Admit it: When movie theater lights go down, nothing beats the taste and texture of a hot pretzel dipped in your choice of creamy cheese or spicy mustard. Even popcorn takes a back seat to pretzels, which have undergone a metamorphosis similar to that of the once-nondescript bagel. You'll now find pretzels stuffed with cheese, flavored with jalapeño and infused with so many exotic, color-lending spices, they resemble doughnuts on display. Flavor experimentation notwithstanding, pretzel-making has evolved from handcrafting to machine production, a fitting tribute to the twisty treat that has become so popular around the world that everyone speaks the language of pretzel.
Credit for inventing the pretzel has gone to several sources. Germany and the Alsatian region of France are the top two contenders, and archaeological evidence points to the origin of pretzels circa 600 A.D. Regardless of country of origin, there's no dispute about who invented pretzels. Monks, seeking ways to use up bits and pieces of dough leftover after loaves of bread had been slipped into hearths, began using the scraps to emulate the shape of a child with arms folded in prayer. Since that ancient era, pretzels have moved from religious symbols to yummy snack favorites at entertainment and sporting events.
Why Invent a Pretzel Machine?
Finding ways to replicate a consistent shape and size when making pretzels has been an elusive quest. Early attempts to twist dough shapes into snacks for friends and family resulted in weird sizes and shapes, but since uniformity was of no concern years ago, the issue wasn't problematic. When the art of pretzel-making moved from kitchen to mass production, the usual requirements of business came into play. Mass-producing pretzels demanded uniformity, so recipes could be analyzed for cost and quantities of the finished goods could be properly priced. Additionally, quality control became an important criteria for both producers and consumers. The end result was streamlining the process to account for ingredients, time and labor.
First Pretzel Machines
Early patents filed for pretzel machines describe rudimentary engineering that couldn't guarantee uniform or even classic pretzel shapes. Though each new invention turned out to be an improvement over the last, perfection remained elusive. Some mixed. Others folded. Still other gadgets prepped dough for baking or moved pretzels into ovens. Research shows others that moved so awkwardly -- even with persistent oiling -- that pretzel shapes were downright strange-looking. To add to the dilemma, when multi-purpose machines finally came along, they were too bulky and awkward to fit into finite amounts of factory space. As a result, the all-in-one pretzel machine remained the dream of pretzel producers. It wasn't until the 1970s that machines capable of multi-tasking in a reasonable amount of floor space came onto the market.
Today's Pretzel Machine
Read the volumes of data submitted in pursuit of U.S. Patent #6,276,919, and your head will spin. Today's pretzel machine is a complex piece of equipment that does the job at warp speed, pushing dough through a mechanized process that forms shapes, moves them to a folding table, then employs mechanical fingers to twist the dough into the familiar shape we know and love. Pretzel machine mechanics transfer the dough using a "lift and rotate" motion before each is bathed in a soda spray and salted. Next, the pretzels travel to ovens on a conveyor belt. Inventors Fred and Barbara Jensen of Chagrin Falls, Ohio, and John Avalon of Middlefield, Ohio, are the geniuses behind the contemporary pretzel machine concept.
How Today's Machines Replicate Hand-Folding
The secret is in the bi-directional motion of the machinery, in combination with a bi-directional positioning stage. The precision with which this takes place is particularly striking when compared to old machines. Gears and levers move gracefully to accomplish the twisting and rolling task. The process is so gentle, the pretzel doesn't lose its shape, even when bathed in a soda water spray and covered in salt. Perhaps the most attractive aspect of this combination of features is that each attachment coming into contact with the dough allows mechanics to remove, sterilize and clean individual parts, adding an extra measure of safety to the process of producing today's pretzel.
Machines That Keep Pretzels Warm
Given the general nature of baked pretzels and the effort involved in getting them into the hands of consumers, it would be anticlimactic to suggest that once pretzels come off the production line and head for the ovens that's the end of the story. The fact is, demand for hot, soft pretzels rivals the desire for those found bagged on grocery store shelves. To satisfy cravings at sporting events and entertainment venues, the next pretzel machine to come along was the on-site baker/warmer. Depending on the style, a pretzel-warming unit can bake completely frozen pretzels, complete the baking process for half-baked pretzels, or simply warm up pre-baked pretzels. Whichever method is employed, the pretzel warmer adds a bit of show biz to the final product as these centuries-old biscuits go on display until each is handpicked by one of the millions of pretzel lovers across the globe.