Pretzels have been with us since at least the seventh century, and it’s likely they were invented way before then.
Regardless of their origins, they are one of the world’s most popular snacks and some say the perfect accompaniment to an ice cold drink. Here, we’re talking about soft pretzels and next, we will answer the question ‘how are pretzels made in a factory’. It’s slightly different to doing it at home!
Pretzels - A Short History
How were pretzels invented is a question whose true answer appears to have been lost to history, though there are a few worthy contenders.
The word pretzel is said to come from the Latin ‘bracellae’ translated as ‘bracelet’ or ‘bracchiola’ which means ‘little arms’.
One ‘origin’ story tells of an Italian monk who invented them around the start of the seventh century, to give them as treats to children who said their prayers correctly. He called them ‘pretiolas’ or ‘little rewards’ and designed them specifically to resemble a child crossing his or her arms in prayer.
Another tale suggests they were invented to eat during the month of Lent instead of eggs, dairy and meat. In Germany in the Middle Ages, children would hang them around their necks on New Year’s Day to wish for a good year. Pretzels have also been used as symbols of good luck through the centuries. They were hung on Christmas trees in Austria in the sixteenth century and in Switzerland, the pretzel symbolised a marriage knot, whereby the newly married couple would pull one apart to (hopefully) bring prosperity to their marriage.
Yet whatever the truth of their origins, the humble pretzel made its way through Europe and eventually to America, by way of the first German immigrants to Pennsylvania in the eighteenth century. In fact 300 years later, Pennsylvania still produces around 80% of America’s pretzels.
So how are pretzels actually made and how are pretzels produced in a factory?
How are Pretzels Made?
A freshly baked, warm soft pretzel is one of life’s true culinary delights. Here’s how they are produced step-by-step on an industrial scale, and while this isn’t how the first pretzels would have been made, it is how pretzels are manufactured today.
Making Pretzels: The Dough
The first step on the road to a batch of delicious soft pretzels is to mix sugar, salt and shortening (solid fat) in a huge mixer. Then yeast, corn syrup and flour are added as well as cold water, which keeps the dough elastic and pliable so they can be shaped before it hardens.
The huge mound of dough is removed from the mixer and split into smaller chunks which are fed into a hopper. The dough passes through the hopper and out the other end. Small squash ball-sized lumps are now cut off and squeezed through a roller, which rolls them into 50cm long sausage-shaped strips known as noodles.
Making Pretzels: The Fold
A machine grabs the end of each noodle and folds them over each other to form the unique pretzel shape. Some companies do this by hand but mass-produced pretzels require an automated system. Once they have been folded, they are flipped upside down to prevent them from unravelling.
Making Pretzels: The Prove
If you’ve ever watched a baking show on TV, you’ll know that proving dough is one of the most important elements of making any baked product. Proving is the process of resting the dough to allow the yeast to ferment and create tiny bubbles of gas. It’s these bubbles that help the dough to rise.
At home, you’d simply leave the dough in a warm place, but when we’re answering the question ‘how are pretzels made in a factory’, the answer is a little different.The pretzels are put onto a conveyor belt for fourteen minutes and this allows the dough to rise sufficiently.
Next, the dough is passed under a shower of sodium hydroxide heated to around 80°C. It is also known as caustic soda or lye, and this liquid seals in the moisture and results in a wonderfully chewy texture.
Making Pretzels: The Cooking
In the process of how pretzels are manufactured, this is the most important stage. Too long and they become hard, too short and they don’t cook all the way through.
The pretzels pass through an oven for around four minutes at close to 300°C. This ensures that the pretzels are cooked to the desired standards. However, as this is pretzel making on an industrial scale, it’s not quite the end. In fact there are still a few more stages on the journey before we can finish answering the question ‘how are pretzels made’.
Making Pretzels: The Final Steps
The cooked pretzels are cooled and then frozen for around half an hour at -28°C. They are then packaged up with a small sachet of coarse salt in a plastic bag, and finally into a cardboard box ready to be shipped out to the shops.
This brings us to the end of the story of how pretzels are manufactured step-by-step. Next time you’re in the supermarket choosing a snack, don’t tie yourself up in knots looking for the right one, just choose a pretzel!