Holy Molly, pretzels are soul food. Who could have figured that the simple, honest, mouth-smacking pretzel had so much history packed in? As one story goes, they made it across the Atlantic from Europe carried by the Pilgrim fathers on the Mayflower. Not likely ain’t it? I didn’t think so.
A more realistic answer is they were brought across through German immigrants who landed in Pennsylvania. Mr. Julius Sturgis founded a bakery there around 1861, by all accounts, and started off with hard pretzels. The humble pretzel had arrived.
But to press on, it is one of the world’s possible earliest snacks, the first traces found around 600 AD. An unknown European monk, from scraps of bread dough, it is said, made them as a reward to children who said their prayers correctly.
Hence the crossed arms as if in prayer, the commonly used shape of a typical pretzel survives. Tying the knot got a lot tastier as the pretzel puts an appearance during weddings symbolizing marriage and everlasting love.
How Are Pretzels Made
The stuff that goes into making a pretzel is simple- you have wheat flour, yeast, salt, and lye. The lye imparts the flavor. Without it, a pretzel is pretty much tasteless. No one would buy it. And what is lye? It is sodium hydroxide treated with lime. Totally vegan. In fact, originally, it was made by burning hardwood. Water and baking soda would be mixed with the ashes then the whole thing was filtered to get lye.
Let’s shift gears. How the heck does one make a pretzel?
We’ll keep it simple because it is. No rocket science here. A soft pretzel weighs about a gram. But here in America, crunchy, crisp, hard pretzels pop off the counter quicker.
Now your dough of wheat flour, lye, salt, and yeast is kneaded well and ready for the oven. You need to roll the dough into ropes. This is the hard part. Butter is not vegan, but a substitute is barley malt syrup.
The first is rolling the pancakes thin. Then you cut pieces about 3 inches square. Don’t worry about wastage at this stage, as all the little scraps go back into the dough.
You want an authentic-looking pretzel. Making the bow will be challenging initially. Just do a couple, and you will get the zippier.
Right, your first batch is ready to hatch. Let it sit covered with a towel for 15-20 minutes to allow the dough to rise.
Pop the tray into your oven preheated to 400°F, set it at 460°F (240°C), and set your timer for 4 minutes.
Go and switch on the TV—surf over to your fav station. The stage is set. The oven pinged.
Get that bowl of hot aromatic pretzels, put your feet up and enjoy. Wait a sec, you are a vegan, and a Bud is too. Think about it.
Auntie Anne proved to be one smart pretzel. She shipped her product to the UK, where sweet teeth are pretty much random. She made a small change to her pretzels while keeping them vegan infusing cinnamon and sugar (no butter coating, please). It got the Brits into raptures, and the pretzels flew off the shelf in double-quick time.
Types of Pretzels
Pretzels are made from wheat flour and salt. The Catholic church was, in those times, mighty strict on going vegan, especially during Lent. All types of meat, dairy, and eggs were prohibited. Pretzels got the nod, however.
Soft pretzels are kind of squishy, almost bread. They are best consumed quickly after being made. Seasonings can be anything—cheese, chocolate, cinnamon, seeds, nuts, and so on.
I got thinking. Walmart pretzels are a heck of a bore. And so I got to make them at home. Now I’m a lousy baker, so the first two batches had to get trashed. There is nothing closer to heaven than an oven-fresh soft pretzel. Think about it.
Hard pretzels are an American discovery. A batch mistakenly overbaked or that had less water, take your pick. Anyway, the result was gob-smacking, alright. A pretzel is as basic as they come. Wheat flour, water, yeast, shortening, leavening agents, salt, and sugar. Simple, right?
Wheat flour makes up the bulk of a pretzel, taking up about 65-70% of the volume. The protein content is about 9%. Your pretzel is only as good as the quality of the flour. Yummy pretzels are not from cheap, damaged wheat flour. Keeping the moisture content down gets you a hard pretzel.
Hard pretzels can be stored for a long time.
The hard alkaline exterior combined with the acidic interior gives the pretzel its unique taste and flavor.
A Vegan’s Guide To Eating Pretzels
Are pretzels vegan? The good news is they are. They do not contain any eggs or milk. Please read the labels for the fine print. For instance, the famous brand Auntie Anne’s soft pretzels can be given a miss as they are brushed with butter. Goldfish Pretzels contain milk, another no-no. Plain, hard pretzels are a good bet.
Shortening is a solid form of vegetable oils and fats. It helps the pretzel stay soft and not turn into a rock. And that’s not about it- it gives volume, tenderness, crumbly texture, strength, and structure, provides lubricity, adds air, and transfers heat. A pretzel has a 2-8% shortening making it practically the only snack with such minimal fat content.
Yeast and leavening agents make the pretzels crisp and improve the taste. Yeast is typically a dry, granular substance. There is also a wet variety, which has a short shelf life. Therefore dry yeast is preferable and remains unspoiled at room temperature for a long time.
Leavening agents have the same effect as fermenting yeast. However, the beauty of it is that the final taste is not affected.
Chemical leavening agents include sodium or ammonium bicarbonate. But they can be left out of the process. Thoroughly mixing wheat flour and water and allowing it to sit for some time does the trick. This uses the spores present in the air. An instance is sourdough. The process can be accelerated by adding yeast.
The other ingredients are water, salt, seasonings, sugar, and so on. Water makes up the bulk at around 30-35%, and it is, of course, required to kick off the fermentation process. The yeast must get in touch with the sugar for this to happen.
The chemical agents are also activated with the addition of water. Salt, other than improving the taste, acts as a binder for the dough.
Typically, the authentic way to make pretzels was by dipping them in a lye solution before baking. The result was a perfect vegan pretzel. This was the original German pretzel: just wheat flour, water, and salt. No chemicals.
Added fats still remain a significant concern as far as vegans go. Do check the labels for ingredients such as margarine or butter.
Toppings and Flavorings
This is the tricky part. Many pretzel brands use cheese, milk, milkfat, honey, and what have you. These are not vegan. Period.
Pretzels, soft or hard, do not pose any vegan challenges. The cause is almost always the sweet ones or those that are accompanied by dips. Dips will contain sugars processed with bone char. Even your standard mustard sauce may have a dash of honey, making it off-limits for vegans. Then there are beer-flavored pretzels, but beware, beer can be made of non-vegan ingredients.
A pretzel has wheat flour, water, salt, and yeast. Can vegans have yeast? Okay, I will answer that. Yeast does not have a nervous system, and in consuming it, no animal is harmed or exploited. That makes it vegan.
And what about food coloring? Indeed chemicals come in there. Natural food colors are alright, except for carmine, which comes from bugs. Artificial coloring agents are controversial. Even if they do not contain chemicals, they are tested on animals, which disqualifies them as a vegan.
Wrapping It Up
It is tough to be vegan, and we have only touched the obvious. A pretzel is comfort food, an American staple. The only choice for vegans is to be sure that the pretzels fit the bill or abstain. My take is that the only option is to bake your own. Of course, all vegan ingredients can be sourced these days; vegan butter, dairy-free milk, vegan sugar, and so on.
Some brands such as Rold Gold, Snyders Vegan Pretzels, and Snack Factory make 100% vegan pretzels that are also great for noshing on. They make your easy peasy. One word of advice, shop with caution.
Going vegan is not a fad. It is a conscious decision to abide by fair play, respect the other co-inhabitants of this planet, and promote a green planet; Live and let live.