Homemade bagels can be better than bought ones

Let’s be frank. Most of us do not live in New York City, and most of us probably wouldn’t want to li
The ideal bagel is golden and crispy on the outside, chewy on the inside. (Deb Lindsey/for The Washington Post)
The ideal bagel is golden and crispy on the outside, chewy on the inside. (Deb Lindsey/for The Washington Post)

Categories: Food

Let’s be frank. Most of us do not live in New York City, and most of us probably wouldn’t want to live there, save for one reason: the bagels.

Pretty much the rest of America is woefully underserved when it comes to bagels. Our neighborhood sources tend to be grocery stores or chains — or downright nonexistent. With some precious exceptions, the bagels we do get are doughy, pale, gigantic, bland or some bastardization that involves chocolate chips, Asiago cheese or (really!) French toast. (Rainbows? No. Just no.)

Here’s the thing, though. You can make your own bagels, in your own regular ol’ kitchen, and even if you’re a beginner, the results will vastly surpass almost anything you’re likely to buy.

No special skill or elaborate equipment is required to turn out bagels that are golden and crispy on the outside, chewy on the inside and absolutely impossible to resist. Can you boil a pot of water? Then you can do this. And with apologies to your favorite bagel shop, you’ve probably never had a bagel fresher than one you just pulled from your own oven.

Neither of us is a professional baker, but we do love bread. Motivated by the difficulty of finding a decent bagel within stumbling distance on weekend mornings, we both independently began tinkering with home bagelmaking, just for fun. Even if the results were less than Upper West Side quality, they could hardly be worse than (shudder) a bagel from the freezer aisle.

Then one day, on a lark, we decided to host a homemade bagel breakfast for our colleagues at the office, each bringing in our best.

The reaction? Amazement, disbelief. Why?

“There are so many bad bagels out there” that people assume making a good one “must require some sort of magic,” said Bagel Uprising founder Chad Breckinridge, an FCC employee who turned his hobby into a 500-bagel-a-week gig at the Four Mile Run Farmers and Artisans Market in Alexandria.

In fact, no magic is required. You don’t even need that famed New York tap water, whose mythical qualities have been laughably touted for far too long as the secret ingredient to the Big Apple’s bagels.

“I don’t think there’s any good reason to be intimidated” by making bagels,” said Jeffrey Hamelman, a certified master baker, instructor and director of King Arthur Flour’s bakery in Norwich, Vermont. “They might be among the easiest things to make, because they’re a firm dough.”

With its low ratio of water to flour, bagel dough generally is considered low-hydration. That makes it easier to handle, easier to shape and easier to roll without leaving your hands covered in the floury residue common with higher-hydration recipes for, say, pizza dough. But you don’t want the dough to be too firm, or it’s likely to tear during rolling, resulting in rounds that are scarred and pockmarked in a way that would make even the most forgiving baker grimace.

Starting points

Though our colleagues practically inhaled the bagels we brought in for our breakfast, our inner perfectionists couldn’t help noting that the early returns were a bit big, and not as dense and chewy as our ideal. Plus, there was no crackle on either of our crusts.

As soon as we started comparing notes, we realized that even bagel recipes from the most reputable sources can vary widely in ingredients and methodology.

Alex had begun his quest for bagel mastery with a Serious Eats recipe, which is itself an adaptation of a recipe from “Bernard Clayton’s New Complete Book of Breads.” Becky had used her tried-and-true Cook’s Illustrated recipe.

The Serious Eats recipe can be completed, start to finish, in about three hours, including an hourlong rise.

The Cook’s Illustrated recipe, on the other hand, requires two short bursts of bagelmaking punctuated by a 12-to-18-hour rise in the refrigerator. You can sleep in a bit longer before your bagel brunch, provided you’re willing to do a bit of prep work the night before.

The Serious Eats recipe is a much wetter formulation, with 64 percent hydration and extra sugar to encourage the yeast to feast hungrily during its very short rise. But the flimsy dough can be tougher to shape. The Cook’s recipe is an arid 48 percent formulation, and there’s no rest for the dough before it’s shaped and sent to slowly cold-ferment.

Another crucial distinction involved barley malt syrup, a molasses-like goo that gives bagels their signature nuttiness and tan. The Serious Eats recipe calls for the syrup to be added only to the pot of boiling water in which the risen bagels will be dunked; Cook’s Illustrated uses it in place of sugar in the dough itself. We found it to be vitally important as a dough component, less so in the water.

Although both recipes can produce schmear-worthy rounds, we saw room for compromise. But not too much tinkering.

Do’s and don’ts

— Thou shalt not use the wrong flour. You might be tempted to pull out the all-purpose most of us have in our pantries, but don’t. Its protein content (generally 10 percent to 12 percent) is not as high as other, better options, such as bread or high-gluten formulations (about 12 percent to 14 percent). “The more protein means the chewier the bagel,” Hamelman said.

A little science: There are two proteins in your flour, glutenin and gliadin. The gliadin, Hamelman said, lets your dough stretch, while the glutenin is what gives it elasticity so it snaps back. Add water, and the two come together to form gluten.

To play around with those characteristics, we tried different flours. The Cook’s Illustrated method called for King Arthur’s High-Gluten Flour (14.2 percent protein), available by special order, but we saw no discernible difference using the brand’s bread flour (12.7 percent protein). (Gold Medal’s bread flour gave us a slightly slacker dough, which made sense given its 11.7 to 12.3 percent protein content.)

