The Salty, Soothing Twist of Pretzels

If you asked most people whether they would like to eat dough which has been dipped in caustic soda—the stuff you use to unblock drains—I don’t imagine they would be too keen. Yet that is exactly what a pretzel is, a snack whose deep brown shininess is usually achieved by a brief dip in water mixed with lye, aka sodium hydroxide. The lye doesn’t seem to put consumers off, judging from the fact that the U.S. market for hard and soft pretzels combined was worth $1.6 billion in 2022, up 16% from the year before.

We will probably never find out who was the first ingenious baker to take dough and twist it into a knot, but that person engineered a winner. The pretzel’s shape made it easy to store on racks and easy to eat; there is something about the loops that makes you want to pick it up and tear it apart. There’s a Dutch painting, circa 1630, called “Pulling of the Pretzel” by Jan van Bijlert that depicts a couple holding on to each end of a pretzel while the man also has his arm on the woman’s shoulder. The pretzels in the painting would not look out of place at a baseball game today, except that the holes inside the knot are slightly bigger.

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