I don’t know exactly what it is about bagels, but I’m a fanatic. And I know I’m not the only one. Why else would people create shops that specialize in bagels? A good bagel is like the perfect blend of texture, look and taste. Growing up in and around Baltimore, I was occasionally treated to a classic Jewish bagel that my folks bought at some of the local bakeries. I was a kid at the time, but that slightly sweet, thick and chewy bagel, with cream cheese and real salted lox was a combination that couldn’t be beat. I wasn’t necessarily a fanatic back then, but I surely did like bagels.
Now I live in Seattle where the saying goes, “you simply can’t find a good bagel in Seattle.” They say that about a lot of things, I suppose… You can’t find a good [bagel, pizza, lobster…insert item here] in [insert your town here] (unless you live in New York). I often said the same thing, though there were places that sold really good bagels. If you’re in Seattle, one of my favorite bagel places is the Bagel Oasis up on 65th Street, about 10 blocks east of I-5. They have quite the variety there and nice solid bagels with a deliciously chewy crust. But like a lot of people, I’ve had to suffer with the lousy fluff bagels that you get from Safeway or worse yet, in those bagged varieties, such as Lenders and (God help me) Sara Lee. I did like Lenders when I was a teenager, but my palate wasn’t fully developed back then.
Having developed a consuming nostalgia for bagels, I purchased cookbooks, baking books, after checking to see if they had a bagel recipe. I can’t say how many of those recipes I tried before finally giving up. The bagels I baked were usually lumpy or flat, and often way too chewy to be enjoyed. Many of them tasted like white bread though they were considerably more dense. I was convinced a bagel could not be made at home. And even more convinced that one couldn’t hope to come close to an east coast or New York bagel. Yet one day, I was surprised. A co-worker brought in a dozen bagels that he had baked at home. I grabbed one and was immediately struck by the appearance. It looked like a bagel. It was covered in sesame seeds, but I could still see a little of the shiny glaze through the seeds, and the shape was nice and round and smooth. I cut it open and was flabbergasted. It was nearly perfectly chewy but with a nice dense (and moist) interior. I took a bite without cream cheese — pleasant, not too spongy, and not too sour or salty. It was a pretty damn good bagel. And that’s when he turned me on to the tome that became the start and almost finish of my quest: The Bread Baker’s Apprentice by Peter Reinhart, Ten Speed Press.
Professor Reinhart dispels the myth that New York bagels are so good because of the water. He acknowledges that the water in New York is good, but that it isn’t the reason. He then goes on to describe his recipe and method for turning out really good bagels. I tried his recipe and nearly got it the first time. I wasn’t completely successful because I didn’t have the exact ingredients he calls for, so I improvised a little. I followed his preparation method to the ‘t’ but it didn’t work out as well as I had hoped. The bagels tasted good, but they turned into misshapen puff balls and flat chewey rings. They weren’t consistent. The taste and not wanting to be outdone by my coworker, convinced me to strive on. After several trials and perserverance, I finally stumbled on the perfect mixture of Professor Reinhart’s recipe and improvisation that has produced several batches of some of the most delicious and classic bagels I could ever have imagined creating at home. They remind me of the bagels I had in Baltimore as a kid. Dense, slightly sweet and with a most appealing texture.
Let’s cover the more important points first and then on to the recipe. The whole process (including wait times) takes a couple of days (or a day and a half). You prepare the dough one day and then let it retard in the refrigerator overnight or for a day or so.
