Skip to main content

How to Make the Perfect Bagel

Linda explores food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes one ingredient at a time.

These delicious bagels are easier to make than you think.

These delicious bagels are easier to make than you think.

A bagel is a round bread made of simple, elegant ingredients: high-gluten flour, salt, water, yeast and malt. Its dough is boiled, then baked, and the result should be a rich caramel color; it should not be pale and blond. A bagel should weigh four ounces or less and should make a slight cracking sound when you bite into it instead of a whoosh. A bagel should be eaten warm and, ideally, should be no more than four or five hours old when consumed. All else is not a bagel.

— Ed Levine, The New York Times

The History of the Roll With a Hole

The Italians (in Puglia) had their tarallini, in Sweden the krackebrod, and according to Joan Nathan of Slate, there is even a depiction of a bagel-shaped bread in an Egyptian hieroglyph at the Louvre, Paris. And in Poland, there was the bagel.

Leo Rosten, author of The Joys of Yiddish, says:

The first printed mention of the word bagel is in the "Community Regulations of Cracow" for 1610 which stated that the item was a gift to women in childbirth.

I Love Bagels, But ...

... I was in labor for 5 hours with no drugs and gave birth to a 9-pound infant with a huge head. And all I get is a bagel?

OK, never mind. This isn't about me. It's about the bread, but I'm sure Mr. Rosten is kidding, right?

I Prefer This Story

Maria Balinska works for the BBC in London. And she, born in Poland and half-Jewish, is the author of The Bagel: The Surprising History of a Modest Bread. In that book, she shares the tale of a Viennese baker who created the round bread with a hole in the middle. He made it to mimic the stirrups of Polish King Jan III Sobieski, who attained victory over the Turks in the 1683 Battle of Vienna.

More than 300 years later, the bagel is no longer revered as a symbol of victory over Turkish influence. It's bigger than that.

The bagel has endured not because of legend but because of its flavor, texture, and ability to stay fresh while other breads have spoiled. Even when a bagel gets stale, a brief dunk in a hot beverage (my strong cup of morning coffee) will render it soft once again.

And It's About the "Chew"

But what exactly is it that makes a bagel a bagel? Yes, it's a bread made with yeast, it's round, and there's a hole in the middle. But isn't that the description of a doughnut? There's something else that separates bagels from every other yeast-risen bread, and that is the chew, how it feels on and between your teeth when you bite into it.

So, how is that done?

First, the Technique

There are two actions (or reactions) that make a bagel truly a bagel. One is "fermentation" and the other is "relaxation."

Purists will tell you that the dough for a true bagel must proof for a day before baking, and they're right. Yes, you can prepare the dough, shape, and bake in one day, but the end product will not have the yeasty flavor of dough that has been allowed to chill overnight. This is the fermentation part.

And then there is the boiling or simmering—think of it as relaxation—a sauna for your bagel. Boiling, not misting with water, not baking with a steaming pan of water, but actually placing in simmering water prior to baking is what gives bagels their sheen and their crunchy, chewy exteriors.

And the Ingredients

But these two techniques alone do not make a bagel. The ingredients are also a part of the equation; the whole truly is greater than the sum of the parts.

There are some foods that are amazing in their complexity—the layering of flavors and textures, the unique blends of herbs and spices. I'm thinking of French cassoulet, rich Italian bolognese, or perhaps a Latin American mole sauce. All of them are bold and elaborate, employ a lengthy list of ingredients, and require long hours of cooking. Each of them, when made correctly, is outstanding, memorable, and heavenly.

And then there is the bagel ... so exquisite in its pure simplicity.

Flour, water, salt, yeast, sugar.

How They Work Together

Flour is the foundation for a good bagel, and a key component of that foundation is protein (otherwise known as gluten). Despite what you might think, gluten is not a poisonous substance. It is a nutrient, a basic part of many of our foods. When viewed under a microscope, protein looks like a spider web; it is that “web” that traps carbon dioxide bubbles. The other important part of flour is starch. When heated, starch becomes firm and supports the protein webs.

Bake shops use high-protein flour, which you won’t be able to replicate exactly at home, but unbleached bread flour will get you pretty darned close. I am comfortable in recommending King Arthur or Bob’s Red Mill bread flours.

Water, when mixed with the flour, starts a chain reaction. Water reacts with starch molecules and creates the gluten bonds (webs) that hold everything together. Water also carries the sugars to the yeast, helping it to bloom and form the gases that make bread dough rise.

Bagel dough has a lower percentage of water than other yeast breads, resulting in a dough that is stiff and sturdy. When you see how they are shaped, you’ll understand why this is so important. Stay tuned!

Salt adds flavor, and it also chemically alters the gluten to make it stronger. Salt also slightly inhibits the work of the yeast; it slows it down so that bread doesn’t rise too quickly. Why is this important? If the dough rises before the gluten strands become tight and strong, the bread will collapse. (Think of how much sturdier a balloon is than a bubble.)

