The bagel, like the cheesesteak, is a food that has such fanatical regional loyalty that I’m pretty cautious to claim that I can make them. Many would say that the only truly great bagels are from Jewish bakeries in New York city — made with New York water, boiled in lye, and served with your topping of choice.
I’m not from New York, and have never worked at Jewish bakery, but I like to think my taste in bagels is up to judging my own work. Forget the soft, roll-like version in the bread aisle, or the dense and boring bagels from the frozen section. Great bagels are fresh, flavorful, and beautifully chewy, with a golden, almost rubbery-in-a-good-way crust.
I searched around for consensus on the best way to reproduce this wonderful bread at home, and landed eventually on a recipe from one of my favorite books, Bread Baker’s Apprentice by Peter Reinhart. The recipe below is based pretty strongly on his, and I can attest to the results.
The keys to creating a great bagel at home are:
- Firm, almost “dry” dough (not sticky at all)
- An alkaline water bath boil before baking (hence the baking soda)
Beyond that — like all bread, bagels do well if you take time and care to let their flavor develop. The method I’m writing lets them proof in the fridge overnight so the flour has time to release flavor before the yeast goes nuts. It also means that if your fridge is cool enough, you can bake them really whenever your schedule allows the next day. The last time I baked them, I waited almost 24 hours before getting them back out of the fridge to boil and bake. Try it and see what works.
When you knead your dough, it will perpetually feel like you can’t get any more flour into it, but keep trying. Knead until the surface becomes sticky again, and then put more flour on the counter for the dough to absorb. The ideal ratio is twice as much flour (by weight) as water, so the closer you can get the better off you’ll be. Persevere.
Shaping: there are two ways to go about making a bagel dough blob into a bagel-shaped bagel. The first is to make a ball, punch your thumb through the middle, and then twirl it around until you have a larger hole and the dough is inner-tube shaped.
The second way, to which I have recently converted, is to roll the dough into a “rope”, but leave the very ends un-rolled and puffy – kind of like a “dog bone”. Wrap the rope around your hand, overlapping the soft ends, and then roll the seam under your hand on the counter until joined and smooth. Even though your hand is obviously bigger than the hole we’re used to in the middle of the bagel, the dough will contract during rising and puff out during boiling/baking and will look more normal by the end.
Last of all, if you want to go an extra step, try this: after boiling the bagels, place them upside-down on a pan lined with damp canvas (or some other thick, close-woven cloth). Bake this way for the first 5 minutes, then flip over onto a parchment-lined pan and finish the bake. What this does is allow the bottom of the bagel to bake and round out a little while the top stays moist, so when you flip it over and the top bakes, the bagel is rounder on both sides. If you use any kind of topping, just dip the bagel in it before placing it topping-side down on the canvas.
2 cups water
3.5 cups high-gluten flour
(or bread flour plus one tablespoon vital wheat gluten)
1 tsp yeast
2 1/2 tsp salt (table salt, not kosher)
1/2 tsp yeast
1 tablespoon malt syrup/powder, or brown sugar
2 1/2 – 3 cups bread flour
for the boil:
2-4 tablespoons baking soda and
1 tablespoon malt or brown sugar
per quart of water
Mix the sponge and let it rest, covered, at room temperature for 2 hours or until somewhat bubbly
Add the salt, additional yeast, and malt/sugar and mix thoroughly. (If you’re using malt powder, mix it into the first cup of flour (dry) before you add to the sponge).
Mix in the flour gradually until the dough is too stiff to mix, then dump onto the counter and continue to knead, incorporating more flour as you go. The dough will be very stiff; try to get as much of the flour as possible kneaded into it smoothly.
Once the dough is kneaded and smooth, immediately divide into 12-16 equal portions, depending on what size bagel you want. Let the dough relax for 5-10 minutes, then shape into bagel rounds according to instructions above.
Space the bagels evenly on a pan lined with parchment paper and cover with oiled plastic. Leave at room temperature for 20 minutes, then place in fridge overnight.
When you’re ready to bake the next day, bring a pot of water to a boil and add the baking soda and sugar (sometimes it helps to briefly take it off the heat to add these, so it doesn’t foam over). Boil the bagels in the water for 30-60 seconds each, then bake on parchment-lined pans at 425°F until golden brown and firm. Enjoy the fruits of your labor, and share with friends!