The word “pretzel” refers to bread of German origin, with a looped knot or twisted braid. Pretzels can be either soft or hard and come in a myriad shapes and sizes. Traditional soft pretzels are about the size of a hand. Most hard pretzels are much smaller. Historians believe the pretzel was invented by monks in the year 610 to symbolize marriage and represent intertwined lives. Pretzels were thought to bring prosperity and good luck.
In the 1700’s German immigrants gave rise to Pennsylvania Dutch culture. They brought with them the recipe for soft pretzels and, in time, many handmade pretzel bakeries dotted the Pennsylvania Dutch landscape. Between 1850 and 1889 many pretzel factories opened in the Lancaster area. Some are still in operation today. The Anderson Pretzel Factory, in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, calls itself the world's largest—they manufacture 65 tons daily. They began making pretzels by hand in 1889 and in 1955 machines were added. Soft pretzels have become a staple for Pennsylvanians and the average Philadelphian consumes about twelve times more pretzels than the national average.
Interestingly, the crunchy hard pretzel evolved when a baker put them in the oven without rising and forgot about them. Baked too long, the pretzels grew dark, hard and crunchy—and turned out to be a wild success.
1 1/2 cups warm water
1 tablespoon sugar
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 packet active dry yeast
4 ½ cups flour
4 tablespoons canola oil plus more for the pan
10 cups water
2/3 cup baking soda
1 egg yolk beaten with 1 tablespoon water
Pretzel salt or coarse salt
Combine the water, sugar and kosher salt in the bowl of a stand mixer and sprinkle the yeast on top. Allow to sit for 5 minutes or until the mixture begins to foam. Add the flour and oil and, using the dough hook attachment, mix on low speed until well combined. Change to medium speed and knead until the dough is smooth and pulls away from the side of the bowl, approximately 4 to 5 minutes. Remove the dough from the bowl, clean the bowl and then oil it well with vegetable oil. Return the dough to the bowl, cover with plastic wrap and sit in a warm place for approximately 50 to 55 minutes or until the dough has doubled in size.
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F. Line 2 sheet pans with a silpat or parchment paper. If you are using parchment, lightly brush paper with the oil. Set aside.
Bring the 10 cups of water and the baking soda to a rolling boil in an 8-quart stockpot.
In the meantime, turn the dough out onto a lightly oiled work surface and divide into 8 equal pieces. Roll out each piece of dough into a 24-inch rope. Make a U-shape with the rope. Holding the ends of the rope, cross them over each other and press onto the top of the “U” in order to form the shape of a pretzel. Place onto the lined pan.
Place the pretzels into the boiling water, one by one, for 30 seconds. Remove them from the water using a large slotted spatula. Return each to the lined pan and brush the top of each pretzel with the beaten egg yolk and water mixture and sprinkle with the pretzel salt. Bake until dark golden brown in color, approximately 12 to 14 minutes. Transfer to a cooling rack for at least 5 minutes before serving.