings around 610 A.D. in Northern Italy. According to historians, the pretzel is the oldest snack food known to mankind. In the early days, pretzels had religious significance. Around 600 AD, a monk used some leftover dough to form the pretzel shape, which resembled how Christians prayed with their arms folded across their chests. The monk called these early pretzels “pretiola,” which is Latin for “little reward,” and gave them to children who said their prayers.
There are many variations of pretzel products. Laugengebäck is the German name for anything which is baked in lye. Some variations include Pretzel Rolls (Laugenbrötchen), Cheese Pretzel (Käse-Brezel), Pretzel Bread Sticks (Laugenstange) and German Soft Pretzels (Laugenbrezel). For example, pretzels from Bavaria have thick arms and rips in the crust. Pretzel dough is incredibly important in Germany, as there would be no Bierfest and no Weisswurstfruehstueck without them.
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