Hard Pretzels, Soft Pretzels: A False Dichotomy

Reader Jacki writes in with this:

You mention a “chewy” inside. Does this mean you have been talking about soft pretzels this whole time? I thought it was hard pretzels that you had been describing. Could you clarify, and maybe explain the difference between the two?

I certainly can — because historically speaking, they’re one and the same thing. Hard pretzels are simply fresh pretzels that have been dried out and/or allowed stale (I make that distinction because there’s a difference between dryness and staling). The things we think of as “soft” pretzels are simply bigger versions of standard pretzels, served fresh (or relatively fresh…I’m convinced a lot of the pretzels served off vending carts in New York are days old if not older, and are merely steamed to create the illusion of freshness).

But where was I? Oh yes, hard and soft. Once upon a time, prior to about 100 years ago when fresh bread became all the rage in big cities, most bread was eaten stale. Quite often, rock hard. Though it’s hard for us spoiled moderns to understand, bread has historically been less a foodstuff than a strategy for preserving grain, just as cheese preserves milk, sausage preserves meat and wine preserves fruit. In many places in Europe, especially small and remote villages, bread making was not a daily affair but an annual one. Bread was enjoyed fresh for only a few days each year before it was stored and meted out slowly for the remaining 363 days before the next bake.

All bread making wasn’t like that, of course. In bigger towns it was often a weekly ritual. But you see where I’m going, I think. Bread has been eaten very stale or hard for almost all of its history — ten thousand or so years. Pretzels and crackers are the sole remnants of this time-honored tradition. We served them small so they don’t crack our teeth when we bit down on them. Should you wish to make hard pretzels, you can use the recipe below, though I suggest you make them much smaller — only an ounce or so. Once they’re baked you can simply dry them out over a period of hours in a very low oven.

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