How to bake your own bagels - and why you'd want to

Try these recipes for home-baked bagels and you might never buy the supermarket version again.

By Mike Lewis

My local supermarket sells something they optimistically call a New York bagel. As if to demonstrate its authenticity, the label shows a picture of the Manhattan skyline. It comes in a variety of flavors and toppings, and it probably sells by the million. Unfortunately, it tastes awful.

The only thing today's mass-produced bagels have in common with the authentic central European bagels I was brought up on, is their shape.

home-made bagels

Photo © Mike Lewis. All rights reserved.

In my London-Jewish family, bagels were the staple of the weekend. In those days, we called them beigels (first syllable rhymes with eye), and they had a richness and texture all their own. They were dense and chewy with a lovely golden crust. We ate them with butter, schmear (cream cheese) or - in those pre-vegetarian days - lox (smoked salmon). By contrast, the modern supermarket bagel is nothing more than a mediocre bread roll that happens to have a hole in the middle.

It's true that you can still find authentic bagels in New York and London. In fact, New York City has some outstanding specialist bagel shops. But they're the exception. You have to search hard to find them, and they're unknown outside the big cities.

If, like me, you yearn for the true bagel taste, you have another option: bake them yourself. Making a batch of bagels takes longer than making a loaf of bread, but it's not as difficult as you might think.

The secret's in the boiling

What sets bagels apart from other bread products is that the dough is boiled before it's baked. There's a good reason for this. In a strict Jewish household, no cooking is done on the Sabbath. So the bagel dough was mixed and shaped on the Friday afternoon, and left in a cold place over the Saturday. In the evening, once Sabbath was out, the bagels were immersed in boiling water to re-activate the yeast. They could then be baked relatively quickly, ready for the evening meal.

In many modern bakeries, the separate boiling stage is considered too labor-intensive. The individual bagels would have to be carefully transferred to the boiling water, then separately removed and placed on a baking sheet. To avoid this extra handling, some larger bakeries tend to skip the boiling stage and use instead a steam-injected oven. The result is a softer, less chewy product, without the golden crust. It's perfectly edible, of course, but a bagel it's not.

Traditional bagel recipe

Here then is my recipe for a batch of traditional, authentic golden-crusted bagels (see my photo, above). The process looks a bit fiddly at first glance, but it's really not that difficult. The results are well worth the small effort involved.

The recipe calls for white flour, but you'll also get good results with a half-and-half mixture of white and wholewheat, or white and rye. Just make sure it's bread flour (sometimes labeled "strong"). The yeast should be active yeast - the kind you reconstitute in warm water before adding to the flour.

Ingredients:

Method:

  1. Dissolve the yeast in half a cup of warm water, along with half the sugar. Leave to stand for ten minutes or so, or until it starts to froth.
  2. Mix the butter and the milk, and warm it gently until it just starts to melt. You can do this either on the stove top or in a microwave.
  3. Add the yeast, milk, remaining sugar, salt and beaten egg to the flour, and mix thoroughly to make a firm dough. If, after mixing, the dough's wet and difficult to handle, add a little more flour. If it's too dry, add more milk or water. Turn it out onto a floured board and knead for about five minutes.
  4. Put the dough back into the mixing bowl, cover with a towel, and leave in a warm place for about an hour, by which time it should be well risen.
  5. Return the dough to the floured board. Knead it again for a few minutes, then divide it into eight or nine equal-sized portions. Roll each of these pieces out into a cylinder shape, about eight inches (20 cm) long and as thick as an adult's thumb. Don't worry if the size isn't exactly right or if it looks a bit ragged - this won't affect the taste.
  6. Form each of the cylinders into a ring, pinching the ends together. Let them stand on the floured board for another 15 minutes, until they are just beginning to rise again.
  7. Bring a large pan of water to the boil, then let it simmer gently. Using a slotted spoon or a fish slice, gently drop each bagel in turn into the water. As soon as it rises to the surface, remove it and place it on an oiled baking sheet.
  8. Put the baking sheet into a pre-heated oven (400F, 200C). Bake for about 20 to 30 minutes, or until the bagels are nice and crisp and golden brown. Turn them over about half way through the cooking time.
  9. Cool the bagels on a wire rack.

This recipe will make eight or nine bagels. They'll keep for several day, and can also be frozen.

A simpler bagel recipe

This next recipe is a little easier yet still gives good results. This is a water-based dough, which gives a slightly different texture. Try them both to see which you prefer.

You start by mixing 4 cups (16 oz, 450 gms) of bread flour with 1 tbsp. sugar, 1 tsp. salt, 1 tbsp. butter or margarine, 2 tsp. instant yeast and about 1 cups (12 fl. oz, 360 ml) of warm water. In this case, the yeast is instant (the kind that's used in bread-makers), so you won't need to reactivate it first.

Mix the ingredients to a firm dough. As before, add extra flour or water as necessary to reach the correct consistency. Turn the dough out onto a floured board and knead for five minutes or so. Then simply follow the above recipe, starting at step 4. Because the quantities are slightly larger this time, the recipe should yield about 12 bagels.

Toppings and fillings

One of the great things about bagels is that they lend themselves to all manner of toppings, fillings and flavorings. I'm not crazy about the more exotic varieties on offer these days, but I do enjoy them when they're topped with various kinds of seeds. Caraway, sesame, sunflower, poppy, pumpkin - any of these will give the bagel a lift.

The easiest way to do this is to spread the seeds on a dry plate just before you immerse the bagels in the boiling water. As you take each bagel out of the pan, place it gently on the plate so that one side comes into contact with the seeds. Then carefully remove it (remember, it will be hot at this point, so use a slotted spoon or fish slice) and place it upside down on the baking tray so that the seeds are on the top. Then proceed to bake.

Making bagels in a bread-making machine

You can save yourself some time and effort by using a break-maker to mix your bagel dough, using its dough-only cycle. Personally, I don't think the results are quite as good as the hand-made product, but that's a matter of taste. Use the same ingredients as in the second recipe above, but remember that bread-makers vary, so check with the manufacturer's instructions. Once the dough is ready, you can proceed to the shaping stage, that is, step 5 in the main recipe above.

Whether you knead the dough by hand or use a machine, the end-product will be vastly superior to the typical mass-produced bagel that most people know. Once you've got the hang of making bagels at home, you might never buy them from the supermarket again.

October 2008

Please note: Neither Veg World nor its contributors are qualified to give medical or nutritional advice. If in doubt, always consult a suitably-qualified professional.

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