I have a confession to make. I’m a bagel snob.
I didn’t used to be! I never used to understand people’s bagel snobbishness. Isn’t it just bread?
I can now definitively say: No. No, it isn’t. After a year and a half of living in NYC, just around the corner from Bagel Express (they’re better than H&H, I swear), I’m having a hard time re-adjusting to my new, bagel shop-less life. Those things from the chain store? They’re just rolls with a hole in the middle.
To deserve the vaunted title, bagels need a golden-brown crust and properly chewy texture. A friend once told me that to test a bagel for maximum bagel-ness, you can turn it over and press your thumbs down into it. (I don’t advise trying this with someone else’s bagel.) The crust should crack apart, and the the bagel’s innards should re-inflate after you’ve removed your thumbs, showing that they’re perfectly chewy. If your bagel doesn’t do this, what you’re holding might look like a bagel, but it definitely doesn’t deserve to be the vehicle for your homemade lox. See, I told you I was a bagel snob.
I’ve been hoarding a stash of genuine New York bagels in my freezer since I moved. But it’s running perilously low. (Plus they’re starting to taste stale–turns out buying 24 bagels at once maybe wasn’t such a good idea.)
So I started kicking around the idea of giving bagels a shot at home. Having heard from several talented home bakers that their attempts just didn’t turn out, I didn’t have a whole lot of hope. But then I started to see bread god Peter Reinhart’s recipe crop up all over the internet, with foodbloggers reporting great results.
And oh man, were they right. These, my friend, are the real deal.
There are quite a few steps, but they’re not difficult. And more importantly, they’re worth it.
First, you’ll throw into a bowl: the flour (the original Reinhart recipe calls for bread flour, but I was too lazy to go to the store, and my regular all purpose flour worked fine), yeast, water, salt, baking soda, and malt syrup or honey.
Reinhart calls for instant yeast, which I didn’t have on hand. Instant yeast is simply a more potent version of regular (active dry) yeast. Its granules are smaller and contain more live bacteria cells. Some bakers like it because you can generally add it directly to your ingredients, without having to rehydrate in water. Others think that regular active dry yeast, which takes a longer time to rise, produces a more flavorful dough. Since I didn’t have instant yeast, I decided that the latter group was definitely correct.
I warmed the water the recipe calls for in a separate bowl and sprinkled the yeast on top, allowing it a few minutes to rehydrate before I added it. Some bakers suggest adding 20 percent more active dry yeast, if you’re substituting, but I didn’t do that either (Instead, I just let it rise a little longer). Everything turned out fine.
You mix all this stuff together. And no, you don’t need a stand mixer, just a little arm strength and a desire to eat bagels!
When it’s too thick and sticky to mix any more, turn the dough out on to a floured surface, and knead it for 2 to 3 minutes. You’re looking for a sort of satiny smooth texture in your dough.
A couple of magical things are happening during this process. The gluten proteins in the flour unfold and tangle around each other, forming a stretchy matrix that gives dough its elastic texture. In the final product, this matrix acts as a support system, holding gup the final bread product so that your bagels don’t deflate. Water gets trapped in the matrix, helping your bagels stay moist. Starch enzymes that are naturally present in the wheat, and also added by you in the malt or honey, break down starches and turn them into sugars. This sugar provides food for the yeast in the dough.
When you knead the dough, you encourage the gluten network to develop, and you also aerate the dough. This is why proper kneading technique calls for you to fold over the dough as you go. You’re making big air pockets that get broken down into little air pockets. The carbon dioxide released by the yeast enters these pockets and puffs them up, giving your bread a light texture. (The process is too weak to create pockets by itself, so you have to use a little muscle power to get them started.)
Time for a break! Stick the dough in the refrigerator for a couple of hours. They’ll need to “proof” overnight, so make sure you get to the next step before you go to bed, so that you can have bagels for breakfast.
Pull the dough out of the fridge, and divide it into 6-8 pieces, depending on how large you like your bagels. For me, the easiest way to divide dough is with a knife: I cut it in half, then cut those halves into 3 pieces each. Roll out each piece on the countertop until you’ve got a bagel rope 10 inches long or so. Then roll the rope into a circle, overlapping more than you think you need to–about 2-3 inches worked best for me. I always have a hard time getting dough to stick together, and I didn’t want these to come apart when I boiled them, so I really pinched the overlapping edges together all the way around to seal them. Place the bagels on a lightly oiled baking sheet, and brush their tops with oil. Then they go into the refrigerator overnight.
Don’t laugh. My bagels were a little lumpy. I bet you can do better!
Resting the bagels overnight allows some of the gluten bonds to relax a little after you’ve worked the dough to roll the bagels. This helps keep your end product from being tough. Making breads takes a lot of time for this reason–you have to let the dough rest after each time you work with it. Don’t skip the resting steps; you’ll regret it.
The next morning, take the bagels out of the refrigerator about an hour and a half before you want to eat them. I panicked a bit when I removed my bagels from the fridge, because they hadn’t risen much at all overnight. But they did puff up in the hour or so before I cooked them.
About 45 minutes or an hour after you’ve taken the bagels out, bring a pot of water to a boil, adding baking soda and salt. You’re going to boil the bagels before you cook them, which is one of the steps necessary to creating real, New York-style bagels. The boiling step forms a crust on your bagels: it gels the starches on the outside, and they form a barrier. When you put the bagels in the oven, this barrier will keep them from expanding, making the insides chewy instead of fluffy. This is good.
To make sure your bagels don’t sink to the bottom when boiling them, do a float test: Put a bagel in a bowl of water. If it floats, your bagels are ready for the pot. If it doesn’t, put it back on the baking sheet and let it hang out for another 15 minutes, then try again.
Quickly poach the bagels, then lay them on a baking sheet. If you want to add toppings such as sesame or poppy seeds, now is a good time. Stick the bagels in a pre-heated 500 degree oven, then immediately lower the heat to 450 degrees. Bake the bagels for about 20 minutes, rotating them halfway through. Let them rest for 15 minutes or so (I found Reinhart’s 30-minute rest unnecessary. Also I was hungry.), grab your cream cheese, and go to town.
Get the recipe here: Peter Reinhart’s Bagels