December Featured Recipes

Bagels & Sourdough Bagel Tips

Back when we had a bagel hustle, a person stopped by to look and when asked if she’d like anything she replied: “No I only eat New York City bagels.” There is a fascinating belief about New York bagels that the water affects the final product of that bagel in a one-of-a-kind way, and to many, this is what constitutes a true bagel. A study by the American Chemical Society found that the primary differences that can influence the texture in bagels in reference to New York City’s water is its low calcium and magnesium concentrations that makes the water softer. The result could be a lighter bagel as opposed to harder water that could toughen the dough’s gluten. But even so, how much does the water matter? Are those bagels still just using packaged yeast and weird processed flours? What is it that makes a bagel a bagel?

Water, flour, and yeast are the same ingredients that bring us good old bread, so there must be something else to create the difference between bread and a bagel. Well, sometimes there is! (And sometimes in larger commercial operations there isn't.) The bagel dough is boiled before going into an oven.

There’s an interesting story that relates how we might have come to begin this boiling method. The Jewish people of Poland way back when often faced bizarre techniques of continuous persecution and at times were actually outlawed from using ovens. Absurd and true. The Jewish population was seen as enemies to Christianity and were at times by law denied being able to “buy, sell, or touch bread like Christians” due to its religious symbolism. And so the story goes, a time of outlawed ovens gave rise to some creative ingenuity, and thus the method of boiling dough, followed by toasting it came about to keep the bread flowing.

While parts of this story are true, other parts may not be, as the first boiled ring dough in history happened long before then. It's worth saying that any story that gives hope and resilience is always true in many ways, however like most foods, the “origin” is likely more the results of a collection of intermingling cultures over a longer span of time. But the actual truth is unknown, all we can do is spin what we think we know.

The Germans were dunking their pretzel dough in water before all this. And the pretzel-like bread they brought to Poland during a mass immigration survives to this day, ring shaped and all, and known as obwarzanek. Even before that in the Middle East were seedy bread rings that were also said to be boiled at times called ka’ak, that have been eaten for almost 3,500 years. Ka’ak, some speculate, could be the parent of what we know of as bagels as the movement of the ka’ak-eating cultures is traceable by following the movement of wheat. The earliest mention of boiling, then baking dough comes from the Syrian cookbook, Kitab al Wusla ila al Habib. A cool note is that ka'ak is typically leavened by using a fermented chickpea starter. (Also I don't want to detract that there are literally dozens of different ringed breads from around the world. Who knows if it was the ka'ak, the simit, the bublik, the baranki, or someone else who started it all.

But regardless of how this method came to be, it is the quintessential step in bagel making that separates it from the rest of its bread family. And the boiling achieved some amazing things. First, it pre-gelatinizes the exterior which locks in a moist interior and makes a chewy crust. A chewy crust is the surest way to recognize a true boiled bagel versus one that favors mass-production shortcuts. Large scale bagelerys just use steam.

Perhaps inspired by pretzels, the boiling water often has an addition of alkalinity. Most likely it was lye made from wood ash soaked in soft water. Everyone should already know what lye does in baking whether they realize it or not. A dunking of dough in a lye bath before baking gives the color, taste, and aroma of a pretzel that otherwise, without lye, would be just normal bread shaped into a knot. Bagels use a lesser concentration of lye and that alkalinity when tossed in a hot oven caramelizes into a unique texture and flavor. Many home bagel recipes call for using baking soda as a suitable replacement for lye. You can learn more in-depth about baking with lye and so fourth here.

The final aspect of interest would be its shape. I’ve spent many-an-hour trying to uncover the why behind the ring. While it’s possible to relate it symbolically to halos, etc, it seems also that I could have been another invention of necessity in hauling the dang things around. A dealer can sell you a loop of bagels on a rope that you can sling over your shoulder to carry home. They also stack neatly on a rod. I’ve had the thought too that the hole made them easier to scoop out of the boil with a stick, but I’ve never been able to successfully do this without tearing the thing mid-air. 

Sourdough Bagel Tips!

For the bagelers out there who want to dive in to them in a sourdough way- you’ll have to treat them a bit differently. Though bagels can generally follow your favorite bread recipe it’s important to make a few modifications. 

The first is to keep the dough hydration down. Typically bagels are a firm and dense dough, usually around 55% hydration (by weight to 100% flour). It’s the kind of dough that asks you to beat the crap out of it while working it. Baker extraordinaire Peter Reinhart calls it “the stiffest dough in the bread kingdom.” That gives it strength to hold a good shape, which a lower hydration can help you with too. I don’t actually like a super dense bagel, so keeping the water down allows you to go easier on working the dough. 

Building off that idea, as opposed to your bread dough who really becomes the magical thing it is by the final proofing, an extended rising time is dangerous for a bagel’s shape. By letting it proof too long your puffy cloud will be subjected to much abuse in the boil and can end up a goopy, flat mess. Because of this I lend more time to the bulk rise and keep the proof short and sweet.

Due to the finicky nature of the information above, it’s most likely that your sourdough bagel will sink during the boil. That’s perfectly fine, but the true test to me of a top notch sourdough bagel is achieving one that floats starting the moment it touches the water.

I hope your home stays warm with a well-used oven this winter.


Thanks to all who sent their positivity and kindness in response to the last email. We were very touched. Thank you truely.

Happy Fermenting!

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