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”
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.
A sponge starter improves flavor
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.
An overnight rise in the refrigerator also extends fermentation. The overnight rise, called the “retarding” of the dough because it slows the fermentation, allows naturally occurring enzymes (as well as any enzymes provided by the malt) to release their flavors. Making a bagel without this step is like drinking a fine wine immediately after it’s been bottled—the flavors are there in potential but they need time to mature. Actually, letting a fine wine age and giving bread dough a long, slow, cool fermentation both accomplish the same thing: they give the yeast enzymes time to break down big, complex sugar molecules into smaller, more flavorful ones.
A stiff dough needs lots of kneading
Bagel dough is one of the stiffest doughs in the bread kingdom. The firmness makes bagels with a dense, resilient crumb, and it also allows the proofed bagels to withstand the brutality of the boiling stage without losing their shape. Try to boil a bagel using, say, French bread dough, and it will flop around, deflate, and turn out flat and oblong.
How much flour does it take to get a stiff dough? Hard to say exactly, since every brand of flour absorbs liquid differently. I teach my students to feel their way into the dough and to let it tell them what it needs. You’re aiming for a firm but still pliable dough with all ingredients hydrated. It’s easier to add more flour than it is to add water, especially to a stiff dough, so sprinkle in that last cup of flour gradually during mixing and kneading.
A lengthy knead stretches and develops the dough. Kneading helps disperse ingredients in the dough, it hydrates the yeast so fermentation can begin, and it develops the gluten bonds that give bread its strength and structure. Bagel dough takes a lot of kneading. I start the process in a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook, but after five or six minutes, the machine inevitably starts to struggle. At that point, I take the dough out and continue kneading by hand.
If you’re kneading entirely by hand, be prepared to spend a good 15 minutes or more at the task. Don’t worry about overkneading this dough; your muscles will give out before the gluten in the dough does.
Kneading is complete when the dough can be stretched into a “windowpane.” Cut off a piece of dough about the size of a dinner roll. Gently stretch, pull, and rotate the piece until the center becomes thin and translucent. If the dough has enough flour and has been well kneaded, it will be firm, stretchy, supple, and satiny, but not tacky, and you’ll be able to poke your finger into it cleanly.
Baking soda in the poaching water puts a shine on the crust
The boiling, or poaching, step is a controversial technique that runs up against family customs. Some people insist that salt, sugar, honey, or milk, or some combination of all of those, must be added to the boiling water. Many bagel shops use a food-grade lye, and others use nothing but pure water.
I’ve made bagels every which way, and I’ve found that what gets added to the boiling water isn’t as critical as how long the bagels stay in it. Boiling gelatinizes the surface starches, giving the bagels a shiny appearance and a distinctive chewy quality. A minute of boiling on each side is about right.
As for the poaching liquid itself, I spike the water with baking soda to alkalize it. This results in more shine and caramelization of the crust when the bagels bake. It’s a subtle effect, but it may be the final touch that converts those die-hards who insist that nothing can ever match the legendary bagels of their youth.