Building the Perfect Bagel

Jonathan Zeller

If you've never been to New York City, you've never eaten a bagel. "But I order bagels at my local deli!" you might protest. "I buy packages labeled 'bagels' at the bakery all the time!" Well, sure you do. But outside of the five boroughs, know this: any bagel you're buying is just a roll with a hole. The real deal is in NYC, the hole-y grail of bagels.

Making an NYC Bagel
Water, flour, yeast and salt are the basic components of all bread, but turning them into a bagel is an art. Some "bagels" are machine rolled and steamed. This process is speedy, but purists contend that the far-too-soft product it yields is hardly a bagel at all. How do you spot an imposter? Ask someone with 21 years of bagel experience: Ameen Hamid, manager of Brooklyn's Terrace Bagels. "You ever see the bottom of the bagel, where they have those little dots? Those," says Hamid with a hint of foreboding, "are steam bagels."

Every hand-rolled NYC bagel "has its own character," explains Adam Pomerantz, founder of Manhattan's Murray's Bagels and Leo's Bagels. Outside of NYC, bagels are machine made, not rolled by hand, adds Pomerantz, who abandoned a successful career as a vice president at Merrill Lynch to become one of Manhattan's foremost bagel barons. Murray's is now a Greenwich Village institution, and the recent opening of Leo's is the best news to hit the Financial District in awhile.

Hand-rolled bagels are usually sweetened with malt (like at Terrace and Murray's) or honey (like at Ess-a-Bagel). The dough rises overnight and is then boiled and baked. This lengthy process is what gives NYC bagels their sheen and chewy texture.

Is it the Water?
It's near impossible to find a great bagel outside of the City, and many claim it's because of the clean, no-filter-needed NYC water. "I know guys who know their bagels and opened up a shop down in South Florida," Pomerantz explains, "[and] the bagels just aren't the same." But not everyone is of the same opinion. "It's not the water," insists Florence Wilpon, co-founder of Manhattan's Ess-a-Bagel. Once, she explains, Ess-a-Bagel was asked to open a London branch. Worried about the perils of making a bagel outside of NYC, they performed an experiment. "We had them ship a drum of water to us from London and we used it to boil some bagels," she says. The NYC customers didn't notice a difference.

Maybe it's the water, or maybe it's years of bagel-making tradition passed down through the ages. Maybe the flour somehow knows where it's kneaded. Whatever the reason, New York bagels are at a premium, and those who crave the genuine article go to great lengths for it. H&H Bagels in Midtown, for example, ships its doughy wares worldwide. And since 2002, authentic Brooklyn bagels have been flown to the Sundance Film Festival, protecting guests from subpar imitations.

Evolution of the NYC Bagel
Ever since Jewish immigrants brought bagels to NYC in the early 1900s, the chewy rings have grown in popularity—and size. Years ago, most bagels were as big as today's mini-bagels. Hamid prefers the bigger version for the sake of versatility: "[Now] you can make a sandwich on a bagel. The meat would be sticking out of a small bagel." Pomerantz leans toward the more sizable bagels as well: "I've tried to make the bagel a little bigger than a hockey puck," he says. "Nine out of 10 customers, they either walked out or said, 'Man, this bagel is way too small—this is ridiculous.'"

Ess-a-Bagel goes a step further, taking credit for the bagel's burgeoning size. When Wilpon's shop was young, a serendipitous mistake in refrigeration—which is supposed to slow the dough's growth—caused a batch of bagels to expand beyond expectation. (It was the culinary equivalent of discovering penicillin.) Ess-a-Bagel sold them anyway, and customers were thrilled. Today, Wilpon proudly touts her rounds as "the largest in the industry."

A few places still sling small-scale bagels, though. Park Slope's Bagel Hole inspires a devoted following with its adherence to tradition. "It's denser, smaller and just more authentic," says Emilia, a frequent customer there.

Big or small? Malt or honey? Lox or tofu scallion cream cheese? Let's face it, some of the great bagel debates will never be settled. Fortunately, we do know one thing: there's only one place to fill the bagel-size hole in your stomach. So now that you're bagel-literate, check out our roundup of bagel joints—all, of course, in NYC.