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The two main kinds of pretzels are soft and hard. Soft ones are often served with mustard or dips, while hard pretzels are more likely to be eaten plain. Both types are popular, and usually quite inexpensive, snacks. They are baked rather than fried, but they are high in sodium, and soft pretzels are often brushed with butter before salt and flavorings are added.
The soft pretzel was the first type invented. An Italian monk in 610 AD formed shapes out of leftover bread dough during Lent and baked the shapes. He had twisted the dough to represent hands folded in prayer. These bread treats were called pretiola, Latin for "small reward."
Pretzels became popular throughout Europe and are especially associated with Austrian bakeries and Bavaria. In Bavaria, they are called bretzels, brezn, or brezl, and are traditionally served for breakfast with weisswurst, which is German white sausage. Hard sticks called satzstangen are also available in Germany.
Soft pretzels today are usually in the classic twisted shape, but are available in many different flavors. Both sweet varieties, such as cinnamon and sugar, and savory varieties, such as garlic and Italian seasonings, are popular. Savory or plain ones may be accompanied by mustard, or honey mustard dip or cheese or barbecue sauce dips. The dough is also often versatile enough to be used as pizza dough.
The hard pretzel was invented by accident in the 17th century. A baker's helper was asleep on the job while his batch of pretzels was over-baking in the fire. The baker was going to throw the batch that his apprentice had ruined out, but tasted one and was surprised by how good the crunchier pretzels were. This hard type became popular for its crunch and for the fact that it stayed fresher much longer than the soft pretzel.
Hard pretzels today are available in many variations of the classic twist as well as the stick shape. Twists are regular-sized or miniature, while sticks are thinner and more common than the thicker pretzel rods. Ring-shaped hard pretzels are also sometimes sold today. Some people like to eat hard ones with vanilla ice cream, while serving them with beer is a more well-known combination.
Specialty types of hard pretzels found today include yogurt-dipped and chocolate-dipped varieties. In addition to butter, salt and flavorings, soft pretzels may also feature seeds such as sesame or poppy sprinkled on top. Both types may also be available made with organic flour, or even organic whole wheat flour.