Bagelology

Jonathan Zeller

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It's a given that New York City bagels are special. We've all read the roundups, most of which hit the same key roll-with-hole purveyors. But what are the factors that give a real New York bagel its distinctive character?

By now, you know the basics: an NYC bagel is boiled and then baked—not, perish the thought, steamed in the manner of some mass-produced imitations. It's usually sweetened with malt or honey, although one of the bagels we tested used brown sugar. The resulting product has a crunchy, shiny shell and a chewy interior. Back in the day, New York City bagels were the size of hockey pucks or fists—but now, as times have changed, many have ballooned in size.

Until now, to our knowledge, no one has tried to objectively capture the greatness of New York City's bagels by the numbers. How heavy are they? What is their circumference? Their density? How big are the bagels' holes? And how do they compare in those categories to popular mass-produced renditions?

Fear not: nycgo.com's Scientific Bagel Testing Lab (SBTL) is on the case. Using a food scale, a ruler, a measuring cup, a tub and some string, we spent a day analyzing some of our favorite versions of the venerable breadstuff-one bagel per shop. As controls, we used specimens from Dunkin' Donuts and an everyday bagel cart. With the disclaimers that we work in an office with desk surfaces that are not perfectly even, that there is some natural variation in any handmade food product and that it's really hard to measure a bagel's hole using a standard ruler (so our numbers are emphatically estimates), we still hope you'll find the results entertaining and illuminating. And now, when someone asks you why you love your favorite bagel, you'll have the numbers to back up your case.

Photo: Tagger Yancey IV

Absolute Bagels
We measured the standard-issue Absolute Bagel in the SBTL, but this Upper West Side joint's mini bagels are closer in size to the NYC bagels of yore. The big ones are large, pillowy and—according to the sample we tested—among the least dense of the NYC classics. But they still have the kind of crust you can only get by boiling and baking, and adherents will tell you that they set the standard for breakfast uptown. Choose whichever size works for you.
Weight: 123g (Rank: 4 of 8)
Volume: 425ml (2, tied w/ Terrace Bagels and Murray's Bagels)
Density: .289g/ml (6)
Circumference: 37.5cm (2)
Hole size: 2.5cm at its widest (3)
Sweetener: Malt

Photo: Tagger Yancey IV

Bagel Hole
This Park Slope shop serves Mayor de Blasio's favorite bagel, and some say it's a perfect example of the old, fist-size, chewy classic. Owner Phil Romanzi says, “We just make 'em the way they're supposed to be made, going way back to the early days.” Your jaw will get a workout. Closely guarding Bagel Hole's recipe, Romanzi declined to disclose his sweetener, although he proudly said he used no sugar. Bagel Hole is the current bagel supplier to New York City appetizing icon Russ & Daughters. The sample we took from Russ & Daughters was the densest of all those tested, slightly more so than the one from Bagel Hole—but Romanzi says the bagels he provides to the Lower East Side shop are made the same way as those from his own store, so we'll chalk the difference up to standard deviation.
Weight: 110g from Bagel Hole, 102g from Russ & Daughters (Rank: 7 of 8*)
Volume: 250ml from Bagel Hole, 200ml from Russ & Daughters (7)
Density: .44 g/ml from Bagel Hole, .51g/ml from Russ & Daughters (1, tied w/ Black Seed Bagels)
Circumference: 32.6 cm from Bagel Hole, 32.7cm from Russ & Daughters (8)
Hole size: 3cm wide at its widest at both locations (2)
Sweetener: It's a secret

*Note: rankings based on average of Bagel Hole and Russ & Daughters numbers.

Photo: Tagger Yancey IV

Murray's Bagels
Murray's Bagels in Greenwich Village marries old-school bagel chewiness with new-school girth and inner fluff. They're big all right, and our sample wasn't even particularly dense. But there was some browning on the shell, and the boiling-and-baking process gives it an authentic crunchy, chewy feel. It's proof that density isn't the only factor that matters when it comes to chewiness. Owner Adam Pomerantz originally tried to make his bagels smaller until customer preference swayed him. Like those at Terrace, these big bagels are good for sandwiches.
Weight: 121g (Rank: 5 of 8)
Volume: 425ml (2, tied w/ Absolute Bagels and Terrace Bagels)
Density: .285g/ml (7)
Circumference: 36.6cm (4)
Hole size: 1cm at its widest (6, tied w/ New York City Bagel and Coffee House)
Sweetener: Malt