Yeast. Here’s the really cool part—did you know that yeast is a living thing? Enzymes in the yeast, when mixed with water, break down the starch molecules, converting them to simple sugars. And why? Yeast eats sugar. Sugar goes in, is digested by the yeast microbe, and then carbon dioxide is formed. It’s that gas, trapped in the webs, that makes your dough rise.

Sugar (sweetener). There is a league of bagel defenders who say that it is impossible to create a true bagel without using malt barley syrup. They are correct ... and not. Barley malt syrup imparts a unique flavor to the finished product, but the texture of your dough will not be affected if you substitute another sweetener. (I hope I am not bombarded by hate mail from New Yorkers). You can use any of the following with my blessing:

  • Barley malt syrup – You can certainly purchase this on Amazon, or if you are lucky enough to live near a shop that sells beer-making supplies (or better yet, have a friend who makes his or her own brew), you can obtain it there.
  • Korean malt syrup or Korean rice syrup – both of these are available in Asian markets.
  • Dark molasses – available at any grocery store
  • Organic honey – available in gourmet grocery stores and many/most large grocery stores.

So now that we know the technique and understand how the ingredients work together let's start making bagels!

Equipment

  • Two large mixing bowls
  • Stand mixer with dough hook, or a sturdy spoon
  • Plastic wrap
  • Non-stick cooking spray
  • Large baking sheet
  • Silicone mat or parchment paper
  • Large stock pot for poaching bagels
  • Slotted spoon or skimmer

Ingredients

(Adapted from an article which appeared on Epicurious.com August 2011).

Dough

  • 1 tablespoon barley malt syrup, honey, or rice syrup
  • 1 teaspoon instant yeast
  • 2 1/2 teaspoons coarse kosher salt (not table salt)
  • 9 ounces (1 cup plus 2 tablespoons) of lukewarm water
  • 3 1/2 cups unbleached bread flour (plus extra flour for kneading)
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons cooking oil

Simmering Liquid

  • 2-3 quarts water (the water should measure at least 4-inches deep in the stock pot)
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons barley malt syrup or honey (optional)
  • 1 tablespoon baking soda
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons coarse kosher salt

Directions

1. Combine barley malt syrup, yeast, kosher salt, and water in a large mixing bowl.

2. Add flour. If using a stand mixer with a dough hook, process on low speed for 3 minutes or until combined. (If making the dough by hand, use a sturdy spoon and stir until combined.)

3. Let dough rest 5 minutes.

4. Resume mixing with a dough hook 10 minutes more, or turn the dough out onto a well-floured surface and knead 10 minutes or until the dough is smooth and satiny. It should feel slightly tacky but not sticky.

how-to-make-the-perfect-bagel

5. Pour a small amount of oil (about 1 1/2 teaspoons) into a large clean bowl. Place the kneaded (processed) dough in the bowl; turn it over so that it is lightly oiled on all sides. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and set it in a warm, draft-free place to proof. The dough should double in size; this will take about one hour.

6. Line the baking sheet with a silicone mat or parchment paper. Lightly mist with non-stick cooking spray.

7. Divide the dough into 6 equal-sized pieces. One at a time, roll each one on a clean (not floured) work surface to form a smooth, round ball. Place each ball of dough on the prepared baking sheet. Mist with non-stick cooking spray; cover with plastic wrap and let rest for 10 minutes.

Form balls of dough with a cupped hand

Form balls of dough with a cupped hand

Shaping the Bagels

8. After their 10-minute siesta, it's time to shape something that looks like a bagel. Take one ball of dough and push your thumb through the center. Use your fingers to coax the opening larger and larger until the hole is about 2-inches in diameter.

9. Place a clean piece of parchment paper on your baking sheet and coat it generously with non-stick cooking spray. As each bagel is formed, return it to the prepared baking sheet.

10. Allow the shaped bagels to rest again, about 20 minutes, in a warm, draft-free spot.

11. Spray the top of the bagels lightly with the cooking spray, cover them with plastic wrap, and store them in the refrigerator overnight. This allows the yeasty flavor to develop.

12. Remove the bagels from the fridge 60 to 90 minutes before you plan to bake them.

13. 30 minutes before baking, preheat oven to 500 degrees F.

14. Place the ingredients for the simmering liquid in the stockpot and bring to a boil over high heat. When the water reaches the boiling point, turn the heat down to maintain a steady simmer. You don’t want the water to be boiling vigorously.

15. Gently place 2 or 3 of the bagels (depending upon the size of your stockpot—you don't want to crowd the bagels) in the simmering water bath and cook, turning once, 45 seconds per side. Return the simmered bagels to the prepared baking sheet. Repeat with the remaining uncooked bagels.

16. Place the pan of bagels into the preheated oven and immediately turn the heat down to 450 degrees F. Bake for 15-20 minutes or until golden brown. Cool for at least 15 minutes before serving.

© 2017 Linda Lum