The first pretzels were similar to today’s soft pretzels—a chewy crust, with a fluffy interior—instead of the thin, crisp version. That makes sense because the early 15th century pretzels were bread replacements, made as a treat during Lent when the Catholic church banned anything made with eggs or dairy. Popular in Italy, Austria, and Germany, they were associated with good luck (and literal survival, as they were something cheap for the poor to eat).
By the middle of the century, Germans had made them part of Easter festivities, hidden for children to find. In the 1480’s, the world’s very first pretzel vendors began selling them in the streets from wheeled carts. By the dawn of the 16th century, the hard-baked versions were being worn like amulets on New Year’s to bring prosperity for the coming year.
In Austria, they weren’t just lucky for individuals: they saved a whole city. In 1510, when Ottoman Turks tunneled into Vienna beneath the city walls, they unwittingly tunneled right past the underground pretzel bakers, who alerted authorities. When the Turks tried to surface, they were surrounded and defeated—and pretzel bakers were awarded an official coat of arms by the emperor.
Some even claim that pretzels gave birth to the term “tying the knot” when European royals made it a wedding ritual for the bride and groom to be presented a big baked pretzel and then made to tug it apart (which sounds a bit more like untying the knot.) One thing that is not in dispute is that the humble snack is now synonymous with Germany, a staple of Oktoberfests, and a symbol of good fortune for all who’s lucky enough to try them.
Recipe: Homemade Soft Pretzels
1 ½ cups warm water
1 Tbs sugar
2 tsp kosher salt
1 package active dry yeast
4 ½ cups all-purpose flour
¼ cup unsalted butter, melted
10 cups water
2/3 cup baking soda
Egg wash: 1 egg yolk beaten with 1 Tbs water
Pretzel salt (or other large coarse salt)
- Preheat the oven to 450F.
- Combine the water, sugar, and salt in the bowl of a stand mixer and sprinkle with yeast. Allow to sit for 5 minutes or until the mixture begins to foam.
- Add the flour and butter and, using a dough hook attachment if possible, mix on low speed until well combined. Raise speed to medium and knead until the dough is smooth and pulls away from the side of the bowl (around 5 minutes).
- Remove the dough from the bowl and wipe the bowl out; coat the bowl walls with vegetable oil and return the dough to the bowl.
- Cover the dough bowl with plastic wrap and leave in a warm place for approximately an hour or until the dough has doubled in size.
- Bring the water and the baking soda to a rolling boil in a large saucepan or dutch oven.
- Line 2 sheet pans with parchment paper and lightly brush with the vegetable oil. Set aside.
- Turn the dough out onto a slightly oiled work surface and divide into 8 equal pieces, rolling each into a 24-inch rope.
- Make a U-shape with the rope, then cross the two ends of rope over each other like an X and then bring the tips around to the outside edges of the U in order to form a pretzel shape. Rest on the sheet pan.
- Place the pretzels into the boiling water, one at a time, for 30 seconds each. Remove them from the water using a large flat spatula. Return each to the sheet pan.
- Brush the top of each pretzel with the egg wash and sprinkle with the pretzel salt.
- Bake until dark golden brown, approximately 12 to 14 minutes. Transfer to a cooling rack for 5-10 minutes and serve.
Sample this German favorite at any time of year when you join Grand Circle Cruise Line for The Great Rivers of Europe.