For reasons that baffle many, myself included, its damn near impossible to get a good bagel outside of New York City. Maybe Montreal; they get a pass. Some say it’s the water, others say it’s the flour but I think it’s the technique. Making good bagels is complicated, involved and time consuming. You have to develop the proper amount of gluten in the dough and do a long, slow cold rise that sometimes lasts 2 days to develop that distinct flavor and texture. Then the coddled rounds of dough need to be poached in a solution of lightly sweetened water spiked with lye to develop that distinctive crust before a relatively short bake at a high temperature. Sure, bagel shops abound nationwide. Not the same. I find them to be universally bready, lacking in that toothsome chew that makes a bagel great. You can buy them in the bakery section of your local grocery store but they more resemble a dense onion roll. And yes, there they are in the freezer section. Walk away. I was raised on Lender’s and they are an abomination. Unless you live in NY with a bagel shop on the corner (and even those are becoming harder to find these days), there’s only one solution to this conundrum. Make your own. It’s not as difficult as you may think.
I’ve been a little preoccupied with bagels lately, mainly due to Twitter. I have a friend on social media who regularly goes off on some entertaining bagel rants. His main aggravation comes with places that toast the bagel. Some people, probably those with easy access to quality bagels, would never think of freezing, defrosting or god forbid toasting a bagel. Oh the horror! Much to my surprise, toasting is quite controversial. I think this is a lovely ideal to have if you can run down the block and get a new perfect bagel every day. Most of us do not have that luxury. Occasionally, I toast. I do and I will not apologize for it. I will say however, that since I’ve taken up baking my own I’ve come over to the other side, just a little. These bagels are really, really good within a few hours of baking and I wouldn’t think about toasting them. It would ruin the delicious chewiness of it all. So on that point, yes I agree. Toasting is for subpar and slightly stale bagels only. I get it.
So I recommend baking your own but let’s get this straight: making bagels is project. There are a lot of steps but none of them are really overly difficult especially if you have a heavy duty stand mixer. Its time consuming, stretching out over 2, maybe 3, days but most of that is hands-off. Breaking the recipe into steps over a few days makes things a bit easier. You need a few special ingredients, bread flour and barley malt syrup but the first is easily found at your local grocery store and the second can be found at Whole Foods and some specialty stores. If you can’t find barley malt syrup, you can use honey or brown sugar. It’s won’t be as authentic but it works. Many recipes call for diastatic malt powder but I’ve only found that via mail order so I use the syrup instead. You can make the dough by hand with some oomph, strong arms and perseverance or you can use your trusty stand mixer with a little hand kneading at the end. Either way, it’s all very do-able.
So let’s break this down. First you make a sponge, to develop the flavor, and let it sit for a few hours. Then you make the dough, really get in there and knead it, divide it into balls and let it rest for a bit. Then you shape the dough into fat rings, which is sort of like rolling stubborn playdoh. Let them rest for a bit. Then you shove them in the fridge overnight, or even for 2 days. And that’s Day One. Nothing too tough, right?
After a nice, slow, cold rest the bagels are ready to bake the next day or even the day after that. I think this is determined more by how long you can deal with those sheet pans taking up valuable refrigerator real estate. This is the biggest challenge of the recipe: dealing with the fridge space. So when you’re ready (or can’t deal with the damn pans anymore), crank up the oven and boil those suckers. If you’ve made my pretzel rolls, you’re a pro at this part. Bring a nice wide pot of water to a boil, lower to a simmer and dump in some baking soda and barley malt syrup. Then watch it bubble up and overflow all over your stove. I know this and it still happens to me 50% of the time. If you’re smart, which apparently I am only 50% of the time, you’ll reduce the boil to a bare simmer before adding that baking soda. Learn from my mistakes. Please.
Into that nice warm water go your beautiful bagels. 1-2 minutes on one side, flip and another 1-2 minutes on the other. Why the variance? The longer boil makes for a chewier bagel exterior. I’ve found 1 ½ minutes on each side is perfect for me. Then ever so carefully remove that wrinkly dough round, let it drain a bit and plop it in your pan of topping. I have included a recipe for “everything” topping because as far as I’m concerned, those are the only bagels that matter but use whatever you like. Now here’s my thing: I like the seed mixture on the top AND bottom. Why is the bagel top always the best? Because it’s got all the stuff on it. A plain bagel bottom is a bummer. So I give the thing another flip and get a light coat of seeds on the bottom too. Boom.
