Don't get it twisted: Chocolate may have landed Hersheypark on the map, but the sprawling theme park in the rolling hills of Pennsylvania dishes out some of the very best soft pretzels you'll ever find. And, as a nod to the pretzel's origins mere miles away, these hand-braided delights are made using a traditional Pennsylvania Dutch recipe that results in a buttery finish to every pillowy bite.
Pretzels first arrived in the U.S. with European settlers who forged a new life in Pennsylvania, but it was Julius Sturgis who made the carb-forward snack widely known. The passionate entrepreneur founded the very first U.S. commercial pretzel bakery in Lititz, Pa., in 1861. Still in operation to this day, the family-run business welcomes guests to tour the historic factory, try their hand at twisting up their very own pretzel and enjoy freshly baked on-site soft pretzels.
"Five generations of the Sturgis family have worked in the business and are still going strong," Kurt Van Gilden, general manager of the Julius Sturgis Pretzel Bakery, tells Yahoo Life. "The building is filled with history and so are the pretzels. In this ever-changing world, it's not often that traditions are kept alive, but tradition and history are alive and well at Julius Sturgis Pretzel Bakery."
Those values are also the centerpiece of Hersheypark, the central Pennsylvania theme park that first opened in 1906 and was the brainchild of Milton Hershey, the chocolate giant who redefined what a factory town could and should be. Dubbed "the sweetest place on Earth," the family-friendly park is now home to dozens of attractions, including some of the best roller coasters in the country, but they haven't forgotten their humble roots.
While you can find theme park food staples, like hot dogs and burgers, inside the park, local food culture is also integrated into its menus across the property. In addition to soft pretzels, whoopie pies from the park's Makin' Whoopie Pies bakery were invented in nearby Amish country during the early 20th century. This sweet treat is offered in next-level versions that are customizable and made to order, with inventive flavors like red velvet and confetti.
"When people visit Hersheypark, we want to showcase not just the best of chocolate, both savory and sweet, but also of central Pennsylvania — where Milton Hershey chose to build his factory and community given its beautiful location and farming roots," Quinn Bryner, direct of public relations for Hershey Entertainment and Resorts shares. "Many of our food locations try to honor the cultural heritage of the central Pennsylvania region, from using 100% local dairy in ice cream at Milton's [to serving] hand-rolled pretzels and Whoopie Pies in the tradition of the Pennsylvania Dutch and comfort food recipes from the German and Polish immigrants who first settled in Pennsylvania. Farm-to-table is alive and well at Hersheypark."
The soft pretzel was first introduced as a snack offering inside the Hersheypark Arena, mere steps from the park, in 1998. After four years of rapidly-growing sales, the pretzel made its debut inside Hersheypark in 2002. Now, two twist-serving locations exist at the theme park, the Pretzel House food kiosk and Milton's Ice Cream Parlor, part of the park's recent $150-million expansion, Chocolatetown.
Impressively, every pretzel sold at Hersheypark is made by hand, from small batches of dough and with just 6 simple ingredients: all-purpose flour, bread flour, brown sugar, white sugar, salt and butter.
As a lover of theme park treats who visits Hersheypark often, I prefer the classic original pretzel for its buttery goodness. Still, the tasty treats come in a variety of flavors like jalapeño, cinnamon raisin and chocolate chip. They're also available with dipping sauces like sweet mustard or vanilla icing. And, different versions of pretzels can now be found throughout the property, like a pretzel charcuterie board and a Bavarian-style pretzel with beer cheese and hot fudge.
Even with the varieties of pretzel goodness offered, the traditional version of Hersheypark soft pretzel remains ever-popular: During the 2021 season alone, Hersheypark sold more than 150,000 hand-twisted pretzels inside their gates.
Ready to knead, roll and twist? Yahoo Life consulted with a leading pretzel baker, who prefers to remain anonymous, to develop an at-home recipe for soft pretzels that mimics the ones found at Hersheypark.
Copycat Hersheypark Soft Pretzel Recipe
Yields 10 pretzels
1.75 cups bread flour
4 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/8 cup white sugar
1 teaspoon table salt
2 teaspoons yeast
2 cups warm water
Separately combine 1/4 cup baking soda with 3 1/2 cups water and mix together
1. Begin with the warm water (100-110 degrees is ideal) and yeast and mix in your mixing bowl. Allow the yeast to activate for a minute or two.
2. Add all other ingredients and, using a dough hook, mix until a dough ball forms. This should take about five minutes. If your dough ball is too tacky, add a small amount of extra all-purpose flour. If it's too dry, add a small amount of extra water.
3. Remove the dough ball, set it in a bowl lightly greased with cooking spray and cover with plastic wrap. Let the dough ball proof (rise) for 30-45 minutes.
4. Using a pizza cutter wheel, slice off a "rope" of the dough. This rope should be approximately 1/10 of the initial dough ball. Think of making 10 pretzels of equal size from the dough ball.
5. Using both hands, roll this dough piece back and forth to expand and stretch the rope. Your goal should be to have a finished rope that is ¾ to 1 inch in diameter and 32 inches long.
6. Twist the rope into a pretzel shape.
7. Quickly dunk the pretzel in the baking soda and water mixture and place it on a flat pan fitted with a silicone baking sheet.
8. You may at this point decide to have your pretzel proof a little longer.
9. Commercially-baked pretzels are typically cooked at higher temperatures that can't be achieved with an at-home oven. For the at-home recipe, bake pretzels for six minutes at 450 F, rotating once during the baking process.
10. Remove pretzels from the oven and brush them with butter. If desired, sprinkle cinnamon sugar or pretzel salt on top. Suggested dough add-ins: raisin, jalapeño, chocolate chips, garlic salt.
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