There are two kinds of people in the world: those who favor chewy boiled bagels and those who like the soft steamed versions. I’m in the first camp. A chewy, dense interior and a thick, golden crust are the trademarks of what I consider a “true” bagel, which is to say the bagels I ate as a kid. It’s called a water bagel, or a boiled bagel, because the proofed, shaped dough gets poached in a pot of boiling water before it’s baked.
Steamed bagels, on the other hand, are big, pale, and soft-crusted, almost fluffy by comparison. Made from a softer dough, they’re baked in steam-injected ovens, not poached. Because they’re so much more efficient to make, the steamed variety have taken over the bagel mass market.
But don’t mourn the classic boiled bagel—it’s not extinct yet. As a professional baker, bread instructor, and water bagel guy, I’ve been perfecting my recipe for a number of years. By applying some artisan breadbaking techniques, specifically a sponge starter and a slow, cool overnight rise, I can now claim a bagel that equals, perhaps even betters, those of my childhood memories.
My culinary students at Johnson & Wales University love these bagels (though I must admit their frame of reference is limited—they’re too young to have bagel memories from “the good old days”). Even better testimonials come from my friends who were raised in New York City (the self-declared center of the bagel universe) and from my wife, Susan, who, like me, grew up in the bagel mecca of Philadelphia. We all feel that these bagels are real winners, every bit as good as they used to be.
High-gluten flour gives a good "chew"
For classic bagel flavor, Peter Reinhart adds malt powder or syrup to the dough. Honey or brown sugar are acceptable substitutes.
Classic bagels require two ingredients that you won’t find in most home bakers’ pantries. One is high-gluten flour, and the other is malt syrup.
A high-protein flour makes bagels with a tight, springy crumb. When mixed with water and kneaded, the protein fragments in the flour form gluten, which is what gives bagel dough its strength, elasticity, and chewiness. High-gluten flour contains the most gluten protein of all flours: up to 14-1/2 percent, compared to 12 percent in bread flour and 10 percent in all-purpose flour.
You can get high-gluten flour through baking catalogs, at natural food markets (it might be called unbleached hard spring wheat flour—don’t confuse it with vital wheat gluten), or by throwing yourself upon the mercy of your local bagel bakery: say you’re on a quest to make a great bagel and would love to buy a few pounds of flour. You’d be surprised how well this works.
If high-gluten flour eludes you, use bread flour, preferably unbleached. The bagels will be softer but still quite good. All-purpose flour, however, doesn’t contain enough gluten to make a proper bagel.
Malt syrup, a sweetener, gives bagels their characteristic flavor. It can often be obtained from the same sources where you’ll find high-gluten flour. At natural food markets, it might be called barley malt syrup. Malt powder is fine too. Some malt products are labeled diastatically active; others are nondiastatic. Both types will contribute that familiar bagel-shop flavor and texture. But diastatic malt has a slight edge—it contains active enzymes that help break down carbohydrates and release the flour’s natural sugars, improving flavor even more. If you can’t get malt, substituting honey or brown sugar also gives wonderful results.
Starting with a sponge improves flavor and shelf life and makes a bagel that freezes and thaws beautifully.
In all of my bread travels, I’ve never found a bagel shop that uses a sponge starter. I’m convinced, however, that it not only helps the bagels’ flavor and texture but also makes them freeze and thaw better.
Artisan bread bakers know that longer, slower fermentation of their doughs improves the flavor and shelf-life of their products. The bagel sponge starter plays off this principle by getting fermentation started even before you make the dough (that’s why the starter is sometimes called a preferment).
There’s nothing complicated about making the sponge: it’s a mixture of yeast, high-gluten flour, and water that sits at room temperature for about two hours, while the yeast begins converting the natural wheat sugars into carbon dioxide and ethanol. The foamy, fermented mixture is then combined with flour and other ingredients to make the dough.