Onto sheet pans and into a screeching hot oven. A couple of rotations for even baking and the things are done in 15 minutes and in your mouth in 20. Can you beat that? Only if you live blocks away from some choice bagels and if you do, I don’t want to hear about it.
The recipe isn’t mine. Of course not. It’s from Peter Reinhart, the master of all things bready. The man is the godfather of bread. He knows his stuff so why try to reinvent the wheel? He is the one I turn to for all my bread baking needs and you should too. His Wild Rice & Onion Bread, of which I do a rye berry variation, is my everything. I think it is the best bread ever.
Now that you’ve got some kick ass bagels, what should you do with them? First things first, tear into one immediately. I call that The Baker’s Priviledge. If you were smart a few days ago, or even yesterday when you started the dough, you also started some cured salmon, i.e. gravlax. Just so happens I have that recipe here. There is nothing better than a fresh chewy bagel, a smear of cream cheese, some delicious cured fish, red onions and capers. Oh holy moly. I also think bagels make a superior turkey-swiss-avocado sandwich. I do.
This recipe makes about 16 regular sized bagels but you can vary this and make smaller ones, probably about 24 baby bagels. The easiest way to do this is weigh the dough and divide it by how many bagels you want to determine your dough weight per bagel. If that’s too much for you to deal with, make a ½ recipe. I’ve even made as few as four bagels (¼ recipe) and it works just fine. As for leftovers, I’d recommend scaling down the recipe to make what you need rather than freezing the leftovers but you will have to find your own way on this hot topic.
STRESS THERAPY BAKING FACTOR: DOUBLE HUZZAH! Even if you bake bread all the time, this one is special. Because really, who do you know who makes their own bagels? Am I right? When I get my butt in gear, I’m inviting a whole slew of friends over for brunch – the whole spread. Bagels, gravlax, all the fixing’s, mimosas. And a platter of bacon. Because what’s a brunch without a giant platter or cured pork products? But that’s another story for another time. We’re talking bagels here. Big, beautiful, seedy bagels that scream for a schmear of cream cheese.
other savory yeast bread recipes, from Peter Reinhart and others: Pretzel Rolls (my most popular recipe), Strecca di Nonna (stick bread), Classic White Sandwich Bread, Onion Rye Berry Bread (my favorite), Breaking Bread with Emmanuel Hadjiandreou, Easy No Knead Olive Bread, Multigrain Bread, Cheddar Monkey Bread
Seven years ago: Khachpuri (cheesy Georgian breads)
Six years ago: Irish Soda Bread
Five years ago: Fresh Homemade Paczki
Four years ago: Irish Oatmeal Pudding
Three years ago: Whiskey Cakes
Two years ago: Guinness Chicken & Mushroom Boxty
Last year: Flourless Chocolate Cookies
EVERYTHING BAGELS – from Peter Reinhart’s The Bread Baker’s Apprentice
Makes 16 regular sized bagels but the recipe can be easily halved if 16 bagels are too much for you to deal with.
for the sponge:
1 teaspoon instant yeast
4 cups unbleached high-gluten or bread flour
2 ½ cups water, room temperature
for the dough:
½ teaspoon instant yeast
3 ¾ cups unbleached high-gluten or bread flour
2 ¾ teaspoons kosher salt
1 Tablespoon barley malt syrup (or honey or light brown sugar)
1 Tablespoon baking soda
2 Tablespoons barley malt syrup (or honey or light brown sugar)
Fine cornmeal for dusting the sheet pans
for the everything bagel topping: (enough to top/bottom 16 bagels)
8 teaspoons poppy seeds
8 teaspoons sesame seeds
4 teaspoons caraway seeds
4 teaspoons dried onion (minced or flaked, rehydrated in 1 Tablespoon water)
4 teaspoons dried garlic (minced or flaked, rehydrated in 1 Tablespoon water)
1 Tablespoon kosher salt (or pretzel salt if you have it)
- Day 1- the sponge: in the bowl of a standing mixer, combine the yeast and the flour.
- Add the water, stirring to form a smooth, sticky batter (like pancake batter).
- Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let sit at room temperature for 2 hours, or until the mixture becomes very foamy and bubbly. It should nearly double in size and collapse when the bowl is rapped on the counter.
- Day 1 – the dough: to the sponge, add the additional yeast and stir.
- Add 3 cups of the flour and all of the salt and malt syrup.