Photo: Tagger Yancey IV

New York City Bagel and Coffee House
A relative newcomer to a Queens bagel scene in which Bagel Oasis reigns supreme—and an Astoria neighborhood where the incongruously named Brooklyn Bagel has long been a favorite—New York City Bagel and Coffee House has won over customers with efficient morning-rush service and Brobdingnagian bagels. Our sample had the largest circumference of any bagel tested, and it was also the heaviest. It's practically an inner tube, so come hungry.
Weight: 184g (Rank: 1 of 8)
Volume: 550ml (1)
Density: .335g/ml (5)
Circumference: 38.9cm (1)
Hole size: 1cm at its widest (6, tied w/ Murray's Bagels)
Sweetener: Brown sugar

Photo: Tagger Yancey IV

Black Seed Bagels
French composer Claude Debussy said that music is the space between the notes. Based on the proportions of Black Seed Bagels, these new Montreal-style bread slingers may believe a bagel is the space between the dough. Our sample had a fairly large circumference, but at a glance you wouldn't call it a big bagel—because there's that luxurious gap in the middle. No other bagel came close. In its early days, the shop—co-owned by the mensch who brought you Mile End—has seen long morning lines. Given the dense, savory product it churns out, it's easy to see why.
Weight: 96g (Rank: 8 of 8)
Volume: 200ml (8)
Density: .48g/ml (1, tied w/ Bagel Hole)
Circumference: 35.5cm (5, tied w/ Well-Known National Chain)
Hole size: 5.5 cm at its widest (1)
Sweetener: Honey and Malt

Photo: Tagger Yancey IV

Terrace Bagels
Recently renovated in keeping with the changes on its stretch of Prospect Park West—home to a slew of new bars and restaurants—this Windsor Terrace institution still dishes out the same bagels as ever. The carb rings have a crunchy exterior but a fluffy interior, making them a popular choice for sandwiches stacked with the likes of whitefish salad, egg or turkey.
Weight: 148g (Rank: 2, tied w/ Ess-a-Bagel)
Volume: 425ml (2, tied w/ Absolute Bagels and Murray's Bagels)
Density: .348g/ml (4)
Circumference: 36.9cm (3)
Hole size: 2cm at its widest (4)
Sweetener: Malt

Photo: Tagger Yancey IV

Ess-a-Bagel
Ess-a-Bagel's discs are known for their gargantuan scope. While its circumference was actually on the smaller side, our sample from the Midtown East location was heavy (it tipped the scales at 148g—with help from a hole that barely existed) and was the densest of the “big” bagels. Our eyeballs tell us it was also tall compared to most of the other bagels. Our previous reporting indicated that these morsels are so large because of a long-ago mistake—the shop's proprietors erred in the refrigeration process, which was supposed to slow their dough's overnight rise. According to late cofounder Florence Wilpon, customers loved the tremendous rounds they received the next morning—so Ess-a-Bagel kept living large.
Weight: 148g (Rank: 2 of 8, tied w/ Terrace Bagels)
Volume: 400ml (5, tied w/ Well-Known National Chain)
Density: .37g/ml (3)
Circumference: 35cm (7)
Hole size: More of a belly button; no light passes through (8)
Sweetener: Malt (previous reliable reports, including ours, have identified it as honey).

Photo: Tagger Yancey IV

Well-Known National Chain
In any real scientific experiment, you've got to have controls. We have two. The first is Dunkin' Donuts—which offers a perfectly passable bagel-esque product that most people around the nation have to accept as good enough. The Dunkin' bagel we tested was ever so slightly less dense than even the puffiest NYC bagel in the group. We'll give credit where credit is due, though—considering it's a chain whose bagels sport a standardized, symmetrical shape, we're impressed that the folks at DD didn't go gigantic. By weight, volume and circumference, their bagel is smaller than average.
Weight: 113g (Rank: 6 of 8)
Volume: 400ml (5, tied w/ Ess-a-Bagel)
Density: .283 g/ml (8)
Circumference: 35.5cm (5, tied w/ Black Seed Bagels)
Hole size: 1.25cm at its widest (5)
Sweeteners: Sugar, malt extract, natural ferment flavor and molasses

Photo: Tagger Yancey IV

Cart Bagel
The cart bagel, best paired with a “regular” coffee, has gotten many an NYC office worker through the morning grind. It's generally served with a rectangular slab of cream cheese that looks a little bit like a large, flat, white pencil eraser. It mostly resembles a store-bought hamburger bun with a hole poked through it. We wouldn't be surprised if that's really what this was, though the owner of the cart we bought from told us his supplier was the New York Bagel Company (tough to Google). This was so far from the traditional definition of a bagel that we couldn't even really test it—when we tried to measure its volume in a tub, the presliced specimen became waterlogged almost instantly; it absorbed as much water as it displaced. That's telling in itself. We did provide the numbers we were able to get for informational purposes, but have excluded the cart bagel from our rankings.
Weight: 110g
Circumference: 35.3cm
Hole size: Too small to measure—no light shines through. Strangely, though, the incomplete indentation is about 5.5cm wide.
Sweetener: Shrouded in mystery


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