Martin's Pretzels Bucket

Slow Pretzels

The pretzel, has a long, quirky, and only anecdotally documented past that wends its way through modern history. Martin's Pretzels' pretzel-ancestors trace their origins to ancient Rome, and travel into their twisted shape in medieval Europe, and eventually cross the Atlantic to 17th century New York and Pennsylvania. Despite the pretzel's pedigree, not one scholarly work on the history of pretzels exists. But in the Slow Food world, it is recent history that has endangered the handmade hard pretzel (also known as the "Pennsylvania Dutch" or "beer" pretzel), a hearty Slow Food that refuses to speed up.

Around 1900, the simplest machinery of the industrial revolution helped make pretzel baking a little faster and more economical, but these machines did virtually nothing to compromise quality. Hands still dominated the process. For years, a pretzel twister's speed had few equivalents in human terms. But, starting in mid-century, the quest for more economy and faster machines eventually eliminated hands, as well as the true magic of deep pretzel crunch and flavor.

Read about the twisted history of the pretzel.

There is no way to imagine the difference between machine and handmade pretzels without tasting. Ed Levine, in New York Eats, writes that Martin's Pretzels-a fixture in the City's Greenmarkets since 1982-are to machine-made pretzels what a BMW is to a Yugo. Tasting a mere crumb tells the whole story: progress took the "S" out of the Slow Pretzel, and left it with the last three letters: "L-O-W." Low, compromised quality.

The authors of the change, and their inheritors, still boast their accomplishments. One bakery born in 1911, brags that its founder's "exact recipe is still being used in the production of almost 50 million pretzels daily." Tom Sturgis Pretzels, widely acknowledged home of the first hard pretzel in America (1850), no longer makes pretzels by hand, and even vaunts that a single "state-of-the-art pretzel machine can extrude 245 pretzels in a minute or five tons of hard pretzels in a day." And adds, "Compare that to the record of 40 hand-twisted pretzels in a minute."

The simultaneous translation: speed is better. Martin's bakers (whose average pretzel twister rate is about 12 per minute) and thousands of their fans disagree.

And there's a more to the Slow Pretzel story. Take a little tour of Martin's Pretzel Bakery. Step inside, into the din of whirring fans, belts, and chains. Into the high, sweet, and perhaps, today, slightly off-key notes of hymns, interrupted periodically by chatter and giggles. The nutty fragrance of baking pretzels warms the air. The singing rollers and twisters-mostly wearing organdy caps, veils, long flower-print dresses-labor at a table lined with grooved wooden boards.

At one end, the head "twister" silently scoops a spongy white gob from the dough tray, kneads it into a slender log, and cranks it through the cutter, a primitive looking machine that spits out uniform nuggets. Ten pairs of hands sequester little piles of them. With a few gentle waves they roll them, one by one, into strands, that, with a magician's slight-of-hand, end up twisted into pretzels. In a flicker. A blur. You watch, again, again, and the gesture is inscrutable. But, presto, the pretzels appear at the end of so many fingers and collect on wooden boards that get slotted into racks to rest a while before baking.

Martha suggests another song. Voices join. There's a strange resonance in the lyrics of this one-"Take up the tangled strains/that we have wrought in vain/that by the help of Thy dear hands/some beauty may remain." Some beauty definitely remains in their pretzels, along with detectable fingerprints where hands have pressed the ends onto the loops.

Joining the chorus from an unseen room are the strained grindings of the mixer kneading the dough for a while, then resting. Across the way, two figures seem to dance in front of an enormous oven. One steps back, lifts a board of pretzels from its rack, sets it next to a steaming cauldron. She twists to the left, sweeps twenty pretzels into the simmering golden liquid. They disappear for a moment, then float to the surface. She then bows forward and lifts a strainer-full onto a draining tray, and twirls back to the rack for another board.

Meanwhile, her partner broadcasts salt onto the long wooden peel between them, then reaches to and fro, picking up wet pretzels from the drainer and lining them up by two's on the peel. He then waves on another spray of salt, rocks sideways left to grab the peel's handle, and sideways right to lean it into the small mouth of the giant oven. With an instant flick of his wrists he rotates the wooden handle forward, and the pretzels flop onto the oven's stone table. Then he rocks back left to set down the peel and faces his partner at the draining tray for another round.