- With the dough hook, mix on low speed until the ingredients form a ball, slowly working in the remaining ¾ cup flour to stiffen the dough. If the dough appears too dry and shaggy, work in a Tablespoon or two of additional water.
- Transfer the dough to the counter and knead for at least 10 minutes until firm, but still pliable and smooth. All ingredients should be well hydrated. The kneaded dough should feel satiny and pliable but not be tacky. It’s best to do this by hand; not only is it very stress relieving, it’s a bit too stiff for the mixer to handle without straining.
- The dough is ready with enough gluten development when it can pass the windowpane test and registers 71-77° on an instant read thermometer. If the dough seems to dry and rips, add a few drops of water and continue kneading. If the dough seems tacky or sticky, add more flour to achieve the stiffness required.
- Divide the dough into even pieces for as many bagels as you’d like – 4 ounces for standard bagels, or smaller if desired.
- Form the pieces into round rolls and place on a parchment lined sheet pan.
- Cover the rolls with a damp towel and allow to rest for approximately 30 minutes.
- Line 2 sheet pans with baking parchment and mist lightly with cooking spray.
- Day 1 – shaping: shape the bagels using one of two methods, shaping as even as possible so they bake evenly: Method 1: Poke a hole in a ball of bagel dough and gently rotate your thumb around the inside of the hole to widen it to approximately 2 ½” in diameter. Method 2: Roll out the dough into an 8” long rope. (If the dough resists and snaps back, allow it to rest 3-5 minutes.) Form the rope into a ring, overlapping the ends by several inches. Place your hand in the center with the seam on the counter, rocking back and forth to seal.
- Place each of the shaped bagels 2” apart on the prepared pans
- Mist the bagels very lightly with cooking spray and cover each pan loosely with plastic wrap.
- Let the pans sit at room temperature for about 30 minutes.
- Day 1 – retarding the dough: Check to see if the bagels are ready to be retarded in the refrigerator by using the “float test”. The bagels are ready to be retarded when they float within 10 seconds of being dropped into water.
- Fill a small bowl with cool water.
- Take one bagel and place in the water. If it floats, immediately return the bagel to the pan, pat it dry, cover the pan with plastic wrap, and place it in the refrigerator overnight (it can stay in the refrigerator for up to 2 days).
- If the bagel does not float, return it to the pan and continue to proof the dough at room temperature, checking back every 10-20 minutes or so until a tester floats.
- The rise time needed to accomplish the float will vary, depending on the room temperature and the stiffness of the dough.
- Day 2 – the topping: The following day (or the third day if you’ve left them in the fridge for two days) combine all the topping ingredients In a pie pan or shallow dish wide enough to contain your bagel. Set aside until needed.
- Day 2 – the boil: preheat the oven to 500°F with the two racks set in the middle of the oven.
- Bring a large pot of water to a boil (the wider the pot the better), and add the baking soda and barley malt syrup. Have a slotted spoon or skimmer nearby. I use a two-tool flip method – lightly scoop with the spider and help flip with a slotted spoon. I find my trusty fish spatula immensely helpful for this.
- Remove the bagels from the refrigerator and gently drop them into the water, top side up, boiling only as many as comfortably fit (they should float within 10 seconds). It takes a while but I often find it easiest to manage one bagel at a time. Proceed as you’re comfortable and the pot will allow.
- After 1-2 minutes gently flip and boil for another 1-2 minutes.
- While the bagels are boiling, prepare the sheet pans with a piece of parchment paper lightly sprayed with cooking spray and sprinkled with fine cornmeal.
- After boiling, drain the bagel well with the spider then place in the topping pan, top side down. Give the pan a gentle shake to help the seeds adhere.
- If you like topping on the both sides of the bagel, gently flip the bagel to get a light coat of topping on the bottom.
- Place the bagel on the prepared sheet pan, top side up, with about 2” between bagels.
- When all the bagels have been boiled and topped, place the pans on the 2 middle shelves in the oven.
- Bake for approximately 5 minutes, then rotate the pans top to bottom and front to back for an even bake.
- Lower the oven to 450°F and continue baking for about 5 minutes.
- Rotate and bake for another 3-5 minutes until light golden brown. You may bake them darker if you prefer.
- Remove the pans from the oven and let the bagels cool on a rack for 15 minutes or longer before serving.
- Bagels are best the day they are made. Depending on where you’re from and whom you talk to, they can either be frozen for longer storage or not. I’ll leave that decision up to you.