By the way, this is a thick, stiff dough; make it in a stand mixer.

— Let your bagel dough rest. “I think it would be hard to refute that the flavor is better” when the shaped bagels are refrigerated overnight, Hamelman said. The long, slow rise means the yeast can work its fermentation magic on your dough, which will impart flavors without the shaped rounds expanding too much.

u Boil your bagels. After the overnight refrigeration, boiling helps wake up the yeast in the dough, which makes the bagel begin to puff. It also gelatinizes surface starches to help create shine and enhance crustiness. You can boil your bagels for as little as 30 seconds, which will ensure a dense, chewy ring. Leave them in the water longer for something airier. A general rule: Boil until the bagels are about two-thirds as big as you want them to ultimately be.

— For baking, make it hot, hot, hot. We didn’t reach bagel nirvana until we made one crucial addition to our recipe: a pizza stone, which mada an evenly brown, crackly exterior that encased a chewy inside.

Best-of Bagels

8 or 9 servings

This recipe represents a collaborative effort by Post staffers and hobby bakers Alex Baldinger and Becky Krystal, who streamlined and combined methods and ingredients to come up with a bagelmaking process that works even for novice home bakers. The result? A chewy bagel with a gorgeously burnished thin and crackly crust.

We recommend using King Arthur Bread Flour, widely available at grocery stores, or King Arthur High-Gluten Flour, which has a bit more protein and is available via KingArthurFlour.com. Using a kitchen scale will yield the best results for measuring the flour.

You’ll need a stand mixer (we don’t recommend trying to knead this stiff dough by hand) and ideally a pizza stone, though a baking sheet will still give you pretty good results. A kitchen scale is useful for portioning the dough.

Adapted from “Cook’s Illustrated Baking Book” (Cook’s Illustrated, 2013) and “Bernard Clayton’s New Complete Book of Breads,” by Bernard Clayton (Simon & Schuster, 1995).

11⁄2 teaspoons instant or rapid-rise active dry yeast, preferably SAF brand

337 grams (scant 12 ounces; scant 11⁄2 cups) warm water (80 degrees)

623 grams (22 ounces; approximately 4 cups) bread flour (may substitute high-gluten flour; see headnote)

2 teaspoons salt

1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon barley malt syrup (see headnote)

3 tablespoons cornmeal, for dusting

Mix the yeast into the warm water in a small bowl or measuring cup and let it start to foam while you prepare the rest of the dough. (If the mixture fails to foam after several minutes, dump it out and start over with new yeast.)

Combine the flour, salt and barley malt syrup in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a dough-hook attachment. Add the yeast mixture and beat on the lowest speed until the dough starts to come together around the dough hook, about 4 minutes. Increase the speed to medium-low; beat for 7 to 10 minutes or until the dough is cohesive, smooth and stiff.

Dust a rimmed baking sheet with the cornmeal. Turn the dough out onto a work surface, then divide it into 8 or 9 equal portions (about 4 ounces each). Roll the pieces into smooth balls and cover with plastic wrap to rest at room temperature for 5 minutes.

Form each dough ball into a rope 11 inches long by rolling it under your palms. Try to avoid tapering the ends of the rope.

Shape each rope into a circle with a diameter of about 4 inches, overlapping the ends by about 11⁄2 inches. Pinch the overlapped areas firmly together, moistening them lightly with water if the ends won’t stick. Working with one at a time, place your fingers through each ring of dough; with the pinched-together seam facing down, roll the rope several times, applying firm pressure to seal the seam to form a bagel. Each ring should be about the same thickness all around; if it’s not, you can roll it in other places around the ring to even it out.

Place the dough rings on the cornmeal-covered baking sheet as you work, spaced an inch or two apart. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight (12 to 18 hours). The rings will have puffed and spread slightly.

When you’re ready to boil and bake the bagels, place a pizza stone or baking stone, if using, on the middle oven rack. Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. (The longer you can preheat, the better; up to an hour is great.)

Fill a large, wide pot with 3 inches of water; bring it to a boil over high heat.

Drop 3 or 4 dough rings into the boiling water, stirring and briefly submerging them with a metal skimmer or slotted spoon, until very slightly puffed, 30 to 35 seconds. Transfer the dough rings to a wire rack, bottom (flatter) sides down, to drain. Repeat with the remaining rings.

If you’re baking with the stone, transfer the rings, cornmeal side down, to a sheet of parchment paper on top of a pizza peel or overturned baking sheet. You’ll then just slide the parchment with the bagels directly onto the stone. (Depending on the size of the stone or your comfort in sliding off 8 or 9 bagels at a time, you might choose to bake in two batches, which will also help space the bagels out, for better browning on the crust.) If you’re not using a stone, transfer the bagels to a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.

Bake (middle rack) for 12 to 18 minutes or until the bagels are a deep golden brown and crisp, rotating the parchment paper halfway through.

Use tongs to transfer the bagels to a wire rack to cool. If you’ve split the bagels into two batches, slide the second one in and bake.

Wait for a few minutes before splitting open the hot bagels.


For topped bagels, dunk the boiled and drained dough rings (both sides) into 1⁄2 cup of your favorite toppings (sesame, poppy or caraway seeds; dehydrated onion or garlic flakes; sea or kosher salt, etc.).

For an “everything” bagel, combine 2 tablespoons each sesame and poppy seeds and 1 tablespoon each caraway seed, sea or kosher salt, dehydrated onion flakes and dehydrated garlic flakes. A glass pie dish is perfect for this task.

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