The 500-degree oven table creaks, turning, in slow motion. As the pretzels complete their baking journey, they clunk, clunk, clunk down a small metal chute, climb up a cranking belt, then thump into a larger pile that slowly parades them out of site on the wire mesh belt of the drying oven. Twenty minutes later they crunch through a small curtain, in large piles, for hands to pack into bags, boxes, tins, tubs.

The Twisted History of the Pretzel

Though the humble pretzel's elusive origins likely date to Roman times, for over 100 years the Pennsylvania Dutch and their neighbors have quietly guarded the secret of their special handmade hard pretzels.

The soft pretzel (brezel, laugen brot, etc.), very much part of the southern German and Swiss German traditions, clearly arrived in the New World with the Pennsylvania Dutch.Known for their thrift and industry, these settlers figured out how to economically create a pretzel that would keep-they dried it out. The hard pretzel, with its resulting crunch, crack, and crumble, turned out to be much more fun to eat too. Its popularity spread and, in time, many handmade pretzel bakeries dotted the Pennsylvania Dutch landscape.Then, sophisticated machinery that dramatically increased pretzel production arrived on the scene. Mass production meant cheaper prices, and cheaper prices blinded many to the compromised quality.

Most–but not all–of the small handmade bakeries closed. Meanwhile, true-blue pretzel connoisseurs couldn't accept the machine-mades. Sure they were cheaper, and easier to ship to more markets, but they could never measure up, never taste as good as a handmade hard pretzel.Conservative Mennonites from Pennsylvania's Lancaster County, the Martin family has produced pretzels for over 60 years. They're old-guard pretzel bakers keeping the handmade tradition alive.

What makes a Martin's Handmade Pretzel so special? How is it different?

Quite simply a many stepped process produces an unbelievable, incomparable, overwhelmingly delicious TASTE and a magnificently measured, hard-crunching, gratifying-to-chew TEXTURE.

There is one simple pretzel truth:


The first component is a simple secret-recipe sour dough made of only flour, water, yeast and salt (there are NO preservatives, NO sweeteners and NO fat in a Martin's pretzel). Next, hand rolling and twisting creates a unique texture: the uneven hand pressure and individual twisting makes varied density and air bubbles along the dough strip, thus endless diversity and novelty (many pretzels bear relief fingerprints where the dough tips meet the loops.)

Machines can extrude pretzel dough strips, or duplicate the "rolling" process (e.g. between belts), but every mechanized process squeezes out a pretzel's uniqueness; it compresses the dough too evenly and uniformly and unalterably changes its texture. Some pretzels rolled by machine and then twisted by hand (in order to be called "hand-twisted") bypass the critical hand-rolling process–a not-to-clever trick that can never mask "machine-made" texture and flavor.

Once rolled and twisted, Martin's handmade pretzels are boiled in water and soda, another major component of their deep pretzel flavor. The soda reacts with the surface flour to form the deliciously dark, richly flavored, pretzel-brown crust. The boiled pretzels are then salted by hand, lined up by twos on a six-foot wooden peel, and flopped onto the rotating deck of the 500-degree stone-lined oven for fifteen minutes.

The high temperature bakes on a toothy crust and leaves the centers soft and ready to be dried in a very low temperature oven. This final step contributes the pretzel's through and through crunch. In fact, a finished pretzel is so dry and light that it weighs less than the flour that goes into it! This also makes a Martin's very much more fragile than its machine made counterpart that's not as dry and often contains added fat to help it stick together more. Great for shipping, but not for eating! That's why sometimes-but not too often-when Martin's Pretzels get rough handling by the shipper a number of brokens may turn up. Thankfully, this doesn't seem to bother most of Martin's customers who would rather pay for a superb pretzel than for elaborate packaging. Aside from making handmade pretzels more fragil,, drying also helps preserve them; properly sealed away from moist air in a heavy bag, tin, or jar they will stay oven-fresh tasting for weeks, even months!

At Martin's market stand in New York City, simple broken samples have convinced thousands to buy Martin's Pretzels over and over, year after year. So it's too bad a little pretzel piece can't pop out of your computer screen or printer. One bite says more than a thousand explanations. You'd be sold. Just the same, we hope you'll trust what our many loyal customers say:

Martin's pretzels are the best in the world. Hands down!

Copyright 2013 Alfred Milanese