Various historians believe the pretzel is the oldest known snack food, dating back to its origin in 610 A.D. According to a History.com article, an Italian monk invented pretzels as a reward to children who learn their prayers. The shape of the pretzel is made to resemble a child crossing its arms in prayer.
Moving west from Italy, pretzels are also a common snack in Germany, particularly during the country’s Oktoberfest celebration, which happens every September. Traditional German pretzels, often called Bavarian pretzels, differ from the American pretzels in how they are made. While American pretzels commonly use baking soda to boil the pretzels before baking, Bavarian pretzels are dipped in a lye solution before they are baked.
What is lye? Lye, also known as sodium hydroxide, is used to make soap and clean drains (it can even dissolve glass!). National Public Radio reported most bakers use food-grade lye, which is the chemical equivalent of drain cleaner, but is produced and packaged in a clean, regulated way. The lye, much like the less-risky baking soda option, adds to the deep brown crust color, pretzel crunch and distinctive taste. When you’re making pretzels at home, we’d recommend leaving lye to the experts and going the baking soda route—it’s a more accessible ingredient (that might already be sitting in your pantry!).