There are some foods that are truly regional. You will almost always hear that real bagels come from New York.
Any attempt to eat a bagel outside of its natural concrete habitat is perceived as a criminal act punishable by the snobbiest judgment. “Oh, those were pretty good, but they’re not like the ones I used to get in New York.” Rumors of magical water turning dough into gourmet gold have persisted. Given that bagels live surrounded by all this hype, I wanted to see if I could make them at home with any sort of success. (See “Bagels in Montreal“)
I pulled my copy of Peter Reinhart’s The Bread Baker’s Apprentice off the shelf for this recipe. It has taken me years to make. Every time I opened to the pages-long recipe, I skimmed the number of steps, closed the book, and walked away. It is certainly an intimidating recipe, but I would argue that it’s definitely worth a try. It turned out to be a lot easier than I thought, as bagel dough is surprisingly forgiving. It, like all bread, just takes time. You will need two days. There are a few things Reinhart attributes to authentic New York bagel flavor: high-gluten flour, malt syrup, and poaching in an alkalized water bath. I think these bagels taste pretty good, but you know, they’re not from New York.
From The Bread Baker’s Apprentice
Makes 12 large or 24 mini bagels
1 teaspoon instant yeast
4 cups unbleached high-gluten or bread flour
2½ cups water, room temperature
½ teaspoon instant yeast
3¾ cups unbleached high-gluten or bread flour
2¾ teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons malt powder or 1 tablespoon dark or light malt syrup, honey, or brown sugar
1 tablespoon baking soda
Cornmeal or semolina flour for dusting
Sesame seeds, poppy seeds, kosher salt, rehydrated dried minced garlic or onions, or chopped fresh onions that have been tossed in oil (optional)
1. To make the sponge, stir the yeast into the flour in a 4-quart mixing bowl. Add the water, whisking or stirring only until it forms a smooth, sticky batter (like pancake batter). Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and leave at room temperature for approximately 2 hours, or until the mixture becomes very foamy and bubbly. It should swell to nearly double in size and collapse when the bowl is tapped on the countertop.
2. To make the dough, in the same mixing bowl (or in the bowl of an electric mixer), add the additional yeast to the sponge and stir. Then add 3 cups of the flour and all of the salt and malt. Stir (or mix on low speed with the dough hook) until the ingredients for a ball, slowly working in the remaining ¾ cup flour to stiffen the dough.
3. Transfer the dough to the counter and knead for at least 10 minutes (or for 6 minutes by machine). The dough should be firm, stiffer than French bread dough, but still pliable and smooth. There should be no raw flour–all ingredients should be hydrated. The dough should pass the windowpane test and register 77 to 81°F. If the dough seems too 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. The kneaded dough should feel satiny and pliable but not be tacky.
4. Immediately divide the dough into 4½ounce pieces for standard bagels, or smaller if desired. Form the pieces into rolls.
5. Cover the rolls with a damp towel and allow them to rest for approximately 20 minutes.
6. Line 2 sheet pans with baking parchment and mist lightly with spray oil. Proceed with one of the following shaping methods:
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 2½ inches in diameter. The dough should be as evenly stretched as possible (try to avoid thick and thin spots.)
Method 2: Roll out the dough into an 8-inch long rope. (This may require rolling part of the way and resting if the pieces are too elastic and snap back, in which case, allow them to rest for 3 minutes and then extend them again to bring to full length. Wrap the dough around the palm and back of your hand, between the thumb and forefinger, overlapping the ends by several inches. Press the overlapping ends on the counter with the palm of your hand, rocking back and forth to seal.
7. Place each of the shaped pieces 2 inches apart on the pans. Mist the bagels very lightly with the spray oil and slip each pan into a food-grade plastic bag, or cover loosely with plastic wrap. Let the pans sit at room temperature for about 20 minutes.
8. Check to see if the bagels are ready to be retarded in the refrigerator by using the “float test”. Fill a small bowl with cool or room-temperature water. The bagels are ready to be retarded when they float within 10 seconds of being dropped into the water. Take one bagel and test it. If it floats, immediately return the tester bagel to the pan, pat it dry, cover the pan, 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 to 20 minutes or so until a tester floats. The time needed to accomplish the float will vary, depending on the ambient temperature and the stiffness of the dough.
9. The following day (or when you are ready to bake the bagels), 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 optionally, a few tablespoons of barley syrup, see Note at the end). Have a slotted spoon or skimmer nearby.
10. Remove the bagels from the refrigerator and gently drop them into the water, boiling only as many as comfortably fit (they should float within 10 seconds). After 1 minute flip them over and boil for another minute. If you like very chewy bagels, you can extend the boiling to 2 minutes per side. While the bagels are boiling, sprinkle the same parchment-lined sheet pans with cornmeal or semolina flour. (If you decide to replace the paper, be sure to spray the new paper lightly with spray oil to prevent the bagels from sticking to the surface.) If you want to top the bagels, do so as soon as they come out of the water. You can use any of the suggestions in the ingredients list or a combination. I make a seed and salt blend.
11. When all the bagels have been boiled, place the pans on the 2 middle shelves in the oven. Bake for approximately 5 minutes, then rotate the pans, switching shelves and giving the pans a 180-degree rotation. (If you are baking only 1 pan, keep it on the center shelf but still rotate 180 degrees.) After the rotation, lower the oven setting to 450°F and continue baking for about 5 minutes, or until the bagels turn light golden brown. You may bake them darker if you prefer.
12. Remove the pans from the oven and let the bagels cool on a rack for 15 minutes or longer before serving.
This story is part of National Geographic’s special eight-month “Future of Food” series.