It must be something in the water. Perhaps it’s something in the air. Surely, there’s some secret ingredient that separates true bagels from merely ring-shaped buns. What else could explain the mystique behind “authentic” New York bagels, impossible to replicate beyond city borders? Defined more by texture than flavor, burnished crusts lacquered with any variety of seeds and salt give way to distinctive density and chew that enthusiasts laud. A quick dip in a boiling vat of malt-enriched alkaline water is the key factor that makes a bagel more than mere bread, much like soft pretzels.
Simple enough in concept, but intimidating in execution. Traditional recipes call for lye, in all its caustic glory, which is threatening enough to send me straight to the bakery, rather than the kitchen. Bagels were longtime residents on my list of baking goals, growing longer and less likely to be accomplished with every passing year. That was until I joined forces with chef Philip Gelb and lucked into one of his infamous bagel baking classes.
Demystifying the yeasted rings with a no-nonsense approach that anyone with even a passing culinary curiosity could happily jump right into, all fears of failure evaporated along with the rising steam.
Baking soda stands in for the deadly lye, reducing the risk of severe bodily harm right off the bat. Believe it or not, all the rest is fairly standard procedure; a vigorous mixing, resting and rising, shaping, and baking are all that separate you from savory satisfaction. No satanic incantations, obscure tinctures, nor acts of God need apply.
Bagels can take shape either by punching out the centers with a quick jab of the fingers, or rolled into snakes and connected at the ends. Personally, I prefer to poke out the middles as there’s less danger of them coming undone in the bubbling water bath.
Though technically optional, it’s hard to beat the classic “everything” topping, a melange that can include almost a full shelf out of the average pantry, which can make up for almost any other shortcomings. Instantly evoking that classic deli flavor, it’s actually the onion flakes that I find most essential to the combination. All else is flexible, but if you’re truly flummoxed by the proper ratios, you can even buy ready-made blends. Such shortcuts are completely acceptable when you go through the trouble of baking the bagels from scratch, if you ask me.
Purists will argue until they’re blue in the face about what makes for the best bagels, but this much I know is true: Nothing beats the ones coming out of your own oven, hot and fresh, just barely cool enough to slice. Such beauty needs no further toasting to perfect (perish the thought!) but a thick schmear of hummus or cream cheese never hurts.
I’m delighted to finally share such a delicious victory today for the 11th annual World Bread Day. After so much agita, it’s a joy to finally take this project off my list of lofty goals, and move it onto the list of everyday staples. Don’t buy into the hype- Or the sad, stale carb bombs sold in most grocery stores. Even if you’re not a bagel-fanatic, baking is believing!
By Chef Philip Gelb of Sound & Savor
1 Teaspoon Active Dry Yeast
4 Tablespoons Rice Malt, Barley Malt, or Agave, Divided
2 Cups Warm Water (105 Degrees Fahrenheit)
1 Teaspoon Salt
2 Cups Whole Wheat Flour
3 Cups All-Purpose Flour
1 Tablespoon Olive Oil
1 1/2 Teaspoons Baking Soda
Dried Garlic, Dried Onion, Sesame Seeds, Poppy Seeds, and/or Coarse Salt (Optional)
In a large bowl, combine the yeast, 1 tablespoon of malt, and the warm water. Let the yeast proof until the surface becomes foamy; about 5 minutes. Whisk in the salt. Add the whole wheat flour and 2 cups of the all-purpose flour, stirring with a wooden spoon until incorporated.
Place the dough on a sturdy, clean surface and slowly work in the rest of the all-purpose flour. Knead for 10 minutes or until smooth and elastic. Coat the dough with olive oil, place in a bowl, and cover tightly with a clean dish towel.
Let rise until the dough has doubled in volume; about 1 hour, though time may vary greatly due to temperature and altitude.
After the dough has doubled, knead it lightly for 1 minute. Divide the dough into 12 equal parts. Roll each piece into log and then fold it into a circle, firmly pressing the seam together. Place each bagel on a lightly floured surface, cover with a clean towel, and let rise until doubled; about 1 hour.
Meanwhile, preheat your oven to 500 degrees and place a baking stone inside, if using. Otherwise, the bagels can be baked on a standard sheet pan. In a large pot, bring 3 quarts of water to a boil and add the baking soda along with the remaining 3 tablespoons of malt. The baking soda is necessary to properly texture and brown the bagels.
After the bagels finish their second rise, boil each bagel for 1 minute on each side, keeping the water at a consistent, rapid boil.
Now your bagels are ready to bake. If you want, you can top them with any or all of the seasonings your heart desires, patting them gently into the top to make sure they adhere. Transfer carefully to your baking stone or sheet pan, and bake for about 15 minutes.
The bagels are best served within 15 minutes of emerging from the oven!
Makes 12 Bagels