To bolster capacity, pretzel makers now can use ovens that are more than 150 ft long followed by a dry kiln of equal or shorter length largely due to improvements in extrusion technology.

When it comes to the book on pretzels, the latest chapter involves much more than a twist and a turn of the conventional plot, and its growing cast of characters includes much more than the reliable standard-bearers of rods, sticks, minis, thins and the classic pretzel loop.

Just look at how Snyder’s-Lance, Charlotte, NC, is rewriting the storyline on this centuries-old Bavarian icon. Three new products under its category-leading Snyder’s of Hanover brand take a novel approach to engaging a broader audience.

The company’s S’mores flavored Sweet & Salty Pretzel Pieces combine crunchy sourdough pretzels with marshmallow and chocolate flavors to compete in the confectionery segment. Looking for a healthy halo that goes beyond promoting pretzels as simply the low-fat baked alternative in the salted snack aisle? The snack manufacturer promotes its new Snyder’s of Hanover filled pretzel with real creamy peanut butter that packs 4 g protein per serving. And for those consumers searching for a less guilty pleasure, Snyder’s of Hanover now offers 50% Less Fat Pretzel Pieces in such bold flavors as Everything and Zesty Ranch, imparting savory satisfaction as well.

However, redefining a historically rooted snack icon through innovation isn’t easy. In addition to investing in marketing insights that define the latest consumer trends, creating new products requires technical knowhow to think outside the bag, according to John Eshelman, director, pretzel and bread snack machinery sales, Reading Bakery Systems (RBS).

“Some of the newer pretzel varieties such as shells, flat pretzel crisps, filled products and seasoned broken pretzels have captured good market share over the last several years and continue to do well in a relatively flat pretzel segment,” he observed. “However, a higher degree of processing expertise, as well as specialized equipment, is required to make these products consistently on a day-by-day basis. Everything from dough mixing right on through the baking and drying process needs to be just right to produce quality and consistent products.”

Typically, most snack producers rely on extrusion to efficiently produce traditional pretzel sticks or knots, noted James Outram, senior applications technologist, Haas-Meincke. That said, exploring alternative processing methods can result in the development of different shaped or multi-textured items.

“The use of other forming equipment has opened up huge new possibilities,” Mr. Outram said. “The pretzel cracker results from applying cracker-forming equipment, using gauging rolls to make a very thin dough sheet and then a rotary cutter to create the shape. The rotary cutter allows more intricate shapes and textured surfaces.”

In Europe, he pointed out, one clear trend involves making premium baked snacks that pass through a lye bath — part of the traditional process that gives pretzel skins their signature color, shine and texture — but not marketing them as pretzels. “In this way, the product is not constrained by the limitations of the pretzel category and can compete against other high-value snacks,” he said.

Another path to innovation involves combining various technologies to redefine how consumers perceive the pretzel category as a whole. Mr. Eshelman suggested that RBS’s low-pressure extruder, for example, may be fitted with optional equipment such as filling systems to produce peanut butter, cheese, fruit/jam and chocolate filled products. “It is also possible to add a braid head attachment with rotating nozzle technology to make unique products such as honey wheat braids,” he said.

Mr. Outram observed that depositors can also provide three-dimensional shapes like cones and swirls. While pretzels are topped with sprinkling salt or seeds, he said adding inclusions such as chocolate chips, caramel pieces, nuts, dried tomatoes or olives during the mixing phase allows manufacturers to create new line extensions that can easily diversify their product portfolio.

“We have seen gluten-free, but why not look at different grains or starches to explore the textural and flavor possibilities?” Mr. Outram asked. “How would a pretzel taste if you included some potato or cassava starch?”

Automatic pretzel twisters eliminate manual labor and increase throughput at speeds of 2,000 pieces per hour.

Softer side of pretzels

In April, J&J Snack Foods celebrated National Soft Pretzel Day by introducing SuperPretzel Multigrain Soft Pretzels. The new soft pretzel, which features 6 g protein and 11 g whole grains per serving, is the latest foray by the Pennsauken, NJ, category leader that reportedly produces around 1 billion soft pretzels.

For decades, J&J Snack Foods has supplied its signature soft pretzels not only to the retail freezer case but also to every form of foodservice channel imaginable, including sports stadiums, amusement parts, movie theaters, restaurants, schools, convenience stores and more.

During the past five years, however, the popularity of soft pretzels has opened the door to other small- to mid-sized bakers such as Milwaukee-based Miller Baking Co., which developed craft-inspired Pretzilla buns and bites. Artisan baker Labriola Baking, Alsip, IL, offers more than a dozen varieties of pretzel breads and rolls, including baguettes, batards, sliders and even the hybrid pretzel-croissants.

“Pretzels have been around a long time, but they continue to be a growing category,” noted John Giacoio, national sales director, Rheon USA.

In fact, he added, pretzels are now much more than a snack. They’re an integral part of many restaurant menus and meal solutions offered at supermarket in-store bakery/delis across the nation. According to recent reports by Technomic, which tracks trends in the foodservice industry, pretzels enhance value and provide a premium point of differentiation — not only on sandwiches and hamburgers but also as popular appetizers in the form of bites and twists mixed with a variety of dips. Several national pizza chains also offer pretzel crusts on their menus.

Advances in forming technology have allowed bakers to keep up with demand and new players to enter this increasingly lucrative market, according to Matt Zielsdorf, president, Fritsch USA. “Fritsch offers hundreds of different toolings to produce different sizes and shapes of pretzel products,” he said. “A Fritsch Impressa Pretzel line can also produce pretzel sticks and buns by bypassing the line’s robots that do the twisting. At this time, there is a push for pretzel knots. Fritsch showed new knot system at the 2015 iba show in Munich, Germany, and will feature its latest twisting systems at the International Baking Industry Exposition (IBIE), which runs from Oct. 8-11 in Las Vegas.

“The biggest challenge bakers face in producing consistent pretzels is non-automation,” Mr. Zielsdorf said. “When bakeries employ people to hand-twist pretzels, they lack consistency and open themselves up for carpal tunnel injuries.”

The company’s MultiTwist line comes with automatic twisters that can crank out more than 2,000 pieces an hour. Additional moulding systems, twister robots and panning systems can be added side-by-side to boost production to 4,000, 6,000, 8,000 or more pieces an hour. “As long as the bakery has the space, the mixing and oven capacity, and the properly sized divider, rounder and pre-proofing system, extra twisters can be added without too much trouble,” Mr. Zielsdorf said.

For decades, bakers have relied on Rheon’s co-extrusion systems to produce a variety of soft pretzel sticks, bites and twists with smooth or soft fillings such as cream cheese, peanut butter, pepperoni pizza sauce and others. However, more recently, Mr. Giacoio noted Rheon offers triple extrusion and solid piece fillings that can be encrusted in dough to provide grab-and-go meal solutions. At the last IBIE, Rheon featured a whole hot dog and mustard snack wrapped in dough.

Food manufacturers can also customize fillings to create regional favorites such as a Philly cheesesteak pretzel or even something as exotic as a Scotch egg pretzel in some global markets using Rheon’s solid feeder. “We’re seeing a lot of pretzel sandwiches with a number of fillings,” he said.

Mr. Giacoio pointed out the key is to use lower moisture or more viscous fillings. With too much moisture, the fillings tend to generate steam that might result in rupturing the pretzel casing during the baking process. The company provides extensive testing at its research laboratories in Irvine, CA, and Teterboro, NJ.

Co-extrusion and encrusting machines allow bakers to make a variety of soft pretzels filled with cheese, peanut butter and even pizza sauce.

The shape of tomorrow

While mixing and forming create an opportunity to develop a wealth of new products, snack manufacturers might also look at the lye bath. Applying the hot, alkaline coating to just one side of dough pieces can create a multi-textured snack with the crunch of a pretzel on one side plus the softer bite of a cracker on the flipside, according to Mr. Outram.

In some cases, he said, a little ingenuity during processing can result in a totally different snacking experience for consumers. “I can imagine a rotary moulded or deposited pretzel base with a three-dimensional surface where only the raised parts of the design get the lye applied to create a more visually interesting product,” Mr. Outram added.

Processing pretzels requires precision, especially when it comes to lye application, noted Mark Allsopp, WP Riehle product specialist, WP Bakery Group USA. “Do not cut corners. The processing has to be reliable and repetitive,” he advised. “With lye machines, use hard untreated water. Keep the process as clean as possible, avoid excess use of flour or corn flour, and keep away from any egg-wash stations.

“Retard the pretzel dough before the lye application,” he continued. “When you are ready for the lye, take the products out of the retarder 10 to 15 minutes before processing. This creates a skin on the product allowing the lye to do its work. Bake the pretzel products directly after the lye application. The result, when done properly, is a shiny brown finish on the pretzel, time and time again.”

For those bakers who use peelboards, the company featured peelboard loading of the WP Riehle Allround lye application system at iba 2015 in Germany. The system automatically removes pretzel pieces from 18- by 24-in. plastic peelboards and sends them through the lye shower and curtain system at rates up to 400 trays per hour, according to Patricia Kennedy, president, WP Bakery Group USA. After loading the pieces, the peelboards drop down into a container so they remain dry and free from lye.

“Lye application machines are very versatile and can handle various shapes, sizes and product heights,” Ms. Kennedy said. “A special high-shower version of the WP Riehle lye application machines has been introduced to help cope with the increasing variety of new products.”

Pretzel processors can turn out high-quality pretzels at higher hourly throughput rates partly because today’s more advanced extrusion technology efficiencies impart less stress into the dough and because of high-speed cutting technology. Twenty years ago, Mr. Eshelman noted, most pretzel ovens were less than 100 ft long because of limitations in extrusion and cutting rates. Now, largely due to improvements in extrusion technology, he explained, pretzel processors use ovens that are more than 150 ft long followed by a dry kiln of equal or shorter length.  

With more creative processing applications and greater throughput, the new challenge involves maintaining product quality and ensuring consistency. “Most bakers have a tendency to evaluate a product quality issue out of the oven and subsequently change settings for a problem that may have actually originated in an earlier part of the process,” Mr. Eshelman pointed out. “Computerized controls, for the most part, eliminate these kinds of problems.”

It doesn’t matter if the pretzels are hard or soft. Redefining the snacking experience through innovative processing will ultimately determine the next chapter for growth in the years to come.