If the only soft pretzels you’ve ever had are the frozen ones from the supermarket, or the ones you overpaid for during a baseball game, then we’ve got news for you: A great soft pretzel is one of the most delicious foods in existence, and these shops, bakeries, and restaurants are serving America’s best.
Pretzels can trace their origins to the Middle Ages, when most historians agree they were invented by European monks as a reward to children who learned their prayers. They were first introduced to North America in the late 1700s, when Palatine German immigrants (who came to be known as the Pennsylvania Dutch) settled in the Pennsylvania countryside and opened pretzel bakeries. In the twentieth century the popularity of pretzels spread to cities like Philadelphia, New York, and Chicago, where they could commonly be found for sale at carts on street corners. Mass production increased their availability, and over time they became the classic and beloved snack they are today.
Making a traditional soft pretzel isn’t as easy as twisting up dough and baking it. While they start with traditional yeast dough, after being shaped they’re briefly boiled in water that’s been mixed with lye before being baked. This alkaline treatment speeds along the Maillard (or browning) reaction, which gives them their traditional dark-brown crust. Like most tasty snacks, soft pretzels have made their way around the world; in Finland they’re called viipurinrinkeli, in the Czech Republic they’re called preclík, and in Poland they’re called precel. But outside the German speaking world, there’s nowhere else where pretzels are more popular than in America.
The art of the soft pretzel is still very much in practice, and like any artisanal bread they’re popular among bakers of all stripes, but they’re especially common in German bakeries. Soft pretzels are a quintessential part of Philadelphia’s cuisine, and the typical Philadelphian consumes about 12 times as many pretzels as the national average. While about 80 percent of the nation’s pretzels are produced in Pennsylvania, the gospel has spread across the country, and truly great pretzels can be found from coast to coast.
In order to assemble our ranking of America’s best soft pretzels, we started by tracking down reviews both in print and online, from professional and amateur reviewers, of pretzels from across the country. These pretzels all needed to be hand-made fresh daily (or throughout the day), and couldn’t rely on gimmicks like being drenched in butter for flavor. From a market in New Jersey to a renowned bakery in the Bay Area, here are the places where you can find America’s best soft pretzels.