Peter Reinhart suggests using unbleached high-protein (high-gluten) bread flour which you can get at some grocery stores. King Arthur Flour is one brand. I can usually find King Arthur Unbleached Bread Flour at the more upscale grocery stores. The local Safeways often carry King Arthur’s All-Purpose flour and Whole Wheat flour. Bread flour is definitely preferred over All-Purpose or Whole Wheat. You can also find King Arthur flour and tons of baking supplies, equipment and goods at the Baker’s Catalogue (King Arthur Flour’s website).Now, I tried King Arthur flour and the texture was good. It makes a nice dense chewy bagel. But it is tough dough to work with. It gets very stiff and springy and is a little too elastic for the task. I found that both the flavor and texture were comparable (if not even a little better) if diluting the mixture with the more commonly found Gold Medal Bread Flour and adding one tablespoon of Bob’s Red Mill Vital Wheat Gluten (available in most grocery stores) per cup of flour. So that’s my first secret: A mixture of King Arthur Unbleached Bread Flour and Gold Medal Bread Flour and Vital Wheat Gluten. If you want your bagels to be just a degree more puffy (Don’t worry, they still won’t resemble the inner tubes you get from grocery bakeries), use only the Gold Medal flour with the gluten.
Yeast – Any brand is okay. Use the instant (rapid-rise) yeast as opposed to the active dry yeast if possible, but active dry yeast will work too.
Malt – Non-diastatic barley Malt Powder — this is like the crunchy stuff that’s inside the malted milk balls. It comes in a bag and looks like a darker, golden flour. I made my first batches of bagels using wheat malt extract that I got from a home brew supply store. They were good, but once I started using the malt powder, I noticed that it makes a big difference in taste and shininess of the bagel. So I strongly recommend the malt powder. I don’t know if Whole Foods sells that or not. I wasn’t successful in finding it, but I didn’t ask, either. You can buy it in 1 lb. bags online at The Baker’s Catalogue (about 4 bucks).
Honey – Peter Reinhart’s recipe calls for honey as a substitute if malt powder or malt extract isn’t available. My perfect bagels add a little in addition to the malt powder. Don’t worry – they’re not too sweet. Without it, the bagels taste a little too flour-y.
Baking surface – I use the silicone baking mats like Silpat or another that I purchased from The Baker’s Catalogue. You can also use greased parchment paper. I usually use a cooking oil spray (olive oil or canola oil) to grease the surfaces. Prior to baking, it’s very important that the dough does not stick to these surfaces. You’re going to be doing some shaping and there’s nothing worse than trying to pick up a piece of shaped dough and having it stretch or deform because it’s sticking to the surface. If I am shaping and placing dough on a Silpat, I will still spray cooking oil for the very same reason. I want nicely shaped bagels and I don’t want to be tugging at them when trying to preserve their shape.
Without further ado…the perfect bagel at home:
Water Bagels Recipe
Makes 1 dozen large bagels or 24 mini bagels.
Sponge: 10 minutes mixing, 2-hour rise;
Dough: 1 hour kneading and shaping
Retarded rise: Overnight
Baking: 15 – 25 minutes.
4 cups high-gluten bread flour OR —
4 cups bread flour + 4 tablespoons of vital wheat gluten
1 teaspoon instant (rapid rise) yeast
2-1/2 cups of water at room temperature
3-3/4 cups bread flour
1/2 teaspoon instant (rapid rise) yeast
2 tablespoons of non-diastatic malt powder
2 tablespoons of honey
3 teaspoons of salt
1. Make the sponge.
Mix 4 cups of bread flour, 1 teaspoon of instant (rapid rise) yeast, and 2-1/2 cups of water in a 4 quart mixing bowl. It should look like thick pancake batter. Cover the bowl with plastic. Let the yeast do its job and allow the mixture to double in size (at least two hours).
2. Make the dough
Mix the malt powder, honey, yeast, salt and about 3 cups of the bread flour to the sponge. Save the remaining 3/4 cup of flour for kneading. This step is easily accomplished in a bread machine or stand mixer. If you’ve used the high-gluten flour, this step might take additional strength and effort (your bread machine might overheat!) Once all of the ingredients have been mixed in, knead the dough by hand, adding the remaining flour as necessary for about 6 to 10 minutes, until the dough is soft (not tacky) and a little springy. It should be satiny and smooth, without any dry bits of flour.
3. Divide the dough
Once the dough has been kneaded, divide it into one dozen pieces at approximately 4-1/2 ounces per piece. 3-7/8 oz. to 4 oz. yields about 16. Shape these into round smooth balls by using your thumbs to pull one surface of the dough around to that it forms a nice smooth skin and squeeze the folds on the bottom together to seal this ball. Take it and roll it between both cupped palms to further smooth out the folds and form a nearly perfectly round ball. Places these on a piece of greased parchment paper on a cookie sheet. You can let them rest for about 10 – 20 minutes to allow the gluten strings to reform before shaping them or begin shaping them once the last ball has been formed (that’s what I do).
4. Shaping the bagels
Grab a ball of dough and push your thumb into the center and poke a hole. With fingers of both hands, begin enlarging the hole until it is at least 3″ in diameter. Work your hands around the circle so that the dough remains the same thickness around the hole. As the hole closes up, keep stretching it until it shrinks to no less than about 2″ diameter when relaxed. As each bagel is formed, place them on the greased parchment, or an oiled silicone baking mat. 6 – 8 bagels will fit on one cookie sheet. It’s essential that the bagels lift off of the parchment without stretching when ready to move towards the baking steps, so be sure that the surface is well greased.
5. Retard the dough — ah, here’s the big secret!
Once the bagels have been formed, let them rest for a few minutes to allow them to proof. You can tell if they’re ready by dropping a test bagel into a pot of room temperature water. If it floats, pat it dry. They’re ready for retarding. If it sinks, allow the bagels to rest for a few minutes longer. Spray the bagels with a light cooking oil spray and lay a sheet of plastic wrap over them. Now place them in the refrigerator to retard overnight or up to 36 hours. Retarding the dough allows the yeast to work on the proteins in the dough and yields some of the classic flavors that make bagels taste like bagels.
6. The famous boiling step – Place two baking racks in the center of the oven and preheat to 500 degrees F.
If you ask someone the secret around baking bagels and they’ll invariably tell you that it’s the boiling that makes a bagel a bagel. It’s true, but it is only a small part of the whole picture. The preceding steps have just as much to do with baking an authentic bagel as the boiling does.
Fill a pot with water and add two tablespoons of the malt powder while the water is still cool. Bring it to a boil. Prepare a couple of baking sheets. If you’re using the oiled parchment, sprinkle some corn meal or semolina flour on the parchment. If you’re using a silicone baking mat, the corn meal or semolina is optional. Take the bagels out of the refrigerator. Carefully lift them and gently place 2 to 3 of them at a time in the boiling water, without crowding them. If you put too many in the water at once, you’ll cool it down below boiling. Boil them for 30 seconds to a minute on one side and then flip them over and boil for an additional 30 seconds to one minute on the other side. The longer you boil them, the tougher and more chewy the crust will become. I tried a little over a minute on each side and found them rather tough. Thirty to forty-five seconds per side seems to be ideal.
Take a slotted spoon and drain them. Place them on the baking sheet and sprinkle them with a topping or leave them plain. I usually sprinkle them with a small amound of kosher salt or sesame seeds. Poppy seeds work really well, too. At this point the bagels may appear lumpy and misshapen — not to worry. The magic of the oven will take care of that in no time.
Place the cookie sheets in the center of the oven and bake for five minutes at 500 degrees. After five minutes, lower the oven temperature to 450 degrees. Rotate the sheets by turning them around 180 degrees and put the top sheet on the bottom and vice versa. After another five minutes, rotate them as desired. My oven requires that I swap positions at least one more time, but other ovens may vary. Put them back in and bake for approximately 7 to 10 minutes until they’re golden brown (or until they look like the bagels you remember). Once they’re done, place them on cooling racks and let them sit for about 15 minutes. Then go get ’em!
You’ve probably never had a bagel that fresh (or at least following such a labor of love) or that delicious. A chewy crust with a nice dense interior… my mouth is watering just thinking about them.