Soft, salty, and downright delicious, pretzels are a popular snack in the United States, a standard at movie theaters and sports stadiums, often dipped into thick, yellow cheese. For many, a big doughy pretzel purchased on a street corner is part of the quintessential New York experience; others will forever associate pretzels—slathered in butter or dusted with cinnamon-sugar—with a trip to the mall thanks to Auntie Anne’s.
The roots of the pretzel, however, lie across the Atlantic ocean in Southern Germany, where their history is rich, their serving options are seemingly endless, and the traditions surrounding them are deeply ingrained in the culture and cuisine.
Ursula Heinzelmann, Berlin-born food and wine writer and author of “Beyond Bratwurst, A History of Food in Germany,” explains that pretzels arrived in the U.S. along with “the enormous influx of ethnic German emigrants during the course of the 19th century. They brought everything with them that they knew.”
Today, she explains, the salty snack’s ubiquity on the streets of American cities such as New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago goes back to the strong German presence that’s been around since the 1820s. Thanks to industrialization, soft pretzel production spread quickly across the U.S., small, crunchy pretzels were invented, and they both became readily available in convenience stores and movie theaters throughout the country, just as they are today.
Back in Germany, however, the crusty, doughy pretzel is an integral part of daily life, whether it’s picked up at a bakery for breakfast or lunch or enjoyed at leisure with a beer. Since their invention in the early Middle Ages—the pretzel’s earliest known use as a baker’s coat of arms was in the year 1111—production has evolved from small scale bakers selling handmade goods on the streets to the enormous, machine-led factory operations that ensure pretzels can be obtained all over the country, day or night.
The true origins of Germany’s pretzels remain a mystery, though they do seem to have evolved from a ring-shaped Christian fasting dish that existed in Roman times. Do the three holes created by the twisted dough symbolize the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, or represent arms crossed across a believer’s chest in prayer? Were the loops inspired by the impatiently folded arms of a baker’s wife as her husband desperately attempted to invent a cake? Or are the twists and loops simply a convenient shape for hanging on a baker’s pole?
Classic soft German pretzels are traditionally made with wheat flour, malt, salt, baker’s yeast, water, and varying quantities of fat (usually vegetable fat) but occasionally butter or even lard. The dough is rolled into a long strand, pulled outwards so that it tapers at the ends, and then, using impressive-looking techniques that involve twisting and jerking both ends of the dough at 180 degrees, the two ends are pressed together to create the iconic knotted pretzel form. Making pretzels by hand is a dying craft, however, and in most bakeries today, looping machines have taken over the job.
Though they originated in southern Germany (as well as across its borders in Austria, Alsace and German-speaking Switzerland), pretzel production crept north of what Heinzelmann calls the Pretzel Belt, roughly halfway up the country, again thanks to industrialization. Today, soft pretzels are omnipresent across Germany, though “they are rarely handmade by traditional bakers in the North and more likely to be found in bakery chains or supermarkets,” she explains.
In the south of Germany, pretzels have traditionally been made in two main styles. In Swabia, an undefined region in the southwest of the country, they tend towards spindly, crispy arms, a crunchy knot and a fat dense body that is slashed on top with a knife. In the state of Bavaria, pretzels are more evenly formed and soft all over, with arms just about as thick as their belly. Before baking, however, they are all dipped in lye, a sodium hydroxide solution that gives them their glossy, chestnut brown crust and unmistakable alkali flavor.
Pretzels are usually sprinkled heavily with coarse grains of salt before they head into the oven, but poppy, pumpkin, sesame, and sunflower seeds are all common alternatives (and there’s nothing quite like a pretzel that’s been baked covered in Emmental cheese!). In Bavaria’s Upper Franconia region, aniseed is also popular; in other parts of the state, weisse brezeln (“white pretzels”), untreated with lye, are strewn with caraway and salt.
One of Germany’s best known dishes is arguably Bavaria’s much-loved second breakfast: a soft pretzel accompanied by weißwurst (a white pork and veal sausage flecked with parsley and flavored with lemon, onion, and spices), sweet mustard, and a tall glass of wheat beer. In Bavaria’s world-famous beer gardens, pretzels are also enjoyed with obatzda, a strong, cheesy dip made with butter, hot paprika, and Camembert. Frankfurt is home to a milder, creamier version known as schneegestöber, also enjoyed with pretzels and glasses of sour flat apple cider named apfelwein. Swabians use the fat belly of a pretzel as a pocket, slicing all the way through to create a slightly precarious sandwich stuffed with all manner of fillings, from smoked salmon, ham or cheese to a thick layer of yellow butter with finely chopped chives. In Germany’s west-central Palatinate region, an area known for its very large, rustic plates of meat, pretzel fillings also include sliced blood sausage, liver sausage, and head cheese.
For those with a sweet tooth, the options don’t end here. Pretzels made with yeast dough are traditionally baked in Swabia on Palm Sunday and in other parts of western Germany, made in celebration of St. Martin’s Day. They’re sprinkled liberally with sugar crystals. In some parts of Germany, large, braided pretzels are baked to bring luck for the New Year: Created from a sweet milk or yeast dough, they’re scattered with almond flakes or glazed with sugar instead of being dipped in lye. Head to the Rhineland, to the west of the country and the holes of sweet pretzels are often filled with set yellow custard.
Pretzels do go stale very quickly, but there are various delicious solutions should your savory baked goods dry out. Traditional options include pretzel soup from the Palatinate region, a blend of veal stock, chopped vegetables, herbs, wine and cream, and garnished with pretzel croutons. More modern ideas include blitzing day-old pretzels into salty breadcrumbs or coarser chunks that can go into stuffing for festive roasts. To make pretzel dumplings, soak small pieces in milk and stir in sauteéd onions, chopped herbs, and seasonings before shaping the mixture into plump, round balls. Cook them gently in salted boiling water before browning the dumplings in butter, and serve with a creamy mushroom sauce.
Soup and dumplings might not work quite so well as a Superbowl snack, but they’d make a wonderful nod to the pretzel’s European origins as part of a savory German feast.