Ask Corby: The Dangers and Pleasures of Pretzels

In his latest advice column, Corby discusses German airports, how to make an ideal pretzel, and the scary/tasty use of lye

In his latest advice column, Corby discusses German airports, how to make an ideal pretzel, and the scary/tasty use of lye


Q. A science librarian at the University of Chicago writes:

I was trying to find the origin of the name Coppens Scheele Pretzels. They are pretzels that are dipped in lye (sodium hydroxide) before they are baked. I have found out the following: claims that the "Laugenbrezel" or lye pretzel was invented in Bavaria:

Although other regions of Germany have their stories of how it was invented, the Laugenbrezel is accredited to the Bavarians. The saga goes that on the morning of February 11, 1839, Anton Nepomuk Pfanenbrenner, the baker for the Munich Royal Café, was preparing some sweet pretzels for his guests. He wanted to brush the pretzels with sugar-water, but accidentally used the Natronlauge, the sodium hydroxide solution being used to clean and disinfect the bakery countertops. The baker decided to bake the pretzels anyway. The pretzels came out of the oven with a unique brown crust, soft center, and delicious taste. His guests were very pleased and he became the "pretzel hero."

I wonder if Coppens Scheele might refer to a patented process for producing pretzels in larger quantities?

A. I can't give you a scholarly answer, I'm afraid. None of my printed sources even includes the name, although the Web offers the same opaque answers you find. The tale, of course, sounds like the fable it doubtless is, though it might have somehow inspired the writers of Downton Abbey, who signaled that the cook was losing her sight when she sprinkled individual desserts (souffles, I think) with salt rather than sugar just before they were brought upstairs.

However the lye (laugen, sodium hydroxide) bath began, it gives pretzels a sheen and crisp exterior that baking soda, the usual substitution, as it is for the boiling of bagels before they're baked, never can. I was disappointed to find that George Greenstein's Secrets of a Jewish Baker, a book I consider the standard reference for rye and other classic Jewish breads, uses baking soda for his pretzels. But Jeffrey Hamelman, the baking teacher and American authority on German breads, does call for lye in his Bread: A Baker's Book of Techniques and Recipes.

In his long recipe, he recounts the charming story that "I had to beg and beg" for a baking job because he was American rather than French or German; he got to make pretzels, "the lowliest position in the bakery," but "I couldn't have been happier." He says that "they were given to children who had successfully completed their prayers"; one traditional story of the shape is that it represents arms folded in prayer. Certainly, since medieval times the shape has been the literal sign of a baker.

I have a passion for pretzels, and one that's only just starting to be satisfied by artisan bakers in this country. The first really good pretzel I had here was in fact in Chicago, in a tiny, sleekly designed storefront in the Loop, Hannah's Bretzel, which from the name alone tells you that it's made in the German tradition. (We won't get into the sweet, over-yeasted, doughy, underbaked travesties that have given a bad name to anyone named Anne with a nephew or niece.) I welcome stopovers (within reason) at any airport in Germany, knowing I can head for any bar or coffee shop and pluck pretzels off a wooden tree; when I recently came back from a two-day trip to Switzerland, where I scarfed both macarons and pretzels, my in-flight meal was the four pretzels I found in the five minutes I had to stop between flights at Munich.

That said—and I eat butterbretzeln, pretzels sliced horizontally and thickly smeared with butter, wherever I can find them—the laugenbrotchen (rolls), laugenstange (torpedo-shaped pretzel sticks), and pretzels I bought and ate everywhere were disappointing in their blinding whiteness and their underdeveloped flavor, and also because industrial bakers now seem to be making up with salt and shortening what they should be achieving by careful fermentation.

That's something you'll find in Hamelman, who calls for a pâte fermentée that rises 12 to 16 hours before the dough is mixed, shaped, and then risen again. He does call for a lye solution, sternly recommending long gloves and eye protection. I've been around kitchens that use lye baths, and though I didn't dip my hands in the solution, gloved or not, I did appreciate the need for goggles. I've only made pretzels with a baking-soda bath, and spent my time figuring out the shaping technique, which makes for an initially frustrating but fun afternoon. (Hamelman carefully says that forming pretzels "requires some practice and attentiveness before it becomes second nature," but he offers helpful and clear line drawings.) You've got me back at it, though. Off to King Arthur for ingredients and recipes—and to read more of Hamelman, who now teaches at their school, here. And then, of course, to delve deeper into the Coppens Scheele name, if not into that silly but charming fable.

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Image: PabloBM/flickr

When I visited the Museum der Brotkultur in Ulm a few years ago, I seem to remember an extensive display that went into the history of the regional variations on pretzels. Might not hurt to contact them to see if they have a pretzel